Friday, October 12, 2018

October 7, 2018 - Prayer and Relationship

I am going to be preaching for a few weeks on the nature of prayer as well as looking at different ways of praying.  To begin with, it is important to understand that my ideas about prayer are not unique but they are different than what many of us grew up with.  As I have studied and practiced prayer, my understanding has evolved.  As I mentioned in my blog post, I grew up understanding prayer as a collection of words that were spoken to God.  Sometimes those words were official and approved prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or various table graces.  Sometimes those were the words of a personal conversation with God. 

                Those are not bad models of prayer.  I would encourage you to say the Lord’s Prayer mindfully a couple of times during the day or Psalm 23 or Psalm 121.  Psalm 1 is also a good one to start your day, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; …They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and leaves do not wither.”  These are ancient words that might put you in the mindset of walking the path for a day.

                Yet sometimes we get caught up in the words.  Are we saying the right words?  Are we saying impressive words?  Often I find people who are nervous about praying with others because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing or that their words are not smart enough or flowery enough or holy enough, as though prayers were magic incantations (a la Harry Potter) that only work if chanted the right way.

                In the readings today, we have three takes on relationships.  In Genesis 2 we have the story of God making all the animals for the man’s companionship and then finally forming a partner out of his own self because it is not good to be alone.  We are made for relationship.  We have Jesus commenting on divorce, a practice that in 1st century Palestine was simply unfair to women.  It was easy for men to leave a relationship and dismiss a wife.  Not so easy for women to end relationships in a fair way that didn’t leave them unsupported and alone.  Marriage and divorce have changed quite a bit since the 1st century, and there is plenty here for us to debate and discuss, but still the theme of being in relationship abides.
                This theme also encompasses Jesus’ interaction with the children.  Others want to send them away as an unwelcome distraction.  He embraces and invites them into relationship.
                Finally we have the reading from Hebrews, the beautiful image of God being in relationship with us.  The author describes royal imagery, Christ sitting at the right hand of God.  He describes everything subject to Christ, even if we don’t see it now.   “We do not see everything subject to them but we do see Jesus.”  In Jesus God calls us into relationship.  In Jesus, God shows us that we are already in relationship.

                When I talk about prayer, I am normally talking about practices that continue, strengthen and remind us of God’s relationship to us.  Prayer is more about cultivating an attitude of paying attention, being aware of God present with us, than it is finding the words to say. 

                When I began learning of the early church, the hermits who would go into the desert for solitude and prayer, I wondered about the stories.  I’m sure some of them have a mythic flavor; Saint Anthony in the wilderness having wrestling matches with the demons.  Yet all of them would speak of these saints praying for hours, putting into practice Paul’s instruction to “Pray without ceasing.”  When I was focused on prayer as words, I wondered what all they had to say.  I would go and pray, try to talk to God, and as one not drawn to small talk, I felt pretty much done in 10-15 minutes. 

                Then I learned that these early Christians were engaged in something else.  Sometimes I am certain they had conversations with God out there by themselves, but often their prayers were either very simple or silent.  They were not prayers that asked for things to happen or things to change.  They were prayers that sought God in the present moment.  They were prayers meant to focus solely on the relationship between the one praying and God.

                Two weeks ago I talked about worship as a centering moment and had you stand seeking a sense of the solidity of God’s presence, the ground on which we walk, the constant support we forget.  Today I want to invite you to experience another image, an image shaped by the idea of being children before Jesus.

                I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that when the gospels talk about children it is not about cuteness or innocence but a lack of status.  In the honor/shame culture of 1st century Palestine, children were dependent on the honor of their parents but had no status of their own.  This is why people are often dismissive of them, these distracting children who are keeping Jesus from the important people.  Yet Jesus himself says that these are the most worthy of his attention.

                So for our prayers today, instead of the prayers of the church, I am going to invite you into a time of meditative prayer.  So find a position where you feel solid but relaxed.  Sit so you have both feet on the floor.  Try to straighten your spine as much as you can.  Rest your hands on your thighs or lap, palms up.  Palms up has been a traditional pose for prayer, as sign of being open and accepting.

                For this prayer, I invite you to close your eyes and listen.  Take a few deep breathes, paying attention to the gift of breath, the gift of the Holy Spirit in this place. 

Guided Meditation – Children before Jesus.

                Imagine the scene.  You are a child in the house of a friend.  There is a boring grownup party going on, lots of adults talking about boring adult things: sports scores, job headaches and politics.  The grownups tell you to stay out of the living room so you don’t bother the man, Jesus, who is the center of this party.  So you do what children do at boring adult parties.  You play with your friends.  You play with other children.

                Hide and seek.  If you can just find a good hiding spot, and you realize there is a little space behind the chair that Jesus is sitting in there in the living room.  You walk in quietly.  Everyone is listening to Jesus so they don’t notice.  You sneak into the little space behind the chair.  He talks about love.  He talks about welcome.  He talks about belonging.  He talks about God.  The words warm you, speaking to a place deep inside you.  Take a moment to listen…

                “Caught you, ” a friend yells as he grabs your foot which was sticking out from the chair.  Suddenly, the crowd’s attention turn from Jesus to the children who are gathered there.  You come out of your hiding place to see disapproving glares from parents and strangers whom you have interrupted.  You stand embarrassed and speechless, ready to slink away.  Some grownups are already coming forward to usher you and your friends.

                “No,” says Jesus, “Let these children come to me.  The kingdom of God belongs to them.  If you want to understand the kingdom of God, you need to pay more attention to the people you ignore; the people who annoy you; the little children who distract you.”  Then Jesus reaches out and places his hand on the top of each child, one after another, saying words of blessing and God’s love.  He reaches out and places his hand on your head.  You feel energy and warmth in the contact.  He speaks to you a word of blessing and God’s love.  Take a moment to listen…

                This Jesus who blesses you as a child is always with you.  His words of God’s love are a constant message to you.  As you go about your day and your week, take the time to listen to them.

                Now I invite you take a final, deep breath, open your eyes, and let’s sing “Just As I Am” together.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

September 30, 2018 - Worship and Metaphor

What are we doing today, as we think about the instruction in the book of James about anointing the sick?  I have told you before, I have done this kind of healing service for many years and never had anyone leap out of a wheelchair.  That would be magic and some of the most popular faith healers of the 20th century were doing magic, that is, putting on a show.  In 1980s, evangelist Peter Popoff was revealed to be getting divine inspiration from a radio receiver in his ear, telling him the names and ailments of people who had been interviewed by assistants before the show.  Others have used planted assistants whose illnesses miraculously disappear.  This is what professional magicians do.  They do tricks that are made to fool us, clever tricks that make you think you are seeing the impossible.  Yet most adults watching a magic show know that magic is about being tricked, that they have signed up to see a combination of skill and imagination that only looks impossible. 

Some of the worst moments in religion involve magical thinking, that ordination will take temptation away, that a leader has magical insights about the end of the world or about who is truly saved, that a leader is somehow is closer to God than anybody else.  I am not saying that leaders don’t have gifts for faithful ministry, but they are not only gifted ones.  And I will say unequivocally that I, as an ordained person,  am no closer to God than any of you.  God is equally close to all of us, something we all can know if we pay attention.

                I don’t do magic.  If I did I would just be a cheesy pastor doing card tricks.  I work with metaphor.   What is metaphor?  It is a poetic way of describing truth.  So earlier in the week I was walking in Boston while my daughter was at a dance lesson.  For a little while I was walking behind a mother with a two-year-old daughter.  The little girl was wearing a pink outfit with red socks and white sneakers.  As  we walked down the street, she was doing the experimental walking that toddlers do, a mix of straight-arm running with a random jump, sometimes up and sometimes forward, thrown in.  She was at that age where she could take the time to see what this body can do.   At one point as she leapt forward I thought, “That child is a rainbow. “

                Now of course that child is not a rainbow.  A rainbow is a phenomenon of meteorology, light reflected and diffracted through drops of rain.  Yet I will bet that when I say the child was a rainbow, you sort of know what I mean and that what I am saying is true.  Metaphors are true.  They may not be historical facts.  They may not be rational (a child is not a rainbow).  Nevertheless they are true.

                The Bible speaks in metaphor, which is dangerous to say because once you say one part is metaphor, how can any part be seen as historical.  Yet I will say without blinking, the Bible is true, but I can’t prove any of it.  I know I sound a little “Obi-Wan Kenobi” ish (ala The Empire Strikes Back),  “What I told you is true from a certain point of view.”  Let me explain with a couple of examples.  I don’t believe that the world was created in 6 days or in the order in which it is described in Genesis where the plants are created before the sun, yet I believe it is true that however the universe came into being it was at the behest of a loving God who chose for it to come into being and declared it good.

                I don’t believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale or a big fish and lived in it for three days and three nights Pinocchio-style.  But I do know what it feels like to be trapped and dragged into the depths of uncertainty.  The Jonah story is one of my favorite Bible stories because it is so true even if it never actually happened.

                Jesus speaks in metaphor.  I don’t believe Jesus wanted anybody to cut off their hands or feet or pluck out their eyes.  Even at a basic level we can recognize that he didn’t mean that literally, but he is also saying something true about our responsibility to one another in faith, the pain that our selfishness can cause, even the way that our sins can catch up with us.

                The church speaks in metaphor.  When I stand at the communion table and declare the bread to be the body of Christ and wine to be the blood of Christ, I am not doing magic.  Our tradition has never said that bread is something other than bread or the wine is something other than wine.  Yet I am also telling you the truth that as we share this meal together, Christ is truly present, preparing the meal, serving the meal and being the meal.

                So when we do this service for healing, we are not doing magic tricks.  Instead we are witnessing to the truth and we are participating in the truth.  We witness to the truth that in God there is wholeness.  We witness to the truth that God is the ultimate healer who has brought healing to world in Jesus.   We witness to the truth that what God began in Jesus will ultimately heal and restore all of creation.  No magic tricks today.  Just the truth that the love of God is healing.  I invite you to come forward and receive a sign of that love.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

September 23, 2018 - Worship and Solid Ground

In the Zen Buddhist tradition there is a common idea, one that you may have heard in other contexts.  Teachers will say something like, “The teachings are like a finger pointing to the moon.  Don’t look at the finger; look at the moon.”  So a student might respond, “Then can I ignore the teachings?”  A teacher might say, “No, but don’t become so attached to them that you forget they are not what you are looking for.”

                I would say that most organized religions suffer from this problem; that it is so easy to get wrapped up in the teachings or the scriptures or the interpretations or the rituals that you forget that all of these things are there to point beyond themselves.  This is especially an issue for churches that use a liturgical worship style, for a few reasons.  One is that there is power in tradition.  There is a sense that centuries of Christianity can’t be wrong about this way of worshiping.  My experience of the Lutheran church is that there is also a strong connection to family and history.  Lutheranism was a faith that was passed down from generation to generation, part of the reason we have been poorly equipped to reach out beyond our immediate families.   So somehow to mess with worship is to mess with that family heritage.

                My grandparents worshiped this way in this church building, so to let go of that is to let go of them.  The first great conflicts in the American Lutheran church, beginning in the early 1900s, were around the shift from the mother-tongue, Swedish, Danish, German, to English.  There are towns you can go to in Pennsylvania or the Midwest, places where European Lutherans settled early, where you can find two Lutheran congregations, within a couple of blocks, the product of a split over language a hundred years ago.  When we concentrate on the finger, we miss the God that it is pointing to.  And we spend way more time talking about that finger, how it looks, trying to buff its nail, than looking beyond it.

                When I was a teenager and worked in camping in northern Michigan, our waterfront director told a story.  Cindy was shorter than me but a couple years older and was often mistaken for being younger than she was.  As part of her training to become the waterfront director at camp she had to become a Certified Lifeguard.  One of the final exams for this was she had to swim the length of the pool with an instructor who was pretending to be panicking, flailing his arms, trying to fight off the rescuer, trying to dunk the rescuer.  Cindy was matched with the biggest instructor.  He jumped into pool and started flailing around and shouting.  Cindy jumped in and got him into the sort of half-Nelson chokehold that they were taught and began swimming him the 50 meters from the deep end to the shallow end.

                And as she told the story, he really got into the part, thrashing, slapping her arms.  So about two-thirds of the way down you start to reach the shallow end where most adults can put their feet down.  The other students had dragged their struggling swimmer all the way to the end.  But as soon as Cindy felt her feet brush on the floor she slapped the water and shouted, “Hey!  Put your darn feet down.”  She didn’t she say “darn” but something more shocking that alliterates with “feet.”  The instructor was so surprised that he did put his feet down and stood up with the water up to his chest.  “Now, walk!”  And she passed the test.

                So often when we are out in the world we forget that there is solid ground beneath us, the solid ground that is God.  In the contemplative view, much of Christian discipleship is developing the practices that remind you that the solid ground of God is constant and never far.  In this world where people are anxious and angry and confused, we as the church can point to that ground and say “Look where we are standing.”  When you are standing on the solid ground of God’s love in Christ, you can deal with what the world throws at you.  You can deal with the waves that come in.  Sure, sometimes there is going to be a big wave that knocks you over, buffets you around, and maybe threatens to pull you in.  But feel that solid ground beneath you.  Put your feet down!  And stand up again.

                When you are standing in that solid place, a lot of things that the world says are important simply cease to matter.  Jesus’ disciples are arguing about which one of them is the most important.  In their culture, this was something that really mattered.  It was what is known as an “honor and shame” based culture.  The guest that is seated closest to the host is the most important, has the most honor.  To sit too close and be forced to move down was shameful.  To be associated with a good teacher was an honor, to be closely associated, even more so. 

                So the disciples debate, “Now that we have been together for a while, now that we have realized that this is the Messiah, who is the next in line?”  For the reader, the irony is that Jesus has at this point told them a couple of times, “The Messiah is destined to suffer and die.”  They don’t get it; they don’t want to get it.  They wanted to be associated with success and greatness.  So Jesus does that thing where he turns expectations upside-down saying, “Whoever wants to be greatest must become least of all and servant of all.”

                He brings a child into their midst and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me doesn’t welcome me, but the one who sent me.”  Just a note here, when Jesus talks about children in the gospels, welcoming them or becoming like them, it is not about cuteness, or innocence, or blind trust, or gullibility.  This is not a call to infantilize yourself or turn off the thinking part of your brain.  It is a reminder that in this culture, children had no status.  You were essentially outside of the honor/shame system until you were declared an adult somewhere around thirteen.  So to become like a child or welcome a child is to turn away from social status as the definition of who you are.  It is to ignore honor and shame.  It is to give honor to someone for whom honor doesn’t matter.

                In our modern context, we might consider turning away from the message of consumerism, where what you have defines who you are, where comparisons are drawn based on what model of car you drive.  It might be a call to turn away from the divisions of society, the impulse that declares your side clean and the other side unclean.  We proclaim a different message; if we are clean it is only because God has cleaned us.  We still struggle with this as did the disciples; as did the early church, that in Christ no one is better than anybody else.  The school you went to, the things you have, the numbers in your bank account, the color of your skin, the language that you speak, your opinion on things political; all these common markers of difference are no longer excuses for division.  They don’t need to be, not when you are on the solid ground of God’s love.

                Bringing this back to worship, please stand up as you are able.  If you need to put a hand out for balance do that.  If you are seated, but your hands beside you on the pew.  In an ideal world you would take your shoes of for this but we do the best we can.  I want you to close your eyes and pay attention to your feet in contact with the floor.  Imagine placing your weight on your feet.  Push down on the floor with your feet until you feel solid.  This is what we are gathering for, to reconnect to this solid feeling, the security that is the love of God.

                And you are going to go out, and sometimes things will be difficult.  Sometimes life will throw you off balance, but put your feet down!  Remember this feeling.  We worship a God whose love is solid beneath us; whose grace is always near.  We follow Jesus who walked on the solid ground, stomped on it to make it obvious to people.  We follow Jesus who pointed beyond himself to the love of God.  We follow Jesus who always leads us on solid ground.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

September 16, 2018 - Meditations on Worship

The preaching for this Sunday was a set of meditations interspersed through the service, reflecting on the four-fold outline of the traditional Lutheran liturgy.

Meditation on Gathering

                In this Gathering portion of the worship, we are continuing our preparation.  About a thousand years ago, when the Kyrie and the Hymn of Praise became parts of the liturgical form, it was because this was a process that took time.  Imagine a large procession with a couple of priests, acolytes and crucifer, torchbearers, a bookbearer and thurifer, carrying the smoking pot of incense, then a choir or two coming in procession.  This procession might not go straight down the aisle but process around the congregation once or twice, symbolically purifying the group with the smoke of incense.  It takes time to prepare, to make the transition from the day to day into the holy.
                In Hebrew scripture there is the tradition that one cannot see the face of God and live.  You don’t just run up to the throne.  You don’t just storm into the Holy of Holies.  You approach in a ritual way, taking the time to let go of the distractions of the world outside and intentionally and politely step into the presence of the living  God.
                Now in the way we generally worship today and for the worship spaces we have, we don’t need to pretend that we are in an ancient cathedral.  In practical terms, we don’t need as much time for a physical transition.  Even walking in a stately way, the assisting minister and I can be in place in about thirty seconds.  This is why you may notice that we don’t use the Kyrie and the Hymn of Praise every Sunday.  Sometimes in the summer when this space is ghastly hot and humid, we don’t use them at all.  We usually use both on festival Sundays like Easter, but they are not essential to worship.  You may like them, but that is a different concern.
                The greatest concern is: what are we trying to accomplish and are we doing it?  For me, the primary purpose of the Gathering section is about reframing our attention.  Now we are going to intentionally pay attention to God.  We say things like, “God is always with us,” but for this hour, we are intentionally noticing that reality.  I had a conversation a couple of years ago with a pastor at an AME-Zion congregation in Hartford.  Their worship was shaped by a very energetic, gospel style.  Worship was loud.  Songs were loud with clapping.  Preaching involved people shouting back to the preacher.  But he had taken to starting worship with about two minutes of pure silence because their neighborhood was loud and their worship was loud, so they found it was helpful to have silence as a means of transition from one set of noises to another.  That doesn’t mean everyone should do it that way, but they had made a decision about what they were trying to accomplish in that gathering time.
                In the traditional liturgy, we use the gathering so that as individuals we are prepared to enter into worship, prepared to pay attention.  We end the gathering with the Prayer of Day, that was also known as the Collect prayer.  It is a written prayer that is connected to the lessons of the day and serves as a reminder that, although we enter as individuals, we gather as a collective, as part of the Church with a capital “C”.  We are praying together with communities of faith around the world.  When we are together, paying attention to God, that is when the church is ready to worship.

Meditation on the Word

                As we think about the Word portion of worship, we can think about the question I raised earlier, “What are we trying to accomplish and are we doing it?”  On a typical Sunday, the Word section of worship starts with the first reading and ends with the Prayers of the Church, with the Peace as a transition into the Meal.  First, we hear selections from the scriptures together: typically a reading from Hebrew Scripture and a Psalm, a reading from one of the letters in the New Testament.  The readings then culminate in a reading from one of the gospel texts.
                When I say culminates, in the way we handle the gospel reading you can see that we give more weight to the words of Jesus.  Not only is it the last reading you hear, it is normally a reading that I do as the pastor and even if it were not me, you would typically have it read by a different voice than the other lessons.  It is often read from a different spot.  In fancier liturgies, there will be more of a procession, with torchbearers who flank the bookbearer who holds the text for the reader.  This is how the Lutheran tradition looks at the Bible.  All the other readings point us toward Jesus, and Jesus becomes the lens through which we interpret all the other readings.  One practical example of this is that most of you will eat a ham sandwich without a qualm even though there is a law in Hebrew scripture that forbids eating pork.  But at one point in the gospel text, one we heard a couple of weeks ago in Mark when Jesus was saying that what goes into a person does not make them unclean but what comes out of his or her heart, the text notes, “Thus he declared all things clean.”   We give Jesus more weight when we interpret scripture.
                In terms of preaching, you could say that my task as preacher for any given Sunday is to give an answer to the question that Jesus poses in today’s gospel reading.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Although Peter gives the answer, Messiah, not quite knowing what that means, I think that there are many answers to that question.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus is peace.  Jesus is an advocate for the poor.  Jesus is love.  Jesus is challenge.  Jesus is hope.  Jesus is life.  Jesus is forgiveness.  My focus will be a combination of what is happening in the lessons, what is happening in the world, conversations I have had or heard in the congregation, and hopefully, prayerfully, simply and complexly, the urging of the Holy Spirit guiding the process.
                There is a grand variety of preaching styles.  Some people preach for 10-minutes; some for 30-minutes; some for an hour depending on the tradition.  Some people preach for an hour and it feels like 10 minutes.  Some people preach for 10 minutes and it feels like an hour.  Some preachers use particular forms, a thesis with three illustrative stories.  I feel like I end up with more of a stream of consciousness in preparation.  I don’t sit down and write a sermon all at once.  It is a process that begins early in the week and goes throughout, each section flowing from the last. 
                In general, I don’t preach to make an argument.  If I am teaching a class where we can have more of a discussion, I might go into that mode.  I preach to share something with you, an idea, an image, a vision of the gospel.  It will be in the framework of a Lutheran theology of grace.  I am not giving you jellybeans that digest quickly.  I want to give you something a little more filling that will take time to digest, that will stick with you through the week.  I feel like I have fulfilled my calling when someone says, “I was thinking about something you said a couple week ago…”  They may not agree with me, but they are wrestling.
                This is also where the Holy Spirit gets involved, because every preacher has a story about people walking away from a sermon with a very different encounter than what the preacher thought was going on.  What felt like a minor moment in writing was a major moment for the person.  The point of the sermon I intended is replaced by something totally other.  I shrug my shoulders and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work, sharing what this person needs to hear, a promise, a challenge, a comfort.
                Then again we have this turning point from the individual listening to the word to the collective responding.  We go from a preacher speaking and a group of individuals listening to a congregation singing the Hymn of the Day, declaring a communal faith in the Creed, praying as a body together.  Let us enter that time by singing our hymn.

Meditation on the Meal

                I thought I would use this time to talk about why communion is important in our tradition and some of the things we say about it.  I could give a rather long history about why we celebrate it weekly; why for a time it was quarterly or monthly, and why now we are encouraged to celebrate it frequently.   If you look at our worship materials since the seventies, although there is an option for a Sunday service without communion, the materials themselves assume that the community will celebrate the sacrament every week.
So what are we trying to accomplish and are we doing it?  This is where you get into the grace-centered vision of worship.  When we get to the sacrament, we are trying to provide an encounter with the risen Christ.  However, we are not doing it.  Christ is.
For the past 450 years or so, concerning the sacrament, the church has been divided into two groups, those who see communion as a symbol of Jesus, a symbolic action done in remembrance, and those that see communion as a living encounter with Jesus, Jesus truly present in some way.  The Lutheran Church is among the latter.  We take very seriously the words that Jesus spoke at the final supper with his friends, “This is my body” and, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
We do not say that the bread turns into something other than bread or the wine turns into something other than wine.  Yet as we gather as a community, Christ truly comes to us.  We are not doing magic.  We are stepping into mystery as we encounter the risen Jesus “in, with and under” the bread and wine.
Many of the changes in communion practice that you have experienced in the past half-century are reflections of this understanding of the common elements pointing toward mystery.  We don’t use special wafers, but are encouraged to use regular bread.  We don’t reserve communion for special occasions but as part of regular weekly practice.  We don’t require as many hoops for participation but proclaim all are welcome to take part in this meal, this moment, this common mystery. 
            When we gather at the table, Christ is with us.  When we eat and drink, it is Jesus himself who nourishes us.  You probably have noticed the songs and prayers that surround this event: the Great Thanksgiving, the Sanctus, the Eucharistic Prayer with the words of Institution, the Lamb of God.  As with the gathering, we approach the table slowly.  We do not rush the table of grace, but approach slowly and mindfully, preparing ourselves to encounter the love of Jesus.  And so we begin with the Great Thanksgiving.

Meditation on Sending

                If you go to worship at synod assembly, one of the things you may notice is that there is no postlude.  Just to be clear, that doesn’t mean we have to do it that way.  This is one of the wonderful freedoms in Lutheran worship.  We have many options we can choose, but few of them are binding.  So long as the Word, the gospel promise, is proclaimed and the sacrament administered, it is good worship.  It does what it was designed to do.
                The reason that the synod doesn’t typically have a postlude is that the direction of worship in the sending is outward.  In the liturgy, the formal worship ends with that final dialogue.  “Go in peace.  Serve the Lord”, “Thanks be to God.”  The idea is we have done what we set out to do when we gathered.  Now we go and serve. 
                Most congregations I have experienced don’t really rush people out the doors.  In some, they will sit and listen to the postlude, especially in places with massive, old-style organs.  In some, like ours, people are dismissed to refreshment and fellowship.  Others will move on to educational events or service events.  The postlude often becomes a musical cue telling people to gather their things and move on to the next part.
                So I ask a final time, “What are we trying to accomplish and are we doing it?”  We are trying to do the reverse transition from when we gathered.  We are trying to prepare ourselves to finish this worship and move on to the rest of the day, the rest of life, but with words of blessing and sending to remind us that the God whom we encountered in worship is with us in the world.  But like the author of Ecclesiastes said, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.”  There is a time for worship, and a time to stop. 
                Now of course you can argue that during the week you will have worshipful moments, some intentional and some surprising, but they are different from gathering in a community where everyone is in that time and space intentionally focused on God together.  We gather as a community, but now we go our separate ways to walk with Jesus in the world; to go and serve.
                So we end now with blessing, song and dismissal.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

September 9, 2018 - The Expanding Boundary of Grace

For the past few weeks, we have heard a series of readings from the book of James.  James has a checkered history in the Christian tradition.  By the 4th century, the church had to make a decision about scripture.  Christianity was an influential religion, now endorsed by the Roman Empire.  Although most of the books had been informally accepted and were in use, there was still some debate about which holy books could be called “scripture”.  The New Testament didn’t pop into being, but developed over time as people debated about what constituted the official holy texts.  Was it written by an early apostle or was it written by someone later writing in the name of that apostle (this was a fairly common practice, considered a way of honoring the apostle and not intended to deceive)?  Was it recognized as scripture by the church at large, or just by a few groups?  There were several gospel texts floating around the ancient world but only four were canonized as scripture.  There were other letters of Paul (supposedly by Paul) and letters supposedly by some of the original twelve that didn’t make it into the Christian canon for a variety of reasons. 

                The Book of James was a subject of debate.  It does not appear on some early lists of New Testament scripture (from the 2nd and 3rd centuries).  It seemed to be better known in the eastern churches (centered on Jerusalem) than the western churches (centered on Rome).  Yet by the 4th century it was accepted by the church as scripture though there were still some who called it into question for centuries afterward. 

                Martin Luther, at least early in his career, was not a fan in part because of the passage we read today that ended with those challenging words, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  And of course Luther focused much more on Paul in Romans with his emphasis on grace through faith apart from works.  Over time he softened his stance and started seeing some good things in the book but never gave it the same kind of attention as Paul’s writings.

                I see James as a classic book on how, as modern philosophers say, “Ideas have consequences.”  Much of the book of James is not lofty theological prose.  Especially the parts where he critical of the community to which he writes, he holds them accountable for the ideas that they claim to believe.  Today he cites what he calls the royal law of scripture with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  That’s a variation of the golden rule that can found in many religious traditions:

                In Islam there is a tradition that a man approached the prophet Muhammad and grabbed his camel by the stirrup.  Then he asked for a teaching that would lead him to heaven.  The prophet replied, "As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them. Now let the stirrup go!"

                In Buddhism it is voiced in more holistic words, “Just as I am so are they; just as they are so am I.”

                In fact, you can find a phrase or one similar to it in just about every world religion, going back a few thousand years.  It is a beautiful idea, one that could end war; feed the hungry and remove poverty from the world.  Yet we as human being struggle with the implications, with the definition of neighbor.  Historically, we have turned our enemies into a little less than human, so we can say that the golden rule doesn’t really apply to the bad people. 

                As Christians we have phrases that we use as religious shorthand, that express a very important idea in few words.  God loves everyone.  What does that mean, if we really think about it?  Take it even further, God loves everyone and so should we.  What does that imply about our relationships with other people, difficult people, angry people, enemy people?

                James was chiding his community for its favoritism of wealthy over poor, maintaining a class structure when the church was supposed to be a place of radical equality, everyone equal in baptism.  This has long been a challenge for many service-oriented congregations, great at feeding those in need at the food bank or soup kitchen but struggling to invite and incorporate those same people into the general life of the congregation.  They just don’t fit in with us.

                Ideas have implications and consequences, a concept that I think is well-indicated by Jesus’ seeming surprise at the expansive nature of God’s grace.  A Gentile woman comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter who, according to the text, had an unclean spirit.  There are stories on this side of the lake about this guy from Israel doing miracles.   The last time he crossed the Sea of Galilee and came into Gentile territory he healed a man who was possessed by demons.  Now he has come again, crossing part of the lake on foot, and will the healing continue?  Surprisingly, Jesus’ first answer is “No.”   This is for the children, not for the dogs.  This is for Israel and not for the rest.  Some will say that this was a test of her faith.  Others will say she caught Jesus on a bad day.  I like to imagine that there is a sense of surprise.  For lack of a better term, Jesus comes off as a little more human in Mark, a little more impatient with his disciples, a little more pleading with God as he approaches the crucifixion.  He knows his purpose is to share good news with Israel.   That’s how the ministry starts.  Yet this interaction seem to challenge even him to expand that vision.  The woman says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

                The larger narrative is also important here.  If you were listening to the full gospel, this story comes right after the story we heard last week, where Jesus challenges the Pharisees and their view that divides the world into clean and unclean.  There Jesus spoke to them and said, “It’s not what comes in but what goes out that defiles.”   Today Jesus himself is challenged with the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, Jews and Gentiles, clean people and unclean people.  So he heals the woman’s daughter and he then heals a deaf man who is also probably not part of Israel.

                The scope of this kingdom of God coming near that he proclaims at the beginning has expanded, as it will expand through the disciples’ work, at is will expand through Paul’s ministry, as it will expand through the early church.  Yet even as we see that expansion going on there is also the very human tendency to put the brakes on.  Paul has to deal with friction between Jews and Gentiles in his communities.  James is dealing with the division of rich and poor in his community.  Surely you can’t believe that these folks are really on equal footing with us. 

                But that is the whole trajectory of the gospel story.  God expands the boundaries and suddenly those on the outside are by default on the inside.  We didn’t pull them in.  Instead, God extended the boundary out and we have been trying to make sense of that expansion of grace ever since.  This is where Luther had his conflict with the book of James.  At the beginning of the Reformation, Luther saw works as a dangerous subject, too easily turned into things we do that are necessary to earn the love of God.  But James, and eventually Luther, saw works, especially works of kindness toward those in need, as a natural offshoot of faith.  Lutheran theology as it developed eventually reached a place where we say that God’s love is not based on our works but on grace through faith, on the back and forth relationship that God has started with us in Christ.  But if that relationship of faith doesn’t produce works of love toward others, there is something amiss in the relationship.  So it was very natural that a hallmark of the Lutheran tradition would become social service, caring for others, reaching out in love, seeking to be the embodiment of the love of Christ in the communities around us.

                Yet we are still struggling with the expansive nature of God’s love and grace.  Because it goes beyond the bounds of the people we are comfortable with.  It extends to all races and all classes, something that we say we know to be true, yet is called into question by our very, very white, middle class makeup.  It extends beyond the boundary-markers that we assumed were firm.  At one point, most American Lutherans assumed that the Lutheran church was a place for people of German or Scandinavian heritage.  It was a comforting boundary and produced great pastries but God was already far beyond it.  At one point we understood that there was a boundary around how women could serve in the church, a marker hammered into place by Paul.  When we looked critically at the marker, we realized God was already past it.  At one point we believed that gay and lesbian people could not serve in the church, and I know there are still folks who believe that boundary marker is solid, but if you look at it critically I think you find once again that God is already past it.

                Our worship together ends with a dismissal, “Go and serve.”  We are called together into community; we worship together in community.  God calls us into a holy huddle of praise, reconciliation and nourishment.  But part of the purpose of worship is to send us out into the expansive world of the grace of God.  Go in peace to serve the Lord.  Go in peace to everybody: to the rich, to the poor, to the clean, to the unclean, to the insiders, and to those whom we imagine to be outsiders but whom God has already embraced.  Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

September 2, 2018 - The Center of Worship

For the month of September I am going to be talking about worship as part of the virtue of loyalty and faithfulness.  There is a phrase that I hear in Lutheran circles that has always bothered me.  A number of times in the video report from the ELCA that is played at synod assembly someone says the line, “Worship is at the center of what we do, ” or “Worship is at the heart of what we do.”  The Augsburg Confession, one of Lutheranism’s foundational documents defines the church as “the assembly of believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.”  The act of worship becomes a defining act for the Lutheran tradition.  But I said it bothers me, and the reason it bothers me is that in my experience it is fairly easy to go to worship and not meet Christ there.

                When I was in Sweden a couple of weeks ago we took a tour of Stockholm by boat and as we passed by one of the main churches in the city the narration talked about how very few Swedish people go to church (a majority belong and pay a membership tax, but one survey showed 5% of that population attending once a month).  But, the narration said, at the holidays, they still like their hymns and Santa Lucia festival.  For many people in the country religion is something that you access to feel a certain way, for connection to the past; for the sake of nostalgia.  Remember that song that we used to sing with grandpa.

                My point is, worship is only central when it helps to center us on Christ.  Jesus is, has always been and must continue to be the center of what we do.  Yet I have been part of very few worship discussions that actually look at how worship is connecting us to Christ.  Most worship discussions are very people-centered, asking questions about what people like.  How do we keep people happy?  How do we get them to settle down during the Prelude?  Are we doing enough old hymns to be comforting?  Are we doing enough new hymns to be interesting? 

                And many of these discussions get wrapped up in questions of style and what is appropriate.  So here is an example of what I mean.  When I was in my first call in central Pennsylvania, one Sunday the organist had invited Lindsey, a 10-year-old, to play a piano piece she had been learning.  So she went to the piano during the offering and started playing this (a much slower version)…

                Show of hands, how many say this is appropriate church music?

                As a recent music major, I knew the piece well, it was one we studied in the section on the Romantic period in the mid-1800s, written by Franz Schubert, called the “Erlkonig”.  The driving triplets are supposed to be a horse galloping through the woods.  As the song goes on we find it is a father riding his sick son through the forest, trying to get home.  The son starts singing about the Erlkonig or Elf King pursuing them, who begins by singing sweet songs to him but becomes more threatening.  At the end, the son cries out, My father, my father, he seizes me fast, For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last."  When the father arrives at safety, das kind var tot.  The child was dead.

                Show of hands, how many say this is appropriate church music?

                Just to be clear, I was mostly amused at how odd a piece it was for a Sunday morning, kind of an odd piece for a child to be playing, but Lindsey didn’t know the words of the song.  It was just a piece she had been working on.  But at one point, I had a conversation with the organist seeing whether she knew the song, and she knew that it was by Schubert and so it was classical and her understanding was that classical music is always appropriate in church. 

                Looking backward at my own experience of church, I would say that most Lutherans would agree with that statement.  We found a category of music and declared it to be clean and appropriate for church use.  Again, if you study music history, you might be a little more nuanced about it.  There are some Baroque and Classical pieces that were designed for church use and some, like Erlkonig that were designed for home use.  There are some which, due to context and history, we have deemed troublesome.  This is why Wagner’s “Here Comes the Bride” wedding march has fallen out of favor.  There is also some very sensual early 20th century stuff (especially French) that we might not use.  Ravel’s Bolero  would be an unexpected prelude (though it kind of does what a Prelude is supposed to do, draw you out of day to day thoughts and transition to something new).

                The point is, we make rules about what is appropriate and what is not; what is clean and what is unclean.  We make informal rules about how church is supposed to look and feel.  We make rules mostly based on what has worked in the past rather than thinking about what works now; what centers us on Christ now; but, more importantly, what sends us out with good news now.  I think our measure of worship should be similar to Luther’s measure of biblical interpretation.  Does it push Christ forward?

                Last week, I was talking about a grace-centered view of faith.  What most Lutherans miss is that our tradition is much more about that view of Jesus and the good news than it is about the traditional trappings of worship.  Lutheran worship should not be defined by robes or hymns or styles, but by the good news it proclaims.  Does the worship help us encounter Christ in Word and Sacrament and does the worship send us as Christ to the world? 

                Now I am preaching as a grace-centered pastor and because of that, I am much more concerned with what God is doing in worship and how God is working through worship.  But some of you might ask, “What is it that we bring to worship?”  And to that I would say the best equipment for worship is an open heart and an open mind.  Come assuming that Christ is going to work on you.  Come assuming that Christ is going to speak to you even through the likes of me.  Come assuming that the Holy Spirit will stir a response of love and allow that response to grow.

                And finally, come to worship prepared to leave it.  What I mean is that the formal worship ends with a dismissal,  something like, “Go in peace.  Serve the Lord.”  Worship is supposed to feed us as we dwell in and celebrate the relationship of God’s love, but worship is also supposed to send us.  The way we carry ourselves out in the world, the way we share love or not, the way we proclaim peace or not, are a continuation of our worship and not separate from it.

                In talking about clean and unclean foods, Jesus says that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles us.  We enter worship to have our hearts changed and renewed.  The measurement of successful worship is not the number of people in the seats, but what sort of people leave them.  When Christ is the center of our worship, we come and are fed, and then go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Monday, September 10, 2018

August 26, 2018 - Grace-Centered Choices

In looking at the readings for this morning, I got to thinking about choices.  Joshua gives us a pretty blatant message of choice in Israel’s history.  “Choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Cue a dramatic, musical swell as the people stand in affirmation.  It is an important moment in Israel’s history, but doesn’t tell the whole a story, the story of a people falling in and out of love with God, periodically missing the point of God’s vision, thinking God wants worship when God seeks loyalty, believing God wants sacrifices when God hopes for justice and lovingkindness.

                In the gospel reading, we have people choosing to walk away from Jesus after he suggests that eternal life belongs to those who eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Now we are somewhat used to that language.  In a couple of minutes I will offer you bread and wine, proclaiming them to be the body and blood of Christ.  Hearing it every Sunday, we may miss that this is a bizarre claim, saying that Jesus himself comes to us as we eat and drink.  Some of his disciples, a bit offended, happier when it was just magic bread and fish by the seashore, a bit confused by the image of eating this teacher, walk away.  Yet the twelve remain and Peter says the line that we often sing in the Gospel Acclamation, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  They choose to stay, or they don’t see leaving as a viable option.

                When I talk about loyalty and faithfulness, choice is involved.  Each day we make choices about how we will live the faith.  Each Sunday you run through a list of priorities and decide whether or not to be in worship.  In each interaction you have in a day, you make a decision about whether to acknowledge God in this place, in this person and in this moment.

                In the United States, in most situations, we value choice and the freedom to make choices.  It is a sign of being independent.  American religion is very strongly shaped by a theology of choice, well exemplified by a sign that used to be on the road to Cooperstown, New York, “Jesus or hell.  Your choice.”

                So I thought this morning I would talk about a different way of looking at faith and choice, one more shaped by a theology of grace, that doesn’t put quite so much faith in the capacity of the human will, because let’s face it, most of us have trouble not choosing to eat a cookie which doesn’t bode well for choosing our eternal salvation. 

                There is an image that you are probably familiar with.  I encountered it all the time in rural Pennsylvania where the various independent Bible churches saw an essential part of their ministry as distributing gospel tracts, pamphlets that were supposed to lead you to a conversion moment or choice.  Sometimes they handed them out in person.  Sometimes they left them in strategic locations where someone might stumble on them.  In many of those pamphlets was the image of the chasm.  Humanity is on one side.  God is one the other.  And in the middle is the chasm of our sin that separates us from God.  How do we get to God?  The cross becomes a bridge over the chasm when we choose Jesus so we can go to God’s side.  Then there was a little prayer to help you articulate that choice.

                My guess is there are some of you who hear that and say, “That sounds about right.”  It is a very common understanding of Christianity, one that you could defend with scripture (one you could also refute with scripture).  It is a very American understanding of Christianity, one that celebrates the personal choice, also one that makes a clean division of the world: those on one side and those on God’s side.  It is much more akin to the Pharisee’s vision of the world, a world divided into clean and unclean, faithful and unfaithful.  We just hear it voiced differently.  There is music and there is Christian music.  There is fiction and there is Christian fiction.  There is counseling and there is Christian counseling.  You even see it in advertising when Mike Liddell, the myPillow guy, makes sure that his cross necklace is displayed as he poses with his product.  Now I know in hearing some of his story, he wants to celebrate how he sees faith leading him to where he is, but in an advertisement there is also the not so subtle question, “Do you want a pillow or do you want my Christian pillow?”

                So from a grace-centered theology there are two major criticisms with this world-view.  First, the cross is not conditional.  We proclaim that the cross and resurrection happened and the work of Jesus is effective in and of itself because that is who Jesus is.  The passion’s ability to change lives and change the world is not based on our ability to recognize it.  That idea puts way too much power in our hands.  The salvation achieved because of the cross and empty tomb is not based on our choice but on God’s action, and this is good news.

                It is good news because the other criticism of this world view is the whole idea of choosing sides.  Our tradition works with a both/and image.  Sometimes I am on God’s side and sometimes I am not.  If I am honest with myself, I am often self-absorbed, worrying about what’s in this for me.  I bet that some of you here today, as you gather to worship the living God, have had thoughts of, “How long will he preach?” and “What will I have for lunch?”  We live a both/and existence with both/and minds.

                From a grace-centered perspective, the image of the chasm should not be about how we choose to get over to God’s side, but about how God has chosen to come to us.  In Jesus, God chooses to enter our both/and existence.  God is with us constantly even when we are not aware of or not paying attention to God. 

                So some of you may ask, what about heaven and hell?  How do you know who is saved?  How do you know who is on the right team?  There are clearly people who respond to the good news by saying, “Who cares?” or “I’m not interested.” Or “No thank you.”  My answer, which is a good Lutheran answer, is, “Let God be God.”  Let God handle the future, or more correctly, God has already handled the future and whatever it is will be good and right.  In the meantime, let’s figure out how we respond right now, because that is what Christian life is, a response to God’s good action in Christ.  This is where choice comes in from a grace-centered place.  Christian life is a series of small choices.  We can choose to do things that celebrate God’s work, like worship or studying the creation.  We can choose to do things that deepen our relationship to that work, like prayer and scripture study.  We can choose to do things that align us with God’s work, like keeping Sabbath time, stewardship and serving other people.  We can choose to take steps on the path of discipleship.

                You know that I have been on this “Make something beautiful” kick but I truly believe that this is what we are about.  Walking the path of discipleship is beautiful.  And I believe that if we can stop worrying about who is and who is not walking it and how are they walking it and just walk, beautiful things will happen.  Like when Jesus walks around and people are healed and the hungry are fed and the outcasts are accepted and good news is proclaimed.

                We can choose to make those small choices because in the cross of Jesus, God has made the ultimate choice of life and not death; of “yes” and not “no”.   So now we celebrate it, share it and live it with our both/and God who is in our both/and lives.