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.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

August 19, 2018 - Sabbath and Faithfulness


Today, I am going to talk about Sabbath, as it relates to the virtue of loyalty and faithfulness.  Unfortunately the readings for today don’t really talk about the idea of Sabbath specifically.  We have the beautiful image of Wisdom in Proverbs, inviting us to partake in her feast.  We have the author of Ephesians calling the church to wisdom and finding that wisdom in community.  We have Jesus again offering himself, his flesh, as the bread of life in the gospel.

                That sets us up to talk about the Sabbath as we observe it in worship, the community gathers, we hear the Word of wisdom and we take part in Christ’s holy meal.  Yet the Sabbath is supposed to be more than an hour or so of organized worship.  Sabbath in its origins is supposed to be a day of freedom set aside from the rest of the week.  This is where the concept of loyalty comes into play.

                The Sabbath was a day that was given to Israel as both a gift and a sign of freedom.  No one was supposed to make anyone work in Israel.  It was also a sign of loyalty for Israel, not everybody in the world observed a day of rest.  It was unusual that people didn’t work or at the very least make their slaves or staff work for them for a day.  It was unusual that trade was not conducted for a day.  In Israel everybody is supposed to rest: animals, slaves, servants, foreigners.  In fact, there were some groups that took Sabbath so seriously in ancient Israel that, even if attacked, they would not defend themselves.  Many other groups thought those groups were foolish, but the point is Sabbath was taken very seriously.

                This is where, as I said last week, loyalty and love need to go hand in hand.  Because it is very easy to take a day that is supposed to be a gift and turn it into a punishment.  It is easier to look at the Sabbath in a very legalistic way and say, “We are going to do nothing but worship and study.”  And anyone who does anything else is bad. 

                There are already some exceptions to the rule built into the Sabbath law.  You can feed your animals.  You can save somebody’s life.  You can pull out an ox stuck in a ditch.  Even from the beginning there is a sense that the Sabbath is about promoting life and rest.  You don’t make your animals; you don’t make other people, suffer so that you can rest.  In modern Israel where most businesses closed on Saturdays,  there are exceptions from the Sabbath for those who serve in the military and for firefighters, because defense and emergency services are seen as preserving life for the larger community. 

                Jesus expands this sense in the way he treats the Sabbath because he gets in trouble for healing people on the Sabbath, but these are non-emergency cases, people who would have been fine for another day.  So now the Sabbath becomes not only about preserving life, but about filling people with life.

                That brings us to the church and our worship.  Although there are a few groups like the Seventh-Day Adventists, who insist that true Sabbath observance belongs on the historical Sabbath, Saturday, most Christians worship and observe a Sabbath on Sunday morning.  The New England Puritans didn’t lock you in the stocks for resting on Saturday but for playing on Sunday.  Sunday became our important day because it is the day of resurrection, so every Sunday becomes an echo of Easter.  It also became our day as early Christians tried to differentiate themselves from their Jewish origins.  In the first couple of centuries of Christianity there was this debate that we can see in Paul’s letters about whether Christians were Jewish people following the Messiah and still under Jewish law or whether Christianity was related but something different.  At the same time, Jewish people were trying to establish the idea that Christians were not Jewish, trying to separate historical Judaism from this new thing, this aberration that was happening.  Eventually that became Jews observed Saturday and Christians observed Sunday.  In those early centuries, both groups were seen as unusual and both groups were seen as suspect because what they did and the way they observed their religions was different from everybody else.

                There is something that has changed in our culture and we need to be aware of it and get comfortable with idea.  In the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine, declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire.  That means that for the past 17 centuries or so, Christian religious practice was normal.  Part of being acceptable and seen as an upstanding citizen in Europe and then the United States was Christian religious practice.  You may not have believed everything the pastor was saying.  In the United States, churches were unofficially (and sometimes officially) segregated.  They were often a reflection of class.  Certain groups both racially and economically, went to certain churches.  But you were there or you had an affiliation somewhere.

                We have entered an era where Sabbath observance is unusual again.  It is socially acceptable not to be involved.  In fact, in our context in New England, it is increasingly unusual to be involved.  Now some will say, “But what about the megachurches?”  They have grown in this time, but their gains don’t make up for the losses of all the other smaller churches.

                I’ve talked with many of you over the years as you have dealt with the fact that your kids or your grandkids don’t go to church.  It used to be people upset about their kids not going to a Lutheran church but now it’s just that they don’t go anywhere.  And I know there is some sadness about that as well as some guilt, wondering what I did wrong as a parent or what did I miss that the next generation stopped going. 

                Let me clear.  You cannot be held responsible for the lack of trust in institutions in general that came out of the 1960s.  You cannot be held responsible for the increase in individualism and self-centeredness that shaped my generation in the 1970s and 1980s.  You cannot be held responsible for the conservative Christianity of the 1990s that made people feel like religion or science was an either/or choice.  You cannot be held responsible for the new shape of community and communication that has been growing through social media in the 2000s.  Those are the kinds of forces that have brought us to where we are today.

                As the church in general, we can take some responsibility in admitting that we ignored those trends as well as warning signs that things were changing.  We can take some responsibility in acknowledging that we chose to be comforted when the world was changing rather than mission-oriented, missing the fact that younger generations, if they are looking for a spiritual practice they want to be inspired rather than comforted by the traditional.

                So how do we respond to all this?  First, we need to acknowledge that our practice is unusual and get comfortable with that idea.  Many of you grew up in a time when this was normal.  It‘s not anymore.  You may be angry about that.  You may be sad about that.  You may be sad about the missing people.  I tend to be sad about what people are missing.

                Second, each one of you needs to be clear as to why you are here.  You need an elevator speech to describe that to someone, not so you can beat your friends and relatives over the head with it, but so that you can share when it is appropriate.  We need to transition from the idea that when we talk about church and faith everyone knows what we are talking about  to it being something unusual that we do and here is why.  I am part of the church because I encounter the love of God in the gospel, in the community and in the meal and then I carry that with me for the week.  I go to church because Jesus has given me new life and I am grateful.  You can be a little self-centered.  I go to church because it helps me be a better person (be careful with that because it can sound a little judgmental, not better than you but better than who I was). I go to church because it calms me down.  I go to church because it lifts me up. 

                We can talk about spiritual practice without trying to make people feel guilty for not taking part.  Here is what I have experienced.  Here is why it is important to me.  Remember the Sabbath is not supposed to be about breaking people down, but building people up, restoring life.  The Sabbath is supposed to be a gift, like every gift of God.  We observe it out of devotion but we also observe it because it is good. 

                Finally, bringing us back to the beginning, we observe the Sabbath because it is wise.  Wisdom in the Bible doesn’t mean rational or logical.  Wisdom often reflects ideas that are beyond understanding but nevertheless are deeply true.  Wisdom deepens us.  Wisdom centers us.  Wisdom feeds us.  One of the most common reasons people walk away from faith is we want to pretend that faith is rational or logical when it is neither.  Faith is wise.  As Christians we waste our time if we are trying to be right because God is inviting us to be wise.  That wisdom is much more seen in how we live than what we say we believe.  Wisdom has invited you here today and wisdom will call to you next week.  Live that wisdom.  Share that wisdom.  It is good news.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

August 5, 2018 - Introduction to Faithfulness and Loyalty


This Sunday I am going to introduce the next virtue of discipleship that I will be talking about for a while, loyalty and faithfulness.  I will be talking about it for a while because this one is reflected in some of the traditional actions of discipleship, things like worship and prayer and study.  I also want to say that loyalty goes hand in hand with the virtue of love that I talked about earlier in the year.  As I have gone through life, I have found that faith has different phases.  There are times when, if someone were to ask me, “Why are you part of the church?” I would have given an answer that reflected God’s love for me or my love for God.  I am part of the church as a reflection of that relationship of love.  There are times when I would have an answer that reflected a sense of loyalty and devotion, “I am here because for whatever reason I trust I need to be here.”

                I think the church has been at its best when it holds those two ideas, love and faithfulness, in balance.  Faithfulness without love turns into legalism.  Love with faithfulness turns into good intentions.   There are many reasons for the downturn in church participation in Europe and the United States.  You can point to all sorts of factors: scandals and hypocrisy, the inability (or lack of desire) for traditional churches to be relevant to younger generations, the busyness of American society.  I am also interested in the ideas that have led us here and I think one major idea that has had unintended consequences was the move of talking primarily about love without a balance of loyalty.

                Now there was good reason to talk about love because for centuries we had been talking mostly about fear and guilt.  Even the Lutheran movement, founded on a theology of grace, reverted to a theology shaped by guilt, focusing on fallen humanity rather than loving God.  Why go to church? Because you will go to Hell if you don’t.  Why go to church?  The cross is the greatest sign of humanity’s wickedness.  If you really believed in Jesus, you would be there.  So if you are not there, you must not really believe.  Variations on a theme of guilt.

                So then we rediscovered this image of divine love and grace, the cross as the greatest sign of God’s love for us.  And the refrain was, “Remember God loves you no matter what.”  It is a beautiful idea and I think it is 100% true and should undergird whatever we do as the body of Christ.  But it also gave permission for people to not take part in things.  God loves me no matter so I don’t have to go to church and I don’t have to give and I don’t have to teach Sunday school or cook hot dishes or sell things at a yard sale.  The love of God really freed up my weekend.

                We focused on the “God loves you” idea and never answered the “So what?” question.  What does it mean that God loves you and how do you respond to that love?  This is where ideas of loyalty and faithfulness come in.  We can talk about responding with love, but that only takes us so far.  The Christian mystics have long known this.  I personally find deep meaning in contemplative prayer, the ancient prayer of sitting silently in the presence of God, but I know that it is a hard sell because to do it well takes a certain amount of discipline and practice.  Add to that challenge the fact that sometimes, even if you have been practicing for some time, the practice can feel dry, like you are just sitting there.  Some of the great figures in mystic Christianity like Teresa of Avila talk about dry patches in prayer and in faith.  Love doesn’t pull us through those; faithfulness, devotion, trust, loyalty, that is what pulls us through to the next season.

                Every Christian act of discipleship is like this.  If you decide that you want to read the Bible, you are going to read some fascinating and beautiful language and images.  You are also going to read some dry material, the results of census-taking among the Israelites.  You are going to read some odd material like what to do when you find mold in your house, which is call a priest (if it is reddish or greenish).  You are also going to read some troubling stories of violence, violence done in the name and at the request of God.  The love parts are easy reads, but encountering the whole text is a challenging act of devotion.

                In the same way the words of Jesus can only be digested so far by love alone.   The call to love our enemies is not pleasant, not something we do naturally, but only an act we might pursue because we trust that Jesus is not leading us the wrong way.  Think about this moment in John’s story where people seek a sign after the feeding of the 5000.  “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?”  Do something wonderful so we can continue to be amazed at you, be attracted to you.  Keep feeding us and you will make us very happy.  And Jesus offers what he always offers, himself.  “I am the bread of life.”

                Especially in John’s gospel, the signs, the miracles of Jesus are both a powerful witness to Jesus but also a stumbling block.  Jesus uses the signs as a means to point to who he is, but again and again, people get wrapped up in the signs themselves.  This bread of life stuff is interesting but what we really want is bread to eat.  We want the excitement of a miracle, not a long-term process or a path to walk.  We want to get caught up in the ecstasy right now (make us feel like we did at the seashore), rather than led on a path of calm and peace.

                I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with intense moments of faith and feeling, moments where one feels extremely close to God, deeply caught in the love of faith, but those moments come and go.  If faith is a constant part of our lives, then we have to be able to incorporate God into the regular parts.  We need to develop a faith that is loyal when times are great and when times are bad and when times are just times.

                Jesus wants to be present to us in all of those times.  That is the a sign not only of Christ’s love for us but also his fidelity toward us.  He is always present, even when we are not feeling fully present.  Christ is a constant even when we are inconsistent. 

                In some ways this is going to be the most challenging virtue to talk about because it is the one that is the most active when we are the least active.  It is the one that is grounded in habitual actions, where we move from worship as holy entertainment (trying to make us feel good) to worship as devotion, where we move from prayer being a special action to prayer being a constant attitude.  And we are a society that looks for the quick fix and intense experience, neglecting the fact that most of our lives are not intense and most of our hours are spent in the simple work of being.  Faith is realizing that God present in that regular time.

                Faithfulness is living with the knowledge that God is feeding us every meal, and every meal is a miracle, rather than looking for magical bread and fish moments.  Those moments will come now and then by the grace of God.  Faithfulness is nurturing the relationship that happens during the regular times that comprise most of our lives.

                God is always faithful to us, may we grow in faithfulness and loyalty to God.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

July 29, 2018 - Loaves and Fish and Making Something Beautiful


I have been the pastor at Christ Lutheran Church for ten years, during a time of general decline I the Lutheran Church.  I have struggled mightily with that reality.  I was led into ministry by a love for God, a love for mystery, a love for connecting to that something larger that seems to be a common experience though taking many names.  As I have grown in my own faith, what I have discovered is that the nature of that mystery is love.  It is a love we experience in many ways, as friends, as spouses, as lovers, as servants, as caregivers, as parents.  It is a love that fills this place when we gather, a love found in a holy bath, a love found in, with and under the bread and wine, a love found on a painful cross and an empty tomb.  This love of God is amazing; available to all.  And yet as a society, it seems like we want to close ourselves from it, more concerned with having more than having love; more concerned with being safe than having love; more concerned with being right than having love

                And while that love can and should inspire a love (and not obsession) for ourselves, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, for the church to be the church, that love has to extend beyond us.  In terms of justice, it needs to extend beyond us to those who are left out and left behind by society.  In terms of compassion, it needs to extend to every single person that we meet.   As the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Church is only the Church when it exists for others.”

                We know the story of the feeding of the 5000.  It is one of the few stories that appears in all four gospels.  Mark tells two stories, a feeding of 5000 and a feeding of 4000, which is quite a lot of feeding for the shortest of the gospel texts.  The crowds follow Jesus and the disciples into the wilderness, and the disciples are confounded.  How are we going to feed all these people with just the little bit of food that we have?  I think there is an underlying question, one that they don’t want to say out loud.  How are we going to take care of ourselves if we try to feed these people?

                This is a question I hear in many congregations these days.  It was question underlying many conversations at synod assembly.  It will be a question that shapes our budget discussions.  It is an idea that undergirds the sighs and silences that follow the presentation of many a grand outreach plan.  The church keeps talking about reaching out.  Pastors keep preaching about looking outward.  But how can we feed others and still be fed?  It is a practical question.  How can you do the outreach if you don’t have a church?

                If you look at the way most congregations do financial planning, the assumption is that first we need to take care of ourselves.  First, we need a building.  Then we a need a pastor.  Then we need music.  Then we need bulletins.  Then we need coffee.  And after we feed ourselves, we can see what is left over for synod benevolence and for ministry.  First we invest in our Sunday morning needs, then we see what is left over.   Now some will say that investing in Sunday morning is outreach.  It’s a win-win.  We feed ourselves and attract others.  That may have been the case at one time, but we can no longer count on Sunday morning as we have traditionally done Sunday morning being attractive, or more attractive than shopping or sporting events or sleeping in and a big breakfast with your family.  I will admit, last Sunday I watch the sun rise over a mountain valley in California, then I went to brunch with my Mom and my brother and his wife at a nice restaurant.  I hadn’t been to a proper brunch in years.  It was a very nice morning.

                First, let me acknowledge that I am part of the problem.  It is a big financial commitment to have a pastor, ever since we stopped accepting eggs as payment.  Second, let me acknowledge that I don’t have a great, 5-point plan to renew the church.  Many pastors feel like they are swimming upstream or maybe caught in a rip tide.  I grew up in this way of being church.  I was trained in it.  I always assumed that the point of the church is to somehow get people to be part of Sunday morning and then ministry would flow from that experience.  That’s how we know we are doing it right, when people are there on Sunday morning.

                And Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish, in this story the offering of a child, and feeds a multitude, a multitude who in coming weeks we will learn is not going to get it right, will try to make Jesus king, who will accept his magic bread but will not accept the bread that is him.  Yet he feeds them anyway, taking what should have belonged to his closest associates and sending it out.  We don’t know how it happened, whether it was a miracle that broke the law of conservation of matter or a miracle of open hearts moved to share.  The point is that there was enough for people to be satisfied and enough left over for the disciples.  Everyone ate and was satisfied and there was plenty left over.

                I have said before, every congregation I have worked with has had enough resources to do its ministry.  It’s just poorly distributed.    In most congregations, we have a self-centered generosity, that is, we will give much more if we think something will be taken away, if there is the possibility that our favorite part of the experience will be taken away.  If we seek funds for the Upper Cape Chaplaincy or Disaster Appeal, there is some level of generosity (and know I am grateful for it), but if we might have to scale back on music or the property is in trouble, we are suddenly able to dig a bit deeper.  Then we feel good about ourselves because we took care of it; we handled that emergency.  Yet what if we gave a bit more than we expected of ourselves, gave more than what we think our fair share would be, gave in a way that supported ministry beyond the walls, beyond Sunday morning.

                What if we threw a few more loaves of bread in the basket; took the risk of maybe not being fed as much so that others could eat?   What if we, and I know you are going to get sick of me saying it, used all of our gifts as the body of Christ, but I am going to say it anyway, to make something beautiful?  Not for us, or not for us alone, but for others.

                Here is what I propose.  Now I know the summer is not a time to try to introduce much.  There will always be something else going on.  If I propose a date, there will be a chorus of people, myself of included, who cannot make it.  So when we get to September (on a date to be determined because I was thinking about this on the plane from California), I will feed anyone who wants to come, and we will gather for lunch to start making something beautiful.  I don’t know what it is.  The group that gathers, gathering in prayer, seeking inspiration by the Spirit will figure it out.  Let’s gather and see what happens.    Let’s offer the loaves and fishes of our lives and see what God produces.

                And just one more time for good measure, this is not a strategy.  This is not a 5-point plan.  This is not a 7-step process nor is it a habit of highly effective people.  Some might call it an experiment, but I want to call it play.  Remember, the disciples, and I’m sure any of the crowd that was close enough to hear, thought the plan of Jesus was foolish, that it makes no sense not to take care of themselves, to risk going hungry.  I say that the simple act of generosity was a thing of beauty, and that act in turn made something beautiful happen, the crowds fed, the baskets collected, and everyone was satisfied.

                So come join me as we pray, eat and dream together.  Let us offer our loaves and fishes and make something beautiful together.

July 15, 2018 - John the Baptist and the Walk of Faith


On the one hand, I dislike it when the story of the death on John the Baptist comes up because it is an awkward story to preach about.  Our traditional gospel reading response, “Praise to You, O Christ,” seems a bit out of place.  We end the story with people passing John’s head around and the rest of him lying in a tomb.  Praise to you, O Christ.  Seems like it would be better to have a good awkward pause instead.

                On the other hand, I like it when this story comes up in Mark because it is a great illustration of a technique that Mark uses in his narrative, sometimes referred to as the “Markan sandwich”.  This is where Mark interrupts the flow of the story by inserting another story which often serves as a commentary on the story it is interrupting.  Two weeks ago we had the story of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue whose daughter was dying.  When he asks Jesus for help, Jesus starts off to his house.  On the way, a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touches him and is healed and we have a little commentary on healing and faith.  Then Jesus gets to Jairus’ house and raises his daughter back to life.  Markan sandwich.

                The death of John the Baptist that we heard today is the filling of a sandwich.  The first piece of bread of that sandwich involves a story we heard last week.  The disciples are sent out two by two with authority to cast out demons, heal and proclaim.  Right after the story of John’s death, the narrative picks up with, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.”  They go out to the wilderness to rest, end up followed by crowds and you have the feeding of the 5000.  Some will see this sandwich as a commentary on authority.  Divine authority heals and feeds, represented by Jesus and the disciples.  Worldly authority, represented by Herod and Herodias, destroys.

                Others will say that this is commentary on proclaiming the eternal reign of God.  This is the fly in the ointment of any tradition that talks about success or prosperity through faithful living.  John begins his story as both faithful and successful.  All the people are coming out to see him and be baptized in the Jordan.  But eventually that faithfulness leads him into conflict with other authorities.  Eventually his success leads to his head on a platter. 

                At this point in the story, the disciples are having success and look pretty faithful, but we know where this road is going to lead.  John’s death is inserted as a foreshadowing of what is coming down the path, a big “Danger Ahead” sign.  This road will lead to the cross.  Now you might argue that the cross then leads to resurrection so this road actually leads to resurrection.  I won’t deny that, but I would also challenge you and say, “You don’t get to skip the cross on the way to resurrection.”  The road Jesus shows us is not that things get better and better and better and then you jump into heaven.  The road takes us through the valley of the shadow of death and unless we are willing to walk through that valley in faith, we cannot expect to reach the ultimate destination of life.  The Christian vision is life through death.  It is strength through weakness.  The reign of God does not come easily into the world and those who truly proclaim it often suffer for it.

                Today we heard the words of the prophet Amos and a short story about his conflict with the religious professionals of the northern kingdom of Israel who told him to go home.  An apocryphal story tells of his eventual death at the hands of Amaziah, the priest of the northern kingdom.  According to one source, the prophet Isaiah was sawed in two by the king of Israel.  According to the book named after him, Jeremiah was for a time left in a muddy cistern to die by some who were offended by his words, only rescued when the king needed him.  With the exception of John, all of the disciples are remembered as dying at the hands of others, sometimes by angering local religious leaders and sometimes by coming into conflict with other authorities.  The apostle Paul spent a good chunk of his time in prison or under house arrest, eventually beheaded in Rome.

                But we live in more enlightened times we might say.  Yet there is still a solid list of folks who have suffered and died for witnessing to the kingdom of God.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian, died in a concentration camp, an enemy of the Nazi state.  Archbishop Oscar Romero, a champion of the poor, was murdered in the midst of worship in El Salvador .  Martin Luther King, a champion of both equality and an end to poverty, was assassinated at his hotel room in Memphis.

                The gospel message does not bypass the cross.  As Jesus said, “Whoever wants to follow me must take up his cross and follow me.”  The gospel message takes away the fear of the cross by taking away the deadly power of the cross.  Because resurrection is beyond the cross, because real life begins after the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear that valley.  We can witness to the kingdom of God which does not fit easily into the world.  We can stand with those whom society rejects.  We can respond to hatred with a message of joy.  We can respond to exclusion with crazy hospitality.  And while the rest of the world gets wrapped up in fear and anger, we can proclaim peace.  While the rest of world divides itself into winners and losers, we can proclaim equality.  While the rest of world turns itself inside-out trying to figure out who has what and if I have mine, we can share what we have.  While the rest of world speaks of the power of walls and weapons, we can make something beautiful.

                I have hit that point again, that call to beauty.  But that is where the good news leads us.  Because of Jesus, we look to the cross, which was once a symbol of hate and fear, and we find beauty.  We celebrate these lives that could, in some circles, be declared losers.  John the Baptist ends the story with his head on a platter.  That sounds like he lost and Herod won.  Yet in the beautiful mathematics of the cross, we declare John the victor as the one who lived his faith to its conclusion.

                The word “martyr” comes from an ancient Greek word that simply means, “a witness.”  At the end of the gospel of Luke, after the resurrection, Jesus speaks to his disciples and says, “You are witnesses of these things.”  You are martyrs, not because you die for the faith (though most of them will), but because you are empowered to show the world, be witnesses of the good news. 

                You all are called to be martyrs, and again I am not saying that you should go get yourself killed.  You are called to be witnesses of the good news.  You are called to be witnesses of the beauty of the kingdom of God.  With your lives, with your every breath, you are called to be witnesses to the love that God has brought into the world.  And thankfully, we do live in a country and a society where we can generally live our faith without fear of punishment, and that is all the more reason that we should live our faith.

                You don’t have to be a Bible scholar who can win all the arguments.  If you like studying theology, beautiful, do it.  Yet far more powerful is the simple act of being kind and loving to as many people as you meet in a day.  Far more powerful is actively seeking to treat all people as beloved children of God.  Because of the cross, you don’t have to win because the most important victory has already been won.  I have had several people over the years tell me that faith is a waste of time that doesn’t make sense.  When I was younger that used to tick me off and sometimes I would argue, which never worked because we were always speaking past one another.  In part it is because I am a terrible apologetic who ends up agreeing with many of the arguments of those who criticize faith.  I have never been a literalist and so when people poke holes at the biblical accounts of things, I often agree and don’t get me started about the two deaths of Judas.  “Faith is not rational,” they say.  “I know,” I say.  Christians have done terrible things in the name of Christ.  “I agree,” I say, and then try to talk about wonderful things Christians have done in the name of Christ, that religion doesn’t have to be a pit of judgmentalism and holier-than-thou-ness.

                Now I know that my faith is not based on being right in a way I can prove; my faith is based on being loved which is an amazing freedom.  Faith is never going to be something that you prove; faith is something you live and see lived.  We need to get past the point of converting and simply be inviting.  Witness to this beautiful love.  Invite people to see it with you.  Invite people into the beautiful vision that is the kingdom of God.  The reign of God does not fit easily into this world.  Yet we are called to witness to its power.  We are called to witness to its beauty.  We are called to witness to its love.