Wednesday, April 18, 2018

April 15, 2018 - Stewardship of the Body

During the Easter season I am going to be reflecting on stewardship as a Christian discipline.  You can read weekly articles on my blog.  We are experimenting with some sabbatical time over the next couple of months, so I will be preaching every other Sunday.  One of those sermons is going to be a sermon on financial stewardship, the topic that makes many mainline Christians uncomfortable.  We live in a culture that is fascinated by wealth, shaped by a growing gap between rich and poor, but is also uncomfortable talking about personal finances.  Going back to the “things” of the Lenten season, we might show our wealth by the things we own, the place we live, the things we drive or the things we wear, but we would be slow to tell someone that actual numbers we have.

                However, this is not the Sunday I am going to talk about financial stewardship.  It is critical that we get beyond thinking about stewardship only in terms of money.  We need to get beyond thinking of stewardship in terms of time and talent.  Stewardship is an attitude that you carry with you.  It is a way of looking at the world through a lens of generosity.  It starts with God’s generosity toward the universe in bringing it into being.  It continues with billions of years of things gathering and expanding, what was matter and energy becomes life on this planet and that life eventually leads to you, beautiful you.   You are part of God’s generous gift of creation, and each breath you take is another gift.

                So let’s talk about part of that gift of life, the body.  In our gospel story today we heard about the risen Jesus eating some fish with his disciples.  It seems very simple, but this was an important moment in understanding the resurrection because it was meant to show that he was truly alive, truly physical, truly risen from the dead.  He is not a ghost.  He is not a spirit or a soul.  We hear this story and proclaim that he is risen, but we don’t think about the implications of a physical resurrection.

                We as a culture have been much more affected by Greek philosophy than Hebrew teaching in our understanding of the body.  The Greeks put a sharp distinction between body and soul.  Popular philosophies saw the soul as essentially trapped in the body, only to escape in death.  And you can see why this is popular.  At our Still, Small Voice gathering on Wednesday we talked a little about this, how there seems to be this thinking and feeling part of us that could be unrelated to the body.  In my imagination, I can travel to Hawaii and my body is stuck here.  This separation also leads to popular visions of the undead.  When early Christians thought about resurrection from the dead, they saw it as something hopeful, the restoration of full life, body and breath.  When our culture imagines physical rising, we end up with zombies, the walking dead, decomposing body without a soul. 

                What this split has done over the centuries is to devalue the body as a gift of God.  After all, this body is just something we are going to get rid of one day.  In the meantime, the body is something that we have to tame; to indulge in physical pleasure is to allow the body to dirty the soul.  What are pretty natural urges are seen as shameful and wicked.  I am not saying that a wild and crazy lifestyle is all right.  It’s just that our rejection of the body usually ends with some kind of unhealthy obsession with our body.  If it involves our body and we enjoy it, somewhere in Christian history someone tried to put a clamp on it: sexuality, food, drink.  The Christian attitude to the body has been, if it feels good, there is probably something wrong with it.

                There is more and more neuroscience that is refuting this mind/body split, pointing to the idea that what happens to the body affects the mind and that we can often think ourselves into a physical response.  All of you that complain of stress, what you are really doing is thinking yourself into a low-level panic mode, a physical response to an imagined threat. 
                As Christians, we should also be aware that this separation is not part of the understanding that is advocated in scripture.  In the Hebrew world, the best image of humanity comes from the Garden of Eden story, where God shapes the human from the ground and breathes life into it.  To be human is to be a coming together of body and breath of God.  In Jewish tradition, physical pleasure was not a bad thing.  Good food was celebrated.  Wine was and is a common drink of celebration.  According to the rabbis, the Sabbath day was a day when spouses should make love as part of the celebration of rest and joy.  Moderation was important.  To be obsessed with pleasure was bad.  To lose control of yourself was the problem, so promiscuity, drunkenness, gluttony, over-indulgence were problems to be avoided.

                But the body was not the enemy of faith or life, it was seen as part of the gift of life.  Your body is a gift and an essential part of who you are.  Now, having heard many of your medical issues over the years, I know that some of you would like to exchange that gift or perhaps get an upgrade.  But your body is what allows you to experience this beautiful creation fully.  All the colors you know are a gift of the eyes that God gave you.  You only enjoy music because of a physical process of turning sounds waves into vibrations in the inner ear which then can be translated into the electric impulses that  your brain can work with.  When you come to the communion table, the bread and wine provide are a physical encounter with the holy.  We don’t just think nice thoughts about Jesus.  Jesus comes to us through the physical process of eating and drinking.

                The body is a gift and as with all the gifts God, hopefully we are moved to gratitude for the opportunity to experience…everything.  From gratitude then we move to stewardship.  We thank God for the gift and then show our thanks by taking care of it.  Some of the best things you can do for your body:  allow it to move, allow it to rest, feed it well (and by well I don’t mean copious amounts) become acts of discipleship.   Eating a salad can be a faithful action.  Taking a walk can be a holy time. 

                Now there is a danger when you talk about the body where it is very easy to fall into a guilt-ridden legalism.  You have to walk 10000 steps a day.  You have to sleep 8 hours a night.  You can never eat a cookie if you really love your body and if you do eat a cookie then shame on you for your lack of willpower.  This can get even more troublesome if you bring faith into the mix because you end up saying if you really love God you won’t eat the cookie.  The beautiful way that God has made us is that, most of the time if we listen, our bodies tell us what we need.  When you’re tired, go to sleep.  When you’re hungry, eat something and don’t eat something when you are not.   When you’re thirsty drink something.  When you are anxious, slow down, take a breath, go outside.   

                There are exceptions to this rule, conditions that may make us more hungry or tired than we need to be.  Anyone who deals with addiction can tell that this is not a perfect system, that our bodies can get hooked, telling us that we need something that we don’t actually need, something that might do harm to us.  Acknowledging those complications, I still suggest that at a basic level our bodies tell us what we need.  That feeling of hunger, of thirst, of sleepiness, even a feeling of pain, is our own personal “Check Engine Light.”  Pay attention to it as a way of caring for this gift that God has given.  We are stewards of the gifts of God.

                This life is a gift.  Our attitude toward anything God has made, except maybe ticks and mosquitos, should not be, “I can’t wait to get away from this.”  It’s like when you make a great Thanksgiving dinner and those ungrateful kids sit at the table for 10 minutes, never really tasting the food, just wolfing it down ready to move on to something else.  This life, this creation, this body is good, God’s gift.  It’s been given to you so that you can experience… everything.  It has been given to you so that you can continue God’s work of creation, making something beautiful.  It has been given to you so that you can do the beautiful work of praising God by helping others.  It has been given to you so that you may know the meaning of life.  So praise God and care for your body.  Praise God and revel in your body.  Praise God for this life and the promise of new life in Christ.

Monday, April 16, 2018

April 1, 2018 - Easter Sunday

Through the Lenten season we have been challenging ourselves with the words of a 13th century Christian mystic known as Meister Eckhart.  Specifically, we have looked at the phrase, “To be full of things is to be empty of God; to be empty of things is to be full of God.”  For the past few weeks we have been looking at ways to empty ourselves, to get rid of things.  Our lives are full of things, physical things that just take up space; emotional things that take up our attention; scheduled things that take up our time, expectations that take up our energy.  We have talked about learning to let things go, focusing on the first part of Eckhart’s statement, figuring out how to remove things from lives that are full.

                On Good Friday, I talked a little bit about how Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate image of letting go.  As the Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Jesus…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”  In that moment on the cross, Jesus lets go of everything.  He empties himself so that we can be filled.

                That’s where we are this morning.  We are at that resurrection moment where we get to see what it means to be filled with God.  Christ has risen from the dead.  And then Mark goes and he messes it all up.  Did anyone notice who was missing in the gospel text this morning?  Jesus.  Yes the tomb was empty.  Yes we are told he is not there but has risen.  But we are also told that the people who get this message don’t say anything to anyone about it because they are afraid.  Now some of you, if you check out Mark’s gospel, you will say that there are a few paragraphs after this text where we do see Jesus.  If you have a good Bible, it will note that, although these paragraphs appear in later versions of Mark, the oldest versions of Mark that we have end with the reading for today.  “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

                It is not a very satisfying ending, which is why over the centuries, alternative endings were added that gave the book a better sense of closure.  As for me, I love that ending.  I love it for a couple of reasons.  First, Mark is a gospel about people messing up.  The disciples consistently don’t get what Jesus is teaching.  They frequently drop the ball and here, at the end, at the empty tomb, the ball is dropped one last time.  Yet in spite of humanity’s best efforts to mess it up, the plan goes forward; the tomb is empty.  And in spite of the fact that they said nothing to anyone, 2000 years later we are still talking about it because somebody said something to someone and that cycle of saying something to someone continues.

                That’s the second reason that I love this ending.  The resurrection shouldn’t have a nice clean ending.  The whole point of the resurrection is that it is not something that happened but rather is something that is still happening, that is still unfolding in the church and in the world.   The resurrection is where we encounter the second part of Eckhart’s statement.  To be empty of things is to be full of God.  That’s resurrection.  On the cross, Jesus models what it means to be completely empty of things.  And on Easter morning the tomb is empty because Jesus is full of God, full of life, full of good news.

                This also creates a bridge to what I will be talking and writing about during the Easter season, namely stewardship and generosity, exploring the question of once you let go of things, what do you then take on.  The answer is magnificently multiple:  God, life, joy, love, peace, kindness.  We take on the attitudes that give life.  We take on the promises that share life.  We take on the moments that are real life, the life God intends and hopes for us, not the fake stuff that they sell in the marketplace: the things that you just have to have, the places you just have to go, the things you just have to do.

                That’s why we have to be filled with God because otherwise as we get rid of things, we will just find more things to fill us and keep pretending at life rather than living it.  The tomb was empty so now real life has begun.  We can stop worrying about whether we are doing the right thing or feeling the right way, whether we are doing it correctly, coloring inside the lines.  Follow where love leads.  Follow where life leads.  You won’t get far off course.  And even when you do get off course, you have this resurrected Jesus who is calling you back to real life.

                Because the tomb is empty, there are two more things we can let go of, the past and the future.  Now maybe your past is awesome, you were an all A student, a stellar athlete and homecoming royalty.  But most people don’t get too far in life without some sense of regret, something they feel guilty about or ashamed of.  Most people have a choice that maybe should have gone in a different direction, a nagging question of “What if…?”  The empty tomb gives you permission to let it go and be who you are right now in Christ.  The empty tomb says you are a new and renewed person in Christ.  Whatever roads and choices brought you to this moment, new life, resurrected life, begins today.

                Most people have some worry about the future.   I’m going to tell you that the empty tomb says you don’t have to worry about the future, but you won’t believe it (I don’t always believe it myself).  Yet when you peer into the empty tomb, it means that your ultimate future is taken care of.  It’s still wise to put money in your IRA, but even that is short term compared to eternity.  The past, you can let go of it.  The future, you can let go of it.  And here in the present, Jesus has risen and real life has begun.  That’s where you need to hang out.  That’s where real life is.   That’s where love is.  That’s where Jesus is. 

                This again is why I love that open ending of Mark even though it is not satisfying from a literary point of view.  From a faith-centered point of view it is perfect.  Because the story doesn’t end, it continues to this moment, this present.  The resurrection unfolds, sweeps us up and pulls us along.  Now you are part of the story.  Every Easter as we celebrate, we are reminded that we have been swept up in the story of resurrection.  Every Sunday as we gather we are reminded that we are part of the good news.  The good news is not just something that you hear about.  The good news is who you are.

                You are part of the promise of life for the world.  You are part of the promise of love for the world.  You are part of the gifts of peace and hope for the world.  You, imperfect you, beautiful you, are part of the resurrection, a character in this unfinished tale.  The tomb is empty.  He is not there, but has risen.  The story continues, a story about Jesus, a story about you, a story of good news for all people.

March 30, 2018 - Good Friday

The story of Christ’s passion represents the ultimate moment of letting of go.  We have been talking about letting go of little things this whole Lenten season; the value of simplicity; the value of treating things like things.  We have been doing on a small scale what Jesus does on a large scale on the cross.  He lets go of life itself.

                This is an aspect of Christianity that makes many people, many Christians, uncomfortable, the idea of letting go of life.  Some of that may be the very large difference between the times that the great religions of the world originated and the time and world in which we live.  One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that “All life is suffering.”  2500 years ago that may have felt a little more obvious.  Jesus says on multiple occasions something along lines of, “Whoever loves their life will lose; and the one who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  2000 years ago when most of Jesus’ followers were peasants and days were filled with hard labor, when Israel was paying taxes to an occupying Roman army, when soldiers could demand that you enter into their service, maybe it was not so hard to reject life.  Even 500 years ago, when Martin Luther was around and Europe was a world of darkness and plagues and early death, maybe it was not so hard to hate one’s life, hoping for something better afterwards.

                But we live in a world shaped by reason, science and technology.  We actually have free time that we can waste watching entertaining content on screens.  The social security administration worries in part because people are living well beyond 65, a number that was chosen decades ago because even then, they could count on most people being dead by that age.  We can get food without a lot of work.  We can travel without a lot of effort.  It is a very different time and we experience life very differently than folks all those centuries ago.

                As a culture we are also shaped by a psychology of positive thinking.  Avoid those unhappy thoughts that would bring you to a place of saying I am ready to let go of life.  I recently read an article about Doctor Tracy Balboni, who does research on palliative and end of life care.  They surveyed 300 cancer patients over a six-year period.  One of the interesting findings was that those patients who looked for religious figures for support, like pastors or church members, were three times as likely to die hooked up to machines in intensive care, requesting extreme measures, than to die in hospice care.  This surprised everyone and follow-up research continues, because they assumed that religious people would be more accepting of death; less likely to cling to life, seeking extreme measures and long-shot treatments.  I suspect that in some versions of modern Christianity, letting go of life is tantamount to a failure of faith.  People can be told subtly and not so subtly, that you are not healed because you are not praying right, because you don’t trust God, because you are giving up on God.  And so they die hooked up to machines painfully waiting for a miracle of healing because the church has neglected to tell them that the greatest healing has already happened.

                This night is about the healing of all humanity.  It is about every single person whoever was and is and is to come being made whole.  It is about the Son of God showing us the power of letting go of everything, even life itself; letting go of ego; letting go of feeling necessary; letting go self-importance.  Jesus the Messiah dies what was the shameful death of a criminal, mocked, judged, betrayed, denied.  All of those things we think are so important, our pride, our accomplishments, the respect of others, Jesus simply lays aside, allowing them to fall away with every strike of hammer on nail, with every wincing breath. 

                And we in the West look at this day and call it “Good Friday,” others call it “Holy Friday.”  But nobody seems to call it Tragic Friday or Horrid Friday.  We have looked at this day and said that this laying aside and letting go of life was good, was right and was holy.  In John, Jesus ends the struggle with the simple pronouncement that “It is finished.”  He has laid everything aside and it is when he has laid everything aside that he sets the stage for what can happen on Sunday morning.

                I have always thought that idea of hating life in the gospels was a bit of an exaggeration, hyperbolic language meant to challenge and trouble us.  Yet this moment on the cross holds an important message, especially as it fits in the flow of the passion story.  The cross reminds us not to cling to this life as though this is the limit of what God has to offer. 

                Yes, this life is a gift, but the passion story and cross also confront us with the ways that we betray and deny that gift, the ways we waste and reject that gift.  When we reject other people or reject God’s creation, we are rejecting the gift.  When we lessen the gift of life for others, we betray the gift for ourselves.  When we hate or deny or ignore others, we deny the gift of life to ourselves.   When we cling to the gift as the greatest good, we miss the point.  Every good gift is not about the gift itself, but about our relationship with the one who gave it to us.

                 Now I say this being very careful not to fall into the opposite extreme of outright rejecting life, that strain of religious thinking that condemns pleasure and rejects the world.  If we learn anything from Genesis 1, it is that God thinks this life is good and well-made.  We are meant to find joy in the time we have on this earth.  We are meant to learn love and compassion, kindness and peace.  We are meant to find Sabbath rest and meaningful labor.  We are meant to treat this life as a gift.  But the cross reminds us that our identity is not found in any of those things.  We don’t need to reject life, but we also don’t need to cling to it, as though our identity is going to disappear when this life is over.  Our identity is grounded in God who gives us life, in the love of God and in the life of God, and that love and life, that God is eternal.

                So this night, as we remember the death of Jesus, let us give thanks for the gift of life.  May we be reminded of all the ways we spoil that gift and seek to turn away from them.  May we embrace that gift, because life is good and precious and holy.  And may we hold that gift gently and kindly, so that our lives might be a reflection of the one who gave life to us.  Jesus laid every thing aside and let every thing go.  May we learn the power, the wisdom and the goodness of that ultimate letting go.

March 29, 2018 - Maundy Thursday

We began the Lenten season with a theme of letting go.  Get rid of it.  The “Get Rid of It” challenge is physical model of a spiritual practice, learning humility, simplicity, learning to let go.  “To be full of things is to be empty of God; to be empty of things is to be full of God.”  In our Still, Small Voice group we have talked about the benefit of the fact that Meister Eckhart used that generic term “things” allowing that phrase to echo in many parts of our lives, rather than just focusing on physical possessions.
                In Western society, we are full of physical things, the objects we acquire that come to define us, that can sometimes control us.  Yet our daily lives are also full of things, items on a to-do list.  Our lives can also be filled with expectations that others lay upon us: the things we should do, the things we should experience, the things that make you an acceptable part of society.  We would much happier people if we could set aside some time to simply be, to savor a morning, to whole-heartedly pay attention to whatever it is that gives us joy.  Now I have to be careful because there is some smart-aleck who is thinking, “I find no joy in doing my taxes.  Therefore I will not do them.  Pastor Carl says this is a good and holy thing.”  No, what I am saying is that when you practice letting go, you will learn what you need to do, and find what you love to do, and let go of a lot of things you thought you had to do.

                Jesus also models this sense of letting go in a letting go of honor and letting go of pride.  According to John’s gospel, on the night of his last supper, Jesus knelt down in front  of his disciples and washed their feet.  They were shocked and surprised, even a little offended, that he would do this servant’s work, but he was showing them the power of letting go of needing to be first, of needing to be important and the importance of simple actions of kindness. 

                And after carrying out this action he gives them the new commandment, the mandate (in Latin, maundatum) for which the day is named.  Love one another as I have loved you.  Love one another in a way that gets pride out of the way.  Love one another that lets go of being the most important in the relationship, that lets go of the idea that my needs must be met first, that lets go of expectations that we put on the other.  Love one another as I have loved you, a simple command that requires all sorts of practice, discipline, to live out, an ideal that we can only grow toward and will never perfect, not in this lifetime.

                Thankfully, we also have a God who knows how to let go.  We started this service with a moment of personal confession and absolution.  In a way, we started the service that is centered on this new commandment by freely admitting that we have already messed it up.  Then I had the honor and privilege to speak words of forgiveness.  “In obedience  to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all you sins”.  Now someone watching this might counter saying that this is way too easy.  How do I know that you are truly sorry and repentant?  How do I know that you won’t do the same things and think the same thoughts and neglect the same people again?  And the truth is, I suspect that you will probably do some of these same things and think some of the same thoughts not because I am divine or horribly judgmental, but because I am human and I am going to do some of the same things and think some of the same thoughts and neglect some of the same people.  I will make some of the same mistakes and I will miss some of the same marks and I will stand in need of forgiveness again.

                But we have a God who knows how to let go, and this ritual of confession and absolution is far more for our benefit than it is for God’s.  God is already letting go, God has already let go of our mistakes.  Now we can let go of them too.  In fact, through God’s grace those very mistakes become a place for us to grow.

                And that leads to the next action of this night, gathering around the communion meal.  Because we have a God who knows how to let go, we are not dismissed as impure or unclean but welcomed at the table of God’s mercy.  We are reminded that we are not getting rid of things so that we are left empty.  We get rid of things so that we can create space to be filled with the loving grace of God.  We come to the table and are nourished, fed by the love of God in Christ.  We come to the table where Jesus gives us himself, lets go of himself so we can be filled.

                And that is the final image we encounter this evening, we symbolically prepare for Good Friday by getting rid of everything.  We watch as the table is cleared, remembering that Jesus let everything go, even life itself.  Jesus lets go of every thing so that we can be filled with God. 

                We have a God who lets go of our guilt and our mistakes.  We have a God who invites us to let go of those very things so that rather than being filled with anger or guilt or shame or embarrassment, we might be filled with love and grace and hope.  So I say one last time in this season, to be full of things is to be empty of God; to empty of things is to be full of God. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

March 18, 2108 - 5th Sunday in Lent

What does it mean to have a faith that is written on your heart?

                I see two basic understandings.  The first is what traditional Lutherans are the most familiar with.  Those of you who went through confirmation anytime before 1990, much of your time was spent memorizing Luther’s Small Catechism and the measure of preparation was whether or not you could recite bits of the Catechism when questioned.  The faith written on the heart was a matter of learning the right ideas so the community was operating from the same base.  Now you can argue that this could produce a pretty sterile kind of faith (and I would argue that for the last few decades it has) but it was always meant to be coupled with Christian community.  Ideally, you learned ideas of the faith and then saw those modeled in the Christian community.  I can also say that this understanding of faith written on the heart can be very helpful during a crisis.  One of the survivors of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1970s claimed that she kept her sanity and her faith by recalling that memorized Catechism, acknowledging that she hated the process as a kid, but realizing it had been written on her heart.

                The other definition of a faith written on the heart might be more akin to muscle memory and reflex.  When I play the trumpet, there are things I do that I no longer think about.  In fact, thinking about a specific fingering will slow down or mess up the piece I am trying to play.  Or you can think of me during the power outage, flipping the switch of every room I walked into, feeling silly each time but it’s just what you do when you walk into a dark room.  A faith written on the heart might be seen as a collection of automatic responses hinted at in phrases like, “Pray without ceasing” or “Rejoice in the Lord always,” a constant attitude that creates an automatic response of praise, thanks and loving service.

                This could certainly be a powerful way of life.  The people that we remember as saints were people who walked the walk faith and didn’t just talk about it.   But it can also easily become mindless legalism, where you know what to do but not why to do it.  It also lends itself to the very ideas that Luther protested against, a faith that is centered on human action rather than God’s promises.  In the Middle Ages it was do the right thing and God will tolerate you; do the wrong thing and God will get angry and punish you.  Today you are more likely to hear a message of do the faithful thing and God will reward you; do the wrong thing and you make God sad.  But God’s reaction is still dependent on you rather than you growing in dependence on God, both are variations of what we call works righteousness, the validity of faith is based on the things I do.

                This is where Jesus offers us the gift of a third way in his call to follow as disciples.  When you start the journey centered on Christ, or what we might call living the baptized life, you know that it is grace the undergirds the whole project, it is the love of God that is the foundation you are walking on.  Then Jesus models a path that we walk.  He gives us a direction to follow.  But let me be clear we are not walking path the in order to make God happy, or to appease an angry God.  We are not walking the path because it earns us any kind of reward.  We are not walking the path because it makes us better than anybody else.  We walk the path because the path itself is the gift of a loving God.  The path doesn’t lead to joy; the path is joy.  The path doesn’t lead to love; the path is love.  The path doesn’t earn salvation; the path is a piece of salvation.

                Now this is my challenge to Christ Lutheran Church, because one of the themes that has come up again and again over to past ten years is that we are a Sunday-morning church.  Most of the time, if we want people to come to an event about deepening the faith, it has to be attached to Sunday morning.  Now there are all sorts of factors that lead us to be that kind of community.  The biggest factor is probably the worship tradition within the Lutheran church.  If someone from another culture had to define Christianity based on watching most Lutherans, they would probably start with “Christians are people who go to church on Sunday morning.”  The bulk of Lutherans would kind of agree.  In fact, I would guess that some of you right here and now are wondering why I seem to have an issue with worship seeing as it is a big part of what I do professionally.

                My issue is that worship is a part of the path.  It actually encompasses a number of values on the path: community, love, gratitude, stewardship, peace, union with Christ.  Those are all part of it.  Ironically, worship is something that Jesus doesn’t ask for and certainly doesn’t emphasize in the gospel texts.  Yes, a hymn is sung at the last supper and Jesus teaches at a synagogue (though he also get chased out).  But Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to worship him.  He asks them to follow him.  “Whoever serves me must follow me and where I am there will my servant be also.”

                And it is in following Jesus, learning from Jesus as a model of true life, that we learn the muscle memory/reflexive kind of faith.  We learn from Jesus how to pray and we watch him live a life that is prayer and when life is prayer, we pray without ceasing.  We watch Jesus follow a rhythm of work and rest, community and solitude and perhaps we realize that we do not work so we can rest and we don’t rest so we can work better; both are necessary to a complete life.  We watch Jesus interact with people who like him and who don’t; we watch Jesus feeding and partying with crowds and being condemned by crowds, and in every place and in every moment and in every situation, he witnesses to the living God.  And watching him, perhaps ideas like, “Rejoice in the Lord always” and “Give thanks in all circumstances” do not seem like impossibilities.

                So just like your doctor tells you to change your eating habits, I see my job as pastor as helping you develop holy habits, things you do regularly to deepen your life with God, to follow Jesus on the path of grace.  Some of you have been giving rid of something every day for this past season and it was a good excuse to clean up, but what you are really doing is simplifying your life, learning to let go of things, learning to let things be things you control and not things that control you.  Some of you have been practicing contemplative prayer, taking a few minutes to sit with God, taking a few minutes where you don’t have to achieve or accomplish anything, where you don’t have to impress anyone meet anyone’s expectations.  That is holy time and I hope it has been a gift. 

                I am also hoping that some of you will come downstairs after worship for a mini-retreat as we explore the idea of simplifying your life.  Another spoiler, you can’t do it in an hour.  It is process of learning to let go of things, learning to prioritize, learning to spend more time on what really matters.

                Faith is written on our hearts as we live the faith.  It is not stamped on in a moment, but etched in over years, years of learning and coming to know the constant love of God.  Years of walking the path of grace with Jesus.  Years of walking in faith together.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

March 11, 2018 - 3rd Sunday in Lent

This was originally the sermon for March 4, the Sunday closest to my 10th anniversary at Christ Lutheran.  Unfortunately, a nor'easter blew threw a few days before, knocking down some utility poles on our street so the church road was blocked and worship canceled that day.  We decided, since sermon was written and bulletins already printed, we would observe the 3rd Sunday of Lent on March 11 and skip the 4th Sunday.

If you have gone to church long enough, you have probably heard some version of the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple.   Jesus sees the money changers, those who would exchange Roman money for the Israelite money acceptable for offerings.  He sees those who sell animals for sacrifices.  Often people making pilgrimage to the Temple would buy an animal at the Temple rather than bringing it on their journey.  But of course, the money changers and the animal sellers are trying to make a living and profit from the work.  And according to the story Jesus chases them all out as protest of religion that is for sale; that seeks to make a profit rather simply glorify God.

                In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this story appears toward the end of the gospel.  In Mark, this disruption and criticism of religious practice is one of the reasons that the chief priests and scribes want Jesus to be killed.  He is treading on their turf.  He challenging what had become the center of Jewish religious practice at the time.

                But in the gospel of John, the story is remembered early in the narrative.  It is in chapter 2, right after the first miracle of turning water in to wine at the wedding at Cana.  This event is not part of the passion but rather is going to set up a theme that goes through the entire gospel.  The center of faith has moved.  It is no longer found in a building, but in the person of Jesus.  John is the gospel that has Jesus giving himself honorific titles.  I am the bread of life.  I am the resurrection.  I am the true vine.  I am the way, the truth and the life.  Christianity is only Christianity when it is centered on Christ.
                Now it seems like such a statement should go without saying, but as a pastor I sometimes wonder if we believe it or if we have forgotten it.  Have we fallen into the spiritual trap of the Pharisees, where proper observance of tradition overshadows the one being observed?   Have we fallen into the trap of the chief priests, where the survival of the organization, the structure and the building overshadow the one in whose honor the building stands?

                Now you may not realize it, but last Sunday represents 10 years that I have been serving at Christ Lutheran as your pastor.  I started on March 1 of 2008.  The good news is that we are still here.  The bad news is we are all 10 years older.  But I thought this might be an appropriate time to give a little bit of my impression of the state of the congregation and the state of the church in general.

                The state of the Lutheran church we have been through before.  Fewer people are going to worship and those who do go to worship are getting older.  This is a part of trend that has been going on for a few decades but no one really wanted to acknowledge.  It affects all of what were known as the mainline Protestant traditions.  But even the Southern Baptists have posted declines for the past 10 years.  And while some of the evangelical mega-churches do well, they don’t make up for the loss of membership in all the congregations around them.  Fewer people are going to church.

                Now I have said this before.  I’ve heard it at many a synod meeting.  The problem is we don’t have a great response.  We are in this experimental phase of trying to figure out what we do next.  What is faithful?  What is sustainable?  Whatever it is, it probably won’t look like the church that I grew up with in the seventies or the church that many of you grew up in during the fifties.  The more we pine for and try to recreate that church, the more frustrated we will be.  More importantly, the more we idolize that period, that past, the further we get from the gospel.  Maybe we needed Jesus to come in and cleanse the Temple of the church past, pointing out its deficiencies, the way it taught religion without shaping faith, the way it substituted proper belief statements for a life of repentance.  And the question is, are we going to follow Jesus toward an unknown destination or are we going to wait for him to leave so we can set up our tables again?

                Christ Lutheran has always had a hard time figuring itself out.  I think this is partly because of the way the congregation started.  It began as a mission congregation for the military base, a base that would all but close within 10 years of the founding of the congregation.  But practically, because military life is rarely settled, most of the folks who started the congregation were gone within a few years.  I’ve met a few along the way, out visiting the Cape on vacation.  So there aren’t the charter members that often steer or renew a congregation’s mission.

                The closing of the base also still affects the life of the congregation.  You were started with a mission field and purpose.  Then that initial purpose closed.  And for 40 years you’ve sort of been asking “What now?”  And the answers to that question have been affected by the congregation that developed.  Most of you are retired and many of you like to travel and don’t want to be tied down to a ministry.  I remember some years ago a conversation around children’s ministry that was great until we got to the point of asking, “Who will teach?” because no one wanted to commit to a weekly task.  And I don’t blame you.  Many of you come from other congregations where you did that weekly work.  You attended the committee meetings and taught the Sunday school classes and served as council members in previous congregations.  And you came to this little church on Cape Cod saying, “I want to be one of those people I always complained about, the ones who just come and worship.”

                And to some extent I respect that.  I wish we could be a place where folks can just come and deepen and grow their faith.  I feel called to a ministry to help people with that process.  I wish we could clear the marketplace of councils and counters and committees.  I wish we could stop obsessing about Sunday schools that, for the most part, didn’t work, because if they worked we shouldn’t have seen the drop off in my generation or the generations that followed many of whom went to Sunday school.  I wish we could, as a church, get rid of the things that maybe used work but now have become clutter, the membership rules, the quorum calls.  Let the new rule be that if have enough interest to stay for a congregational meeting in the first place,  you get to vote. 

                Now some of that is wishful thinking, fueled by twenty years of dealing with congregations and committees and meetings and structures, and with me never having been wrong and clearly knowing what is best.  Honestly, I have always been torn about the structural ministries, those ministries that may not feel so deep or holy, but that also keep us grounded as a community.  We need someone to count the money not because anyone is dishonest but because it helps all of us be better stewards.  We need someone to take the minutes, not because we are making decisions of great historical import, but because it helps us move forward in mission to know where we have been and what we have said and why we said it.   And we need councils and quorum rules so that people who have never been wrong and clearly know what is best can learn patience and humility.

                We need those things and I challenge you as a community to take part in them, not just hope that someone else will do it for you.  At the same time, we cannot let those structures and procedures become stumbling blocks or distractions from the real work and calling of the church.  We need to carry out the basic functions so that we can live out our mission of serving through faith, being centered in Christ and guided by the Word. 

                And I think this both where we need to grow as a community and where the church at large needs to grow as it rediscovers and redefines itself.  We need to be cleaned out so that we can rediscover Christ as the center of who we are and what we do.  The cultural, northern European traditions around which many of our congregations gathered are not the center of who we are.  The liturgical rules which have shaped our worship are not the center of who we are.  The ministries that developed, while very important and built on and around that center, are not the center of who we are.

                Good worship is whatever draws us as back to Jesus as the center, whatever turns our attention back so that we become aware that as we look toward him he is already looking lovingly back at us.  And faithful service is what happens after that encounter, whatever that authentic encounter sends us out to do whether to go about our day with kindness, or feed hungry people, or advocate for peace and justice.

                What I have learned over 20 years of ministry is that we need to lay aside hopes of uniformity, that all Lutherans like the same Lutheran things, that there is a universal Christian life, and if we just figure out the rules it will all come together.  No, when we gather around the table, it is not the liturgy or building that binds us together; it is Christ himself that we encounter and who is central.  Whatever you do that deepens your life with Christ, do that more and tell people about it.  Share it with this community.  The things that inspire you may not inspire me and vice versa, but that is all right, because it might inspire someone else and the point is helping people encounter Christ.

                As I said before, we are in a period of change as the church, trying to decide who are and what is important.  May we center that process on Christ, knowing that without him we are just people in a fancy building, but with him we are the Church with good news for the world.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

February 25, 2018 - Second Sunday in Lent - On Self-denial

Our country has been in the midst of an obesity epidemic for a few years now.  As a whole, we continue to gain weight and are suffering the consequences of that weight gain both in terms of metabolic issues like Type 2 Diabetes and physical issues like increases in knee and back pain.  Almost every doctor I have spoken about on this gives a simple prescription: eat less and move more.  Burn more calories than you take in and you will lose weight.

                There are some nuances to this rule.  Eat too few calories and you can throw off your metabolism and your body will start to use muscle to fuel itself.  You will be losing weight but not the kind of weight you want to lose.  In general, however, if you eat 100 calories less than you burn each day, you will be about 10 pounds lighter at the end of the year.  If you eat 100 calories more than you burn each day, you will be about 10 pounds heavier at the end of the year.  The problem is that it is much easier to eat more calories than you need.  Some think our bodies are programmed to do this.  In terms of human history, it wasn’t that long ago when the typical human would go through cycles of feast and famine.  When you had easy access to food, you ate more because the time would come when food was scarce.  We live in a world of calorie-rich food and large portions.  A muffin and a latte from Dunkin will give you more than a quarter of the calories you need for the day.

                Enter the diet industry, with pills and shakes and prepared meals, trying to tell you that you should not have to sacrifice to lose this weight.  Think of the slogans you hear about losing weight without going to the gym; eat what you want and still lose weight.  Why wait a year to lose those pounds when you can do it in two weeks with our system?  There is nothing sexy or popular about advocating for self-control or self-denial and yet it is the simplest answer.

                On another front we have the crisis of debt.  Even among clergy, one of the biggest issues that is keeping young people out of ministry is that those young people are coming out of seminary carrying a large debt burden and then going to first calls where the level of pay doesn’t help them get out of that debt.  Now often this is not because they have been spending money unreasonably but reflects the cost of higher education.  But culturally, younger generations have the sense that debt is normal and appropriate.  How else are you going to get the things you want when you want them?  Why would you deny yourself nice things when you can pay it back over time?  And yet things continue to accumulate and debt continues to accumulate to the point where it becomes difficult to find a way out.

                Within Christianity, there has always been a value and virtue given to self-denial and self-control.  Many Christian teachers have used fasting and various types of abstinence as a form of self-denial, steps on the path of carrying the cross and follow Jesus.  Using our language from Meister Eckhart (“to be empty of things is to be full of God”), it is the virtue of saying “No” to things.  When we talk about the practice of fasting, whether for a meal or a day or saying “No” to a favorite food, we are working with self-denial.  When we talk about giving an offering, this is also a practice of self-denial.  Unfortunately, the way we are organized, the donations you give go to funding the organization so there can be expectations around that, but ideally when you give it is with sense that “I am giving this away.  I no longer control it.”  It’s supposed to be as close to a burnt offering as we can get without actually burning the offering.  Collectively we are saying “No” to things and “Yes” to God.

                For the Lutheran tradition, the danger of talking about self-denial is that it can turn into this talk of making God happy or at extremes earning something from God, ideas we would label as works righteousness, God’s love dependent on the things we do.  As I have been saying all through this talk of discipleship, this isn’t about earning something but rather is a mode of living that Jesus gives us as a gift.  The ability to say, “No” to things, even things that you like, is empowering and liberating.  For those participating in the “Get Rid of It” challenge, I hope you are experiencing some moments of freedom.  In a couple weeks (March 18) we are going to have mini-retreat after worship with the theme, “How do I simplify my life?”  I can give you the summary right now in two letters and an exclamation point, “NO!”  saying “No” to the things that distract us from health, things that distract us from what really matters,  things that distract us from joy, things that distract us from God.

                This is not easy work.  We have patterns and habits and learned behaviors.   Try abstaining from something you do every day.  Try driving by the coffee shop that you stop in every day.  Often there is a little bit of tension that you can feel when you choose to say “No” to yourself.  It is much easier to start a new habit than it is to break an old one.

                The good news of grace in Christ is that the love of God in not dependent on our perfection, rather, through Christ we are made perfect in God’s sight.  This gives us the freedom to fall short, to mess up, to try and try again.  Oftentimes self-denial leads to frustration, the guilt of the donut when you swore off donuts, the weakness of one more cigarette in a time of stress.  Why can’t I control myself?  Why am I so weak?  Unfortunately, our brains are wired to be habit-forming.  You eat a cookie.  You get a little shot of dopamine, recognition of pleasure.  Do that enough and your brain realizes, “Cookies are fun.”  Then when you deny yourself cookies, your brain, which enjoys pleasure, thinks you are being stupid and tells you by stressing you out a little bit, pinging you with the cookie thought.  Often times if you abstain long enough, the association weakens because something more interesting comes along to distract you.  For many people with strong substance-addictions, the association never quite goes away.  They know they are one drink or one hit away from falling down a deep well of addiction.

                The good news is that in spite of our shortfalls, the love of God continues to support us.  The love of God does not disappear because we fail or don’t measure up to where we think we should be.  The love of God sustains us in the pitfalls, deep wells and slipups of life.  The love of God sustains us as we learn the freedom of self-denial.

                In spite of what the world tells you, do not be afraid to deny yourself.  There is great freedom in it.  Start with something small.  Desserts for a week.  Chocolate for Lent.  The things you want but do not need for a time.  There is freedom in saying, “No!”

                At the same time, do not be afraid of failing that goal, of slipping up or giving in.  There is grace in this cross of Christ.  There is grace that helps us move on and try again.  There is freedom in saying “No!” but we have that freedom because God has said “Yes!”  Saying “No” to yourself is another way of turning our attention back to the beautiful and magnificent “Yes” of God.