Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Eve - Jesus the loser for losers like you

As we come to the end of 2016 it is hard to escape that various political candidates vying for our attention.  One candidate in particular has built his campaign on the idea that he is a winner and the other candidates are losers.  America doesn’t need losers in charge.  America doesn’t like losers.  We like winners.  We are attracted to people who win.  You can have a humble beginning.  That’s fine.  We love the story of the humble person who rises to greatness.  We love entrepreneurs and tech giants who started out in a basement or a garage.  We love it so much that sometimes candidates have to backpedal to escape the often privileged upbringings that allowed them access to their station in life.  It is a lot easier to know that a winner is a winner and a loser is a loser.  It is a lot easier to divide the world into winners and losers.

                The Christian story would be quite different if it were a story of humble beginnings that leads to greatness.  In fact, that’s how we would like the story to be and how some Christians like to tell it.  Jesus is a winner and if you get on Jesus’ team, you are a winner too.  The Bethlehem stable is the humble beginning that grows into greatness.
             The problem is that Jesus is a loser.  He shouldn’t have been.  He was from the family line of David, one of the greatest kings of Israel.  His birth is foretold by divine messengers.  The very heavens sing out on the night of his birth.  Yet if you are judged by the company you keep, Jesus is a loser.  His family can’t find room in Bethlehem.  That seems like a small detail but keep in mind that this is a society where hospitality is huge.  Joseph goes to his home town which means the town of his birth and probably his family.  And yet no one can provide them shelter?  Maybe it is this scandalous pregnancy that sends them to the stable.  His parents appear to be losers.
              And yes the angels do appear in the sky but not to the important people.  They appear to shepherds in the fields, shepherds who were social outcasts, not among the nice and proper people, certainly not among the powerful people, certainly not among the winners.  The first people who hear of the birth and attend to the child are losers.
             Now as the story goes, the child grows and begins to do some pretty amazing things, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry.  He could well be on the path to greatness.  He could turn the story around.  It is okay to start out a loser if you then turn into a winner.  But he keeps doing these amazing things with the wrong people.  He touches the unclean.  He consorts with the prostitute, the tax collector and various, generic sinners.  The son of God comes to earth and he wants to hang out with losers.
              He even teaches people about the importance of being a loser.  “Whoever tries to win his life will lose it, but those who lose their life will win it.”  Now not only does he want to hang out with losers, he wants us to be losers.
             The good news is that we don’t have to try that hard.  We already are losers.  I don’t mean that we fail at everything we try or that we are too wrapped up in Star Wars or Game of Thrones.  I mean that we are not living the life that God hopes and means and wants for us.  I am not talking about a life shaped by following religious rules, I mean lives that are open to God at work around us; lives that find the divine in the ordinary; lives that find God’s abundant presence, love and hope at all times and in all circumstances.  We are already losers.  The challenge for us is to admit it. 
          I am a loser.  I worry about silly things.  I have to admit that I waste too much precious time in front of many and various screens.  I struggle to eat healthy things and take care of this body that is God’s gift.  I sometimes get irritated when I should be patient and am sometimes too patient when I should get irritated.  I am a loser.  I am imperfect.  I have things to learn and parts of my life that need to  grow and parts of my life that need to be pruned.  I am a loser.
       What we are celebrating tonight is not just that Jesus came to be among us but that Jesus came to be among us as a loser.  He was born a loser to be among losers.  He was born a loser to be the savior for losers.  He was born a loser; he lives among losers; he dies a loser.  But then as the story arc unfolds it turns out that God can turn loss into victory and losers into a whole different category of winner.

                So I have an important question to ask you.  Are you a loser?  Now there might still be some hesitation because you know people who are real losers and you are not one of them.  And how would it feel on this sacred, family night to admit to your spouse or your child or your parent that you are a loser?  (Your spouse probably already knows it and puts up with it and your children, if they are over the age of 10, they definitely know it) So embrace it.  Celebrate it.  This sacred night let me tell you that  Jesus came for a loser like you.

               If you are a winner, this night means nothing.  It’s pretty; it’s fun but it isn’t necessary.  If you are a loser; this Christmas night means something.  This night means that it is okay to be who you are.  This night means that you are loved as you are.  So I invite you to raise your hand if you are a loser.

                This night is for you.  This child is for you.  Merry Christmas you glorious band of losers!

Monday, December 21, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent, 2015 - Hope for the World

Mary sings a song of hope.  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  It is a song of celebration but also tinged with God’s vision for the world, a vision that you are not going to hear in a political debate.  Sure, all the candidates who want to cater to the Christian vote would also say, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” but they are probably not going to sing about a God who has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”  They might hesitate to sing of a God whose vision it is to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.  Mary’s hope is a hope that sings out of oppression and sings out of poverty.

                So how does that hope spread out into the world through congregations that are situated in one of the wealthiest countries in the world?  As we began the season of Advent, I talked about how the promise of Christ comes to us as hope in our individual lives.  I am hopeful that you have been meditating or at least encountering Julian of Norwich’s summary of the good news, “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”  But that hope is not meant to stay with us; it is meant to go out as we live as disciples in the world.  How do we do that?

                I am going to share two answers to that question today.  The first is a nuts and bolts answer and you may not like it depending on your relationship with money.  One of the ways we share hope today is through sharing our financial gifts.  People often complain about churches and charities that are always asking for money.  On the world scene, our money is one of the most hope-producing things we can share.  One of most common concerns that I hear is that when you give money you don’t know how it will be used.  If you send a t-shirt to a foreign country, there is a limited way in which it can be used.  It might become someone’s cleaning rag.  It might become someone’s wardrobe.  It might be part of someone’s quilt.

                In my first call in Central Pennsylvania there was a tradition of loading a cargo container with clothing, building materials and tools and educational supplies to be sent to the Lutheran churches of Liberia in West Africa.  It was a great opportunity because the synod wasn’t that big geographically, just about every church was within an hour of the synod office in Lewisburg.  Congregations could gather collections and drive them to the container parked at the synod office.  They stopped a few years ago due to the civil wars in the region.  For a long time, the congregations and bishop of the church in Liberia had been asking for money rather than supplies.  Sometimes we Pennsylvania Lutherans would get a bit snooty and paternalistic.  They just want our money and don’t appreciate our gifts.  They did appreciate and used the gifts from the synod, but if they had been given money instead of physical gifts, it would save both the cost of shipping the container, but also allow the local congregations to stimulate their local economies by purchasing similar supplies in Africa.

                A similar story can be found if you look at the literature for the kits that we have sometimes done for Church World Service.  They tell you how to make and prepare the kits.  They appreciate the kits because often in disaster situations, local supply chains are broken, but they also try to share the benefit of financial giving where money can be used to help local vendors and stimulate local economies.  I’m not trying to give an economics course so I’m going to stop here but simply to say that one of the major ways that we can share hope in a hurting world is through our financial generosity.  One of the ways we spread the hope of the gospel is through our financial giving.  And we are going to talk some more about generosity as it pertains to discipleship in January.

                The second major way that we can share hope with the world brings us back to the beginning of Advent.  When you are convinced that all will be well in all circumstances, then you can step out into the world and seek to make things well for others.   Remember that saying, “All will be well” does not mean everything will be perfect from your point of view.  You may get sick and all will be well.  You may be put in danger and all will be well. 

                Many of the discussions on national safety today are shaped by fear.  There is an attack in California and suddenly people feel more comfortable with labeling all Muslims as the problem, a billion people as a potential threat, language that hearkens back to some of the most embarrassing and shameful moments in American history.  At the same time, there is an upsurge in gun purchases, some in hopes of protection, some probably in fear of 2nd amendment restrictions.  There is a feeling of vulnerability, that the enemy is already among us.  We see that fear expressed in harsh words, short tempers, easy solutions and the search for scapegoats

                I am not going to talk about our government’s response to terror.  The Lutheran understanding of government is that it has specific responsibilities which probably will not gel with a Christian response.  At different points, Martin Luther was not sure that a true Christian could be an effective governor or ruler because Christians are supposed to forgive, turn the other cheek and love their enemies, things that political rulers cannot always do in our world and be considered effective.

                So a specifically Christian response to terror will not involve creating more fear and more violence.  The “What would Jesus do?” question will not lead to a gun license nor will it lead to the exclusion of any one people.  It will lead to love.  If the enemy is already among us, what are we supposed to do but love our enemies?  And if you don’t know who the enemy is then you have to love everybody.  It is through acts of love and hope that we work against terror.   It is through establishing peace in our own lives, being reconciled with those around us, that we work against terror.  It is through treating people with respect, equality and justice that we as the church can work against terror.

                And some might hear this and say, “But won’t that leave us vulnerable?,” to which I have to say, “Welcome to Christianity.” This is where living as disciples becomes critical if Christianity will have any kind of voice today.  Many people want to coopt the Christian message and turn it something that it is not, a message that supports war and bigotry and racism, a message that keeps us nice, safe and secure in a middle-class life.  The Christian life is all about being vulnerable.  Jesus was vulnerable.  He allowed himself to be vulnerable even to death on the cross.  This is the message of the cross that we don’t want to hear and that many have considered foolishness.  Jesus allowed himself to be vulnerable because he knew more than any other person has ever known, that all would be well.

                All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.  We began the Advent season with those words of Julian of Norwich and we will end there also.  Hope is why we do what we do and why we are who we are.  Hope is what God has shown us in Jesus.  But we need to keep reminding ourselves of that hope because it is so easy to forget it, so many competitors offering false hope and cheap grace.  May we be a community centered on the hope of Christ and may we share with the community and the world that all will be well.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

3rd Sunday of Advent, 2015 - Hope in the Community

                Around the year 250 and lasting for 15 years, a terrible epidemic spread through the Roman empire.  At its height it is believed to have killed 5000 people a day around the city of Rome.  It is estimated that a quarter to a third of the population of the Roman empire died from the virus.  Yet it is also believed that this period was an important moment within the early church.  It was a time when Christians began to stick out as more than a group that didn’t worship many gods.

                While the wealthy people of Rome fled the cities for the country (they knew that the best cure for the plague was to avoid those who had it), Christians were known to stay put.  They cared for one another, providing comfort, bathing the sick and burying the dead.  They used church funds to purchase food for Christians and non-Christians.  They paid for the burial of non-Christians who died in poverty.  These simple actions saved lives as well as slowing the epidemic in Christian communities.  The love that Christians showed one another and the community helped people begin to see Christianity as a positive influence in society.

                Hope comes to us as individuals, touched by the promise of life in Christ.  We gather as a community of faith, reminding one another and reaffirming that hope together.  But if it stops there, we miss the point of hope and faith and love.  Hope expands.  Hope is meant to go out.  Hope is fulfilled by our sharing it.  If it stays in here, hope is just a comforting idea.  If it goes out, it is a life-changing force in the community.

                Hope is what houses people.  Hope is what feeds people.  Hope is what employs people.  Hope is what stands up to the abuse of power.  Hope is what stares down the racist, the anti-Semite, the anti-Muslim.  Hope is what finds a neighbor in a stranger.  Hope is what gives us that sliver of possibility of loving our enemies.

                The church’s approach to sharing this hope has changed over the years.  For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, local congregations were the go to organizations for hunger relief and poverty relief.  Local congregations established food banks and shelters.  As I mentioned in a previous sermon, the Sunday school movement began as a means for local congregations to provide a basic education to children before child labor laws went into effect.

                More recently, local congregations have been less involved in founding social service organizations as they have with partnering with non-profit groups.  It turns out that the Falmouth Service Center can do a better job at feeding hungry people than any one congregation can trying to it by itself or even several congregations each running their own hunger relief program.  Habitat for Humanity can do a better job at working with housing than most congregations can.  It is because they have a narrow focus; aren’t trying to organize worship and music programs.  They aren’t trying to write sermons.  They aren’t trying to do children’s education programs.  They may do some education programs.  For instance the service center does budget and nutrition workshops but those fall under their broader mission of improving the quality of life for people in need.

                Ascentria Care Alliance, which used to be called Lutheran Social Services of New England, began as a joint effort of congregations to provide adoption services.  The service part continued to grow to point where it was too big for congregations to handle.  It became its own non-profit organization, relating to congregations (especially those near its programs) but formally affiliated with none.

                So where does that leave local churches if the next big social outreach program probably won’t come out of an outreach team meeting?  First, I think and hope that our congregation will continue to think about ways of reaching out in small ways.  The stress relief kits for the high school are one way we are reaching out to the community.  The hospital pillow ministry, which is wrapping up, is another way we have done this kind of work.  The Christmas gift drive for the Cape Cod Council of churches is another example of a simple way our congregation can help others.  And we should continue to think and do this work as a community of faith.

                More importantly, I want to remind of you of our story of John the Baptist.  He tells people to repent in good, wild, holy man fashion and the people ask, “What then should we do?”  I find it fascinating that in Luke the call to repentance (a changed life or changed way of looking at the world) doesn’t involve saying, “I’m sorry,” but first is a general call to share.  If you have two coats, share one.  If you have extra food share it.  Then specific people come to him, tax collectors and soldiers and he tells them not to take advantage of their positions as people with authority.  Do your jobs fairly and be satisfied.

                How do you prepare for the Messiah?  Live out your faith in your daily life, everyone according to your situation.  Sometimes in congregations, because we are used to the model that the congregation will provide the opportunities for social outreach, we hold back our service until, “Christ Lutheran presents…a food bank.” Or “Christ Lutheran presents…Pillow-palooza.”  We wait for the two-fer, doing something that helps other people and promotes the congregation.  There is nothing wrong with the two-fer but I would encourage you to think a bit more broadly.  Wherever you see God at work, go there and serve.  Wherever you see God is active, go there and be active with God, whether it is a different congregation that is doing something important, whether it is a specifically Christian organization, whether non-Christian religious organization, whether it is a non-religious organization.  Go be part of what God is doing.

                As a pastor, I am more interested in being a place that produces people who are regularly offering their time and money to places where God is at work than being a place that can produce a bunch of people for a one-time event.  I would rather have 5 or 6 people regularly volunteering at the service center than 30 for a Christ Lutheran day at the service center.  To be clear, it is not that one is good and one is bad, both can be helpful, but one represents lives that are incorporating serving others as a regular part of life and one represents service as a special event.  The life of discipleship would push us toward serving others, spreading the hope of Christ, as something we do because it is who we are and it is the right thing to do.

                I also want to make a special note about children and children’s ministry.  Every congregation says that children are important.  I think that in this day and age, if children are important to us, we need to be in the schools, whatever your community because we represent several school systems.  I know that in Falmouth, the elementary schools are looking for mentors.  Talk to any school office and they can find something for you to do.  I was speaking to Mary Gans, the high school principal, they are looking for volunteers to help students who come from families without college experience to help them through the application process.  Whether or not it is explicitly religious, it is bringing hope and sharing hope and living hope out of the church and into the world.  That is where Jesus pushes us and calls us.

                As I have said before, in the past the goal of most local congregations was to get people in.  It’s still often the way we talk about church.  That’s how you measure success; that’s how you measure the church.  Yet Jesus is always sending us out to live this faith and share this hope in the community.  So I encourage you to think about, whatever your situation, how you will live out that hope this afternoon, tomorrow, with your family, with your friends, in the community.  Hope comes to us as individuals.  Hope gathers us as a community of faith.  But then hope sends us out; the good news sends us out; Jesus sends us out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2015 - Hope and the Congregation

Last week I began Advent talking about hope and the importance of hope touching us as individuals.  Much of American Christianity is focused on the individual, especially those communities that emphasize personal choice as the way of salvation and personal morality as the focus of Christian life.  Faith does begin with the individual and touches the individual.  As Luther discussed in the Small Catechism, concerning the preparation for taking communion, part of the proper understanding is knowing that the sacrament is “for the forgiveness of sins” and “for you.”

                But one of the weaknesses of modern Christianity is a tendency to stop at the individual and fail to see how that very personal gift sends us out into the community.  We have hope because of God’s action in Christ.  But as we gather together as a community of faith we are called to be hope for the world.  Over the next three weeks I’m going to talk about the expanding circles of hope that ripple out from the gift of hope in Christ.

                Today we start with hope and the local congregation.  Now, as I mentioned last week, I have attended many a synod meeting and that wanted to help us understand the reality of where we are as local congregations.  In general, congregations that were once grouped together as mainline Protestant (such as Lutheran, Episcopalian and Methodist) have been in slow decline since the 1970s.  Lutheran congregations are getting smaller and older.  This is especially the case in New England where the congregations often started out smaller than their partners in other parts of the country.  Part of the rationale in bringing this reality up is, first, to be honest with ourselves, acknowledge where we are so we can think about how to move on; second, to help see that we are part of a national trend of decline.  It can be helpful to know that we are not the only ones going through this, struggling with the finances, wondering what happened and wondering how to go forward.

                As I was thinking about this sermon and talking about hope, I realized that there has been a transition in the way that we talk about hope and I think it could be important for us.  We talk about hope in two ways.  There is a hope that is akin to wishful thinking or expectation, hoping for things to happen that haven’t yet, hoping for situations to change.  I hope tomorrow is sunny.  I hope it doesn’t rain.  I hope more people come to church.  I hope that people stop fighting in the Middle East.  I hope that people stop resorting to terror and gun violence.  This is situational hope.  What you hope for depends on what is going on in the world.  When you have enough sunny days, you start hoping for rain.

                But as people of faith, we have the hope that is founded in the gospel.  It is hope that we always have because of the events of 2000 years ago that have already happened.  This is the hope we are talking about when we remember Julian of Norwich saying, “All will be well.”  It goes deeper than any situation or wish.  You can add it to any of the phrases I mentioned and develop them.  It may or may not rain tomorrow, but all will be well.  More people may or may not come to church, and all will be well.  People may or may not stop fighting in the Middle East, and all will be well.  Terrorism, both domestic and international, may or may not stop, but all will be well.  Finally, all will be well, not because the things we hope for come to fruition, but because of what Christ has already done.  We can proclaim that all will be well because Christ has made all things well.  This is eternal hope; abiding hope, hope that clings to us in good times and bad. 

                The church has been at its best, throughout its history, when it has been centered on that eternal hope.  When we are centered on that hope, it means that we have something to offer to the world.  When we are centered on that hope, we can be a place where people come and find hope and a place where people leave with hope.  We become John the Baptist, pointing to hope, helping people know it is around, helping people get ready to receive it. It is important to remember that when we are centered on the hope of the gospel, it means that hope is something we already have and hope is something that is already here.  Hope is something inside that we have to share, and we do it because it is who we are and it is the right thing.  We invite people because it is the right thing.  We feed people because it is the right thing.  We share hope in many ways because it is the right thing.

                More recently I think we have gotten bogged down in situational hope.  The church struggles and we say, “I hope more people come.  I hope we find more financial resources.  I hope we can have more families with young children.”  These are not bad or inappropriate hopes but, if we start centering on them, we start changing the direction of hope.  If we consistently look at the budget and say, “We need new members,” then our hope is placed on something that is outside that we are trying to get in. 

                This is an idea that I have talked about before and gotten a little pushback from folks who feel like I am saying that we shouldn’t be reaching out.  Let me be clear.  I love it when people visit.  I have heard back from a number of visitors on feeling welcomed here even if we are not quite the community they are looking for.  Reaching out to others is part of our calling as church.  My point is that our motivations matter and I think they are critical as we move forward.          

We do need to reach out to people, but it cannot be because they have something we need, but because we have something the world needs: hope, that beautiful, blessed promise in Christ that tells us that all will be well.  Hope, the good news that has sent countless Christians out to care for those in need.  Hope that opens hospitals and food banks and employment programs.  Hope that sends chaplains to battlefields.  Hope that told Rosa Parks not to move to the back of the bus.  Hope that marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma.  Hope that remembers those who are ignored and forgotten.  Hope that stands in the face of those who would bring terror into our lives, whether in France or Syria, Colorado or California, and says, “All will be well.”

This again brings us to the importance of discipleship and the church.  Especially today, that hope can feel fleeting and elusive.  It can be drowned in the political rhetoric of fear.  It can be pushed aside as fear and violence are shown on the news and live in the forefront of our imaginations.  It can be displaced by worries about an individual congregation’s future.  It can be lost in moralism and judgement, where faith is centered on being right rather than being faithful.  Discipleship is what reconnects us to that hope; amplifies the constant voice that tells us that, while all may not be feel well right now, all will be well. 

So the hope for the church is, first, rediscovering the hope that is already here.  Every Sunday we proclaim that there is good news and every Sunday we encounter Jesus at the communion rail.  Every Sunday we announce hope.  Hope is what gathers us together and hope is what we sing about and hope is what I go on and on about.  Second, the hope for the church is taking that hope out the door with us into the community and into the world, living with that hope and living out that hope. 

Because the criticism of saying, “All will be well,” is that it can give you an excuse to ignore some of the situations of the world that are not well.  There is something wrong if as a church we see someone who is hungry and say, “All will be well,” and walk away.  No, because I am convinced that all will be well, I can share what I have.  I can give away food and money so that someone else can be well right now.  If someone is sick or lonely, because I am convinced that all will be well, I can give away time so that person can be better.  If the world is experiencing fear, because I am convinced that all will be well, I can keep living, I can advocate for change; I can advocate for peace; I can advocate for justice.  Hope is not an excuse to ignore the world but it grants the freedom to engage the world from a new point of view.

As recent experiences suggest, a church focused on survival will probably not survive.  A church centered on eternal hope may or may not survive, but it will have an impact.  Because when we are centered on hope, our well-being is not dependent on whether or not the church survives.  Christ Lutheran may stay open for years; it may be closed in a few years; it may be flooded out in fifty, and all will be well. 

On December 20, following worship, I inviting everyone to stick around for a little while to talk about hope and our congregation; think about how we might be a community centered on hope, what we can do as a community to remind one another of that hope, and what we can do to share that hope with the world around us.  John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, prepared the way for hope.  We also continue that mission, that the world might know that all will be well.

Monday, November 30, 2015

1st Sunday in Advent - November 29, 2015 - Hope for the Individual

               As I have mentioned several times, this year I am inviting all of you on a journey, looking at the meaning of discipleship, that is, what it means to follow Jesus and learn from Jesus.  So as I was planning out the year, I wondered where to begin.  Should I talk about prayer?  Should I talk about service?  But as I thought and prayed, I was moved in another direction, namely, hope.  When I thought why we might pray, serve, care for others, I kept coming back to the idea that it was because we have hope.

            Sometimes we are hoping for things to happen, kind of like spiritual New Year’s resolutions.  We hope to be better people; kinder people.  We hope for terror to end and peace to reign.  We hope for poverty to end; hunger to end; and loving compassion to shape the world around us.  But we also have a different kind of hope, a gospel-shaped hope, something that we forget in the midst of fear, something Julian of Norwich articulated so beautifully in her phrase, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

            So we are going to talk about hope in four ways over the four Sundays in Advent: hope for the individual, hope for the congregation, hope for the community and hope for the world.  Now I am going to warn you that this sermon may go a little longer than you are used to from me, but that is because it is a story, my story of finding hope.  I will also share that there are parts of this story that you may find difficult to hear as a congregation.  I am not going to apologize for those parts because they are honest and they are told in love, love for you, love for the church and love for God.

            So I will begin by saying that about five years ago, I was probably the most anxious and stressed out that I have been in my adult life.  This comes from a person who used to be in charge of cabins full of eight-year-old boys as a camp counselor, so I had experienced certain levels of stress.  But I was stressed out and questioning my career, questioning my call and questioning a number of things.  How did I get to be that stressed out and anxious on Cape Cod of all places where so many people come to relax?

            First, there is the matter of expectations.  I have always been good at meeting expectations.  I got good grades; got into a good college and did well in seminary because I was good at figuring out what teachers wanted and giving it to them.  In my first church in rural Pennsylvania, especially, I figured out what would keep the people happy, who needed a visit and who needed a phone call; who would only be involved on Sunday mornings and who might fulfilled by getting involved at a deeper level.  They also told me again and again that they just wanted to be a little country church; their pastoral expectations were not that high.  As long as they had the basics and had someone to say grace at potluck suppers, it was all right.

            When I first came to Christ Lutheran, it was clear that the expectations were higher, which was fine.  I’ve always been good at meeting expectations.  But the expectations kept mounting up and people kept telling me what we should have and should be doing.  You told me you wanted a Sunday school.  You told me you wanted more people involved.  You told me you wanted special services in Advent and Lent.  You told me you wanted a weekly choir.  You told me you wanted me to look, dress and act more like a traditional, extroverted pastor.  You told me that my family should be more involved.  I played trumpet, and you told me I should play it more.  I wrote music, and you told me I should write more.  I played guitar and you told me I should play it more.  Some of it was troubling and some of it was flattering, but always there was an underlying expectation that whatever I did and did well, I should give a little more.

            And then there was the reality that we would have meetings to discuss our Sunday school and children’s programs and people would come to discuss and it was great and energetic until we got to the point where we asked people to teach or lead, and everybody took a step back.  And Mimi, our minister of music, and I talked through the choir again and again, but as soon as we asked for people to commit to a weekly choir, many would take a step back.  And we would put together Advent and Lenten services.  We would plan them; I would write sermons and often the handful of people who did show up did not include the people who actually asked for the services to take place.  I could meet some of the expectations that depended on me, but could not meet the expectations that depended on you.  And that created this level of anxiety of knowing what you wanted but not being able to give it to you.

            Second, there was the reality of the larger church.  We would get together for synod meeting after synod meeting and hear the news that the church was shrinking and this was especially real in New England.  We would talk about cultural shifts and the rise of the nones (those who put “none of the above” on surveys of religious preference) and we would talk about how a lot of the programs and ideas that had shaped the church in previous decades just weren’t working anymore.  So not only couldn’t I meet your expectations, but it was not clear that meeting those expectations would be helpful in the long run.  How hard should we push for a traditional Sunday school when the general news is that traditional Sunday schools aren’t working like they used to?

            Third, there was the financial reality.  When I took the call at Christ Lutheran, what no one mentioned and probably didn’t know because we are secretive about giving, is that one giving unit was giving about 15% of the church’s budget.  About five years ago, they left, (not out of anger but simply moved away) and what had begun as a fairly stable call financially (we still spent time in the Finance committee trying to figure out what to  cut) became an unstable place, running deficits, going through reserves, always looking to do what we could with no money.  So not only do I have these expectations, that may or not be helpful in the long run, I also have to figure out how to do them for free.  And every year there is the question, can they afford to continue this call?  Do I have to start looking to move?  Do I have to pull my children out of school and take them away from a place where they are established and like it a whole lot?

            So I was stressed out and anxious and everywhere I turned it seemed that there was someone ready with a “we should, you should, the church should.”  How did I handle that?  Those of you who know me know that I don’t drink.  I just don’t like the taste.  I don’t smoke, because (and I apologize to those of you who do smoke), but “Yuck.  You should really cut that out.”  But I do like a good donut and I can find a temporary contentment with a good burger and fries.  So I enjoyed some late night snacks and lunches out and gained upwards of 30 pounds.  This turns out to be a pretty common pattern among clergy but not something that I am proud of or okay with.  I didn’t want to be stressed out and unhealthy.  I didn’t want another donut.  I just kept finding myself with another donut.

            This is the place where hope enters the story.  For me, hope entered quietly.  I prayed a lot during that time.  I sat in this very sanctuary and prayed for guidance and prayed for change and prayed for wisdom.  I said angry prayers and I said prayers of lament and prayers of surrender.  And then I ran out of things to say, so I stopped saying things and I listened.

            Now this is a moment where those of you who are not fans of the contemplative track my ministry has taken among you might get impatient.  I’ve had people in the congregation tell me that they weren’t sure that this “silence stuff” was Lutheran.  I have had Lutheran colleagues tell me that they didn’t see much value in silence as a practice.  After all, we are a very word-centered and wordy tradition.  Pastors preach.  Pastors teach.  Pastors develop ideas and share them.  Though Martin Luther once wrote, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer” and when it comes to prayer “few words and much meaning is Christian.”  Regardless, this is my story of hope, so you get to listen, which is exactly what I was doing, listening.  I would sit in this sanctuary and listen in silence.  I heard the sounds of the building as it shifts in the wind, popping and cracking away as breezes would hit.  I heard the sounds of wind in the trees and, once the windows were changed over, saw branches waving in the wind.  Over time, I became very aware of the presence of God as a constant reality in this place.  As I became more aware of God here, I became more aware of God in all the places I went.  God was present in hospital rooms and boring meetings.  God was present in visits and at special services.  God was present in the cheerful conversations and passive-aggressive silences that can make up congregational life.

            And with that awareness of the presence of God, there also came a great freedom.  I realized that I didn’t have to meet everyone’s expectations.  I mean, I knew that I couldn’t spend my days playing video games and expect to remain employed.  But my well-being in faith no longer depended on whether or not I could provide you with a Sunday school filled with children or a weekly choir.  I didn’t have to worry whether or not you liked it that my wife and children attended elsewhere.  I didn’t have to worry whether programs succeeded or failed, whether the church itself succeeded or failed.  I had discovered what Julian knew seven-hundred years ago.  All will be well.  Because God has been made known to us in Jesus, because Jesus set us free from the power of sin and death, sets us free to have life and have it abundantly, all will be well.

            This does not mean that everything will go just the way I want it to.  I may have to take another call before I plan to.  We may have to do creative things to stay in this location.  You may even come to the point where you have to acknowledge that it is more faithful to close than it is to die through attrition.  We are not at that point yet, but if any of those things happen, all will be well.  

            And I want you to know that, all will be well, because we have hope.  Now we will talk more about how this might apply to the church next week, to be a place with hope.  For me, it means I want to find ways to share it.  I want people to know that through Christ we have hope and all will be well.  This is why I got involved in grant-writing and the Still, Small Voice.  This is why I worked to build a labyrinth on our property and invite you to try it.  This is why I will keep inviting you to join me in silence on Wednesday mornings.  And whether you are here or not, I will keep silent for you.

            Now I also want you to know that I periodically forget everything that I have just been saying.  There are days that I wake up anxious about the future.  Sometimes I do worry.  Sometimes I do get stressed.  That is why hope is linked to discipleship.  It is in our nature to forget and need reminding.  God is constant; we are not.  God is always with us; we keep thinking we are alone.  God keeps telling us that all will be well; we keep finding reasons to worry.  Discipleship is doing the things that bring us into and remind us of the loving presence of God and the promise of life in Christ.

In part due to my quieter personality, silence was the key in rediscovering hope.  For you, I urge you to seek out the things that make God’s presence real for you.  These can be traditional things like prayer and worship and study, service and kindness and compassion.  It can be less “churchy” things like sitting in silence, watching the sunset or walking in woods or doing something creative, writing, painting, sculpting or building.  My point is to spend a part of your day seeking out the presence of God in a way that makes God’s loving presence real for you, and real for you outside of the activity itself.  Sometimes we hear a hymn or see something beautiful or have an intense experience in worship and we are pleasantly surprised by God, but the hymn ends, the beauty passes, the feeling wanes and we are back to where we were before.  Discipleship is the process of moving from a life that is peppered with God-moments to a life that is aware of God’s presence, promise and love as a constant reality.  Ground yourself in hope and you cannot help but share that hope.  So as we talk about hope for the indviduals, hope for you and hope for me, I urge to spend a part of your day rediscovering hope, reminding yourself that in Christ, “All will be well, and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Christ the King Sunday, 2015

 My thinking this week has been shaped by thoughts about catastrophe.  We continue to consider the attacks in Paris and Mali and the work of ISIS and other extremist groups.  We hear leaders say that now is the time for safety.  It is time to stop taking in foreign refugees as there could be enemies among them, fighters sneaking in to do us harm.  We are afraid and fear tells us to close the doors.

                I also attended a clergy meeting on disaster preparedness.  We spent an hour and half talking about things that could go wrong.  First it was natural disasters that range from irritating to decimating, snow storms and hurricanes that take away our power and close off communications.  As one comedian put it, times when, “There’s no internet to tell us why there is no internet.”  But the discussion got darker; weather is not the only disaster.  We talked about chemical spills.  We talked about outbreaks of influenza.  We talked about different shooter scenarios.  We didn’t talk about locusts, but I suppose they are not due for another few years.  How would we respond as clergy?  How would we respond as congregations?  What does it mean to be the church in the midst of disaster?  We are afraid that we are unprepared.

                And then a couple of days ago I had a message on my phone from someone who probably has too much time on his hands and enough money to pay for one of those annoying recorded message services, where you make a message and it goes out to any number of possible clients.  It was someone who wanted to share the idea that the best thing churches can do in this day and age is to make sure that our ushers are trained and armed, ready to defend the church against violence with violence.  We are afraid and so we must do whatever is necessary to make sure we are safe.

                Now this is not going to be a gun control sermon, so those of you whose blood pressure is rising, calm down.  That being said, I hold some strong opinions on this one.  Some of you will like them and some of you won’t, like just about everything else in our congregation.  Rather, today I am thinking about this in terms of being symbolic of our time.  This is not the first time that American churches have been talking about arming themselves.  The meetinghouse at Plymouth Plantation served as church, courtroom and last defense.  It has cannons on the second floor.  The Fort Herkimer church on the Mohawk River in upstate New York, built around the time of the revolutionary war has gunports for shooting a rifle from the inside in case of attack.  But these were buildings meant to be the last defense for communities.  They were often the strongest buildings around, built for communities that felt insecure about attacks from native Americans or from British forces.

                We have an undercurrent of fear and anxiety.  Terrorists are doing their job, making us feel that our daily routines are unsafe.  A changing climate means that we can’t predict the weather and storms seem more extreme.  Financial uncertainty leads many to daily stress about how they will afford basic necessities.  We live with fear and you can see it.  You can see it in the way people carry themselves, high-strung and tense, ready to pounce on any offense.  You can hear it in the way that people talk to one another when they disagree.  Our leaders used to debate but now it is often just shouting and name-calling, hoping that the volume wins arguments.  You can hear it in the way that people look for something to be offended by, something that will give them an outlet for their fear.  This week it may be the Starbucks Corporation declaring a war on Christmas with a plain, red cup.  Next week it will be something else.

                We are afraid and when we are afraid and under stress we forget some of the important ideas that define us.  When we are afraid, it seems like a good idea to arm the church and ignore the biblical hope that swords will be turned into plowshares.  When we are afraid, we forget that part of the message of the cross is to show us exactly what happens when society acts out of fear, an innocent man put to a painful death.  

We are afraid and when we are afraid we forget that part of our basic story is that Jesus could have chosen power; power over the religious leaders; power over Pilate, but instead showed that even when they seemed to have the greatest power over him, they had no real power at all.  The message of the gospel is not that you will be safe.  If that is what you are hoping for, just keep ignoring the scriptures because Jesus leads the ultimately faithful life and ends up on the cross.  The apostles are arrested and many put to death.  Paul is chased out of towns, shipwrecked, arrested and beaten.  The promise of the gospel is not that you will be safe, but that nothing can separate you from the love of God.  Paul writes most beautifully, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That does not mean that you won’t get sick or be injured.  It doesn’t mean that there will be no hurricanes or snow storms, plagues, shooters or terrorists.  It means nothing that this life can dish out to you will be able to separate you from what God has done for you and how God feels about you.  It means that the cross is always seen in the light of the resurrection and suffering is always seen in the light of the promise of life.

Last week, in talking about giving (and I should probably bring it up since we are dedicating our pledges today), I asked whether you saw yourselves as giving units purchasing services or as a church funding the mission of the kingdom of God in this place.  Today I would ask the same question and take it even further, asking whether we are living the mission of the kingdom of God in this place and do we even know what it is?

Many churches today thrive on creating particular feelings, for some it is a feeling of inspiration and awe.  In our tradition we seem to lean toward feelings of comfort, sometimes guilty of confusing the gospel with nostalgia.  You look for Jesus as a kind friend who will hold your hand through difficult times.  Today, however, we celebrate Christ as King, ruler and authority, and one who comes to give us a different feeling, not awe in how amazing he is or comfort in how kind he is, but hope.  Hope, that God’s love is real and present and always among us.  Not escape from a world with danger, but hope found in a promise of peace. 

When we are embraced in that hope, then we living in the mission of God’s kingdom.  When we extend that hope to the world around us, then we are living out the mission.  As we enter into a new church year, one focused on discipleship, we will begin with a season of hope.  Hope that embraces us.  Hope that shapes us.  Hope that sends us.  Hope that we find in the good news of Jesus Christ our king.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November 15, 2015 - Financial Problems are Vision Problems

Last week I talked a bit about money and giving and the survivor model that we and many other congregations work with.  That’s the model where we squeak by financially year after year and then feel good about ourselves for just getting by.  We give just enough to cover the basics but not enough to fund change and growth.  This may be a sign of the subconscious will of small congregations.  We say that we want to grow, but we give in a way that makes sure it never really happens.  At the same time, we tire people out, especially those who are most motivated to do something new or seek a measure of growth.
So I want to take that idea a little further and talk more about our motivation in giving.  Next week you will be invited to dedicate your financial pledges for 2016.  As I mentioned last week, we will be doing time and talent as part of our focus on discipleship in 2016.  Last week I said that the survivor model is actually not a financial problem so much as a discipleship problem.  Today I will also say that it is a mission and vision problem.
Often I have heard people say, “When we really need it, the money is there,” or “When there is a special project, people give generously.”  This means two things.  First, the money was always there, just not available.  Second, we give toward what moves us or interests us. We live in a consumer culture and that affects how we view the church and how we give.  In most cases in our day to day lives, we pay for the services we receive.  There is little haggling.  I pay for the items in my cart.  I pay for the services provided by professionals.  When this translates in the church, we see people giving to support the services they actually use.  Why should I fund Bible studies when I don’t go to Bible studies?  Why should I fund family nights when I don’t go out at night?  Why should I fund the bishop’s office when I don’t have a real interest in the larger church?  This is another part of that survivor mentality. 
But this leads to all sorts of problems in sustaining the mission of the church.  We will give towards a furnace as a special project, but not the regular funding of the oil that will make it work.  We will give toward a new organ, but not fully fund the salary of a musician.  We will give toward what touches us and seems important to us, but we don’t fully fund the mission of the church.
And that gets us to the question of mission and vision.  Are we a group of giving units purchasing services with a pastor on retainer, or are we a church investing in the mission of God’s kingdom?  So much of Jesus’ frustration with the Temple in Jerusalem can be translated into a loss of purpose.  Here was a place where people were supposed to come and encounter the living God.  It was a place for lament, repentance, forgiveness, celebration and praise.  But it had become a place of buying and selling, where financial barriers had been set up to make that divine encounter more difficult.  Jesus looks at it says, “It will all be torn down.  Not a stone will be left on stone.”
Those who came to the Luther luncheon last Tuesday heard story of a young Martin Luther travelling to Rome as a monk.  Again, this was supposed to be a pilgrimage of great holiness, and instead he found a money-making machine.  Pay a fee to see the relics of a holy saint.  Pay a fee to walk among the Christian dead in the catacombs.  The Reformation really begins as a protest of indulgences, which were promissory notes that were supposed to buy holiness and forgiveness, and were used to fund building projects and papal luxury.  And again, things were torn down.

I was reminded at our council meeting on Thursday that it is very easy to get wrapped up in internal concerns and forget our purpose.  It is easy to forget that we are part of something much larger when we are tucked away in the woods of Falmouth.  The ELCA recently announced that we have successfully raised 15 million dollars to fund malaria relief in West Africa.  Ascentria Care Alliance (formally Lutheran Social Services of New England) continues to welcome refugees from around the world, continues to arrange international adoptions, provides affordable senior housing at several sites in New England, and helps work with communities to break cycles of poverty.  The New England synod continues to develop new mission sites for sharing the good news including a church without walls for the homeless community in Northampton, a Chinese language ministry in South Boston, Spanish-language ministries in Holyoke and Hartford.  You are part of that and when we talk about benevolence in the budget, that line item where we wonder if we really can afford to give to the synod, that is the sort of mission work that we are funding in our own limited way.

Monday, November 9, 2015

November 8, 2015 - Financial Problems are Discipleship Problems

This past week, you should have all received financial pledge letters in the mail.  Our stewardship Sunday will be on November 22.  On that Sunday you will all be invited to dedicate your financial pledges for the year.  As such I am going to give a couple of sermons on money and giving.  Some of you may be concerned that our mailing only talked about financial giving and not time and talent as well.  As we spend the next year focused on discipleship, we will be talking about time and talent at length, especially since that gives us more time to think about stewardship as disciples rather than trying to talk about it only when we are also talking about the budget.
                So it seems like having the story of the widow’s gift would be a good story to use when thinking on stewardship.  Look at her example, she gives out of her poverty to support the Temple.  She gives extravagantly and challenges all of us to give more deeply.  Now you all should go and do the same.  You don’t even have to give your whole livelihood, just 10%.  That’s how this passage often gets interpreted because, pulled out of its context, it sure seems like a story about extravagant but humble giving.
                The problem is, it probably isn’t that story.  We read it and say that Jesus says, “Good job,” to the widow, except that Jesus doesn’t say “Good job” to the widow.  He doesn’t say, “Bad job” to her either.  He just tells the crowd with him what he sees, that she has given all she has to live on.  We make the assumption the widow wants to give this gift out of joy rather than obligation.  We make the assumption that Jesus approves of what is going on.
                But the placement of the story is important.  Jesus’ reactions to the intersection of money and religion are not positive.  A few chapters earlier, the first thing Jesus does when he gets to the Temple is to start knocking over tables and chairs in protest of the money changing system.  The house of prayer has become a den of thieves.  The paragraph just before this in the reading includes a warning about the scribes who “devour widows’ houses.”  Just after this passage, what we will hear next week, is that the Temple itself will be torn down and not a stone will be on stone.  Odd that the widow would be praised for supporting an institution that was Jesus points to as corrupt and soon to be torn down.  So Jesus is not so much saying “Good job, widow,” so much as he is saying, “Bad job, religion.”  Bad job, for taking advantage of people, for making them choose between faith and basic needs, for becoming an institution that treats people as commodities, useful mostly for their time, talent and treasure. 
                Thank goodness we are not like that anymore.  We would never talk about needing new members so we can make our budget, fix our building or fill our committees.  We would never talk about or imply that the church is like a business that needs more customers.  And we would never, ever, never use money as a way to control people or ministry, threatening to withdraw our giving if we are displeased.  Thank goodness we have left those attitudes behind.
                As a pastor I am often torn, because I do have an administrative funcion and I do draw a salary and as such, I, along with my family, are dependent on the budgeting process.  As a rational human being I know that this congregation has to have money to pay for lights and heat.  It has to have money to fund ministry.  I know the budget is a tool we use to be responsible stewards of donations.
                And yet, as a Christian leader who is very concerned with discipleship, I have to say that the budget has little or nothing to do with your faith.  If, as you consider your pledge, you use the budget as a measuring tool, you are giving to the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.  The budget has little or nothing to do with your faith life.  Stewardship and your attitude toward money and possessions has much to do with your faith life.  Generosity has much to do with your faith life.  Most congregations don’t have money problems; they have stewardship and generosity problems.  Most congregations don’t have financial issues; they have discipleship issues.  As I look out on the congregation today, not knowing your bank accounts, but knowing your homes and your lifestyles, it is hard for me to imagine that a $120000 budget is beyond our means.  I say that with some trepidation, because I know that for a few people in our congregation, an increase in giving would be a significant hardship, but for many people in our congregation, an increase in giving would be an inconvenience, a night in rather than a night out, a couple fewer pumpkin lattes, a couple fewer impulse buys.  That is not a financial issue.  That is a stewardship and discipleship issue.
                Jesus condemns a system that eats people up, that uses people.  I would suggest that we as a congregation have also set up a system that uses people up, tires people out and turns them away.  Many congregations live in this system.  It is often called the survivor model of the church.  It’s the model that we have all tacitly agreed on and, looking at much of the congregation’s history, has been the model since the early 70s.  We make it through.  We survive.  We give just enough so that we don’t have enough to fund real growth and change, but to keep things running.  At the end of year we manage to bail ourselves out and we say, “Good job, church!” 
                And we don’t recognize how tiring it is for all those involved.  We don’t recognize how many people walk away or step aside because they are simply tired.  No one wants to be the treasurer who has to deal with shortfalls and uncertainty.  No one wants to be the council members that stare at the reports of said treasurer and say “No” to new projects because they will cost money.  No one wants to be the fundraiser who wants to support a life-giving ministry but instead is paying for a few gallons of oil.  No one wants to be the teacher asked to lead a class without resources.  No one wants to be the pastor who feels guilty for making a living and being the biggest draw on the budget (poor me).  No one wants to be the visitor who is seen as a potential resource.  So I have to say, “Bad job, church.”  It pains me to say it, but we have done a bad job.
                And bad job, pastor, for trying to keep things smooth and not making this call sooner, for being part of this same survival system, also relieved when we just get by because there are so many places that are closing.  I’ve read about two in the New England synod in past few months.  Bad job, pastor, for allowing yourself to get wrapped up in copier costs, contract fees and heating oil futures while ignoring the implications of stewardship and forgetting the joy of generosity.  Bad job, pastor.  Poor me.
                But good job, Jesus, for shining light on this place where we are broken and need to grow.  Good job, Jesus, because that is what you do, as hard as it can be for us to hear, you point to the places that we want to hide away, but which are the same places that keep us from being truly free, truly joyful and truly alive. 
That’s why I will say that while the budget has little to with your faith, how you give, your attitudes toward money, your personal stewardship and generosity have much to do with your faith.  If we can gather together and hear the good news of the one who gave his life for us on the cross, the one who in the resurrection showed us that death is no longer the last word; if week after week we can gather around the table and experience Jesus giving himself to us again; if we can do those things and are not moved to a deeper place of generosity, then there is a disconnect between the faith we proclaim and life that faith inspires.  That is not a financial problem, it is a discipleship problem.

Good job, Jesus, because you give a chance to fall on our faces, but stand up and try again.  Good job, Jesus, because you have given us an example to follow but also the freedom to fail.  Good job, Jesus, because while way may struggle with generosity, your generosity of life and love never ends.  Thank you, Jesus, and may our lives, every part of our lives, be turned toward you in thanks and praise.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

All Saints' Day - 2015

Sermon – All Saints’ Day - 2015

                Today is All Saints’ Day.  Historically, it is a day to celebrate the saints in heaven who have gone before us.  November 2 in the catholic church is All Souls’ Day, which is a day to remember and pray for the souls of those in purgatory, those whose sins were not bad enough to condemn, but not pure enough to allow them into heaven.
                After the Reformation, the understanding of sainthood in Protestant churches changed.  Some religious scholars suggest that the understanding of saints as heavenly residents who could advocate with God on your behalf arose as a replacement for the many god and goddesses of the Roman Empire.  Christian fishermen could no longer pray to Neptune, god of the sea, but they could pray to Saint Andrew, the patron saint of fishermen.  The saints were another set of divine intermediaries like archangels, cherubim and seraphim.
                But in the Protestant church, sainthood became less about the saint in heaven and more about their example on earth.  When we speak of a particular saint, we are talking about someone who is an example of faith to admire and follow.  We don’t expect the saint to do anything for us, but rather celebrate how the person lived out the gift of faith.  We will talk about Saint Francis of Assisi, his choices of kindness and poverty, but we don’t pray to Saint Francis.
                We also talk about sainthood in a very general way, pointing to biblical language that referred to the whole community of faith as saints.  We are God’s saints, made holy not by our own doing but through God’s work in Jesus Christ.  We are made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.  We are already God’s saints, living in the kingdom of God, in communion with those saints who have preceded us. 
                We are God’s saints in spite of the fact that we are not perfect and not consistently holy.  I don’t drink coffee, but my experience is that some of those who do are often unholy until they’ve had the first cup.  We are God’s saints in spite of the fact that we make mistakes and sin.  We are God’s saints in spite of the fact that there are parts of our lives that we try to close off from God’s grace.
                Lutheran theology describes the Christian condition as being both saint and sinner at the same time.   Part of this is living in our world.  We live in a culture that is based on consumerism; that encourages gluttony and greed.  It is hard to get away from it.  We live in a society that has been shaped by a racist and sexist past and even though I don’t like to think of myself as racist, as a white man I have benefited and I can’t escape that. 
On a more personal level, I sometimes think about the saint and sinner idea in terms of those places in ourselves that we keep open to God and those places that we close off from God.  We all have them and the beauty of the Christian community is that they differ and complement one another.
                This is not going to be a full-on stewardship sermon, but money and possessions is a common place that we try to keep closed from God.  People sometimes get angry when pastors talk about money from the pulpit.  We don’t want to hear this worldly stuff.  The church can’t tell me what to buy or how to give.  That’s personal business.  And even though God knows all about it, every dollar in your bank account and every penny hidden under a couch cushion, we still want to keep it to ourselves as though that is possible.  But somewhere in every church we find people who are different, who are open to giving and actually enjoy finding ways to give from what they have.  We say they have a spirit of generosity, something that the apostle Paul labeled a gift of the Holy Spirit.  That part of their lives is open to God, and it can be a great example to help the rest of us grow.  One of the difficult things about doing stewardship in the church is that we are often so secretive about money that we don’t even know that we have these kinds of saints among us.
                We become saints for one another if we pay attention, because each of us has been touched by God and each of us has places where we are open to God where others are not.  At the last meeting on homelessness in Falmouth, one of the speakers talked about how over the years they had adopted homeless people, allowing them to live in their home sometimes for weeks and months.  And I felt my chest tighten as I thought about a homeless person living in my house, with my family and my kids, and I realized that here was a place where I had room to grow, as I marveled at the gift of hospitality this person showed.  He was open to God’s calling in a way I was not.  There was one of God’s saints at work among us.
                We are saints to one another, not because one is particularly holier than another, but in living out our faith with our gifts in our own lives in our own ways, we show one another what holiness can mean.  One of the greatest misconceptions of sainthood is that you have to die to become one.  Instead, Jesus died so that we can be saints now.  We are saints who can bring the holy to our day to day lives and day to day interactions.

So this morning, as we take the time to remember the saints who have preceded us, I urge you to remember that you are one of the saints.  I remind you of the tradition that as we gather at the communion table we gather with all the saints, be it Saint Francis, Saint Andrew or saints whose names are only remembered in dusty books of congregational roles.  You have a place at that table.  I urge you to remember that we are saints for one another, living out many different examples of holiness.  I urge you to remember that we are saints for the world.  God’s holiness is not supposed to remain in this place, but belongs with you out in the world.  Although we are sinners who make mistakes, we are God’s saints made holy through the cross of Christ.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sermon - Reformation Sunday, 2015

Yesterday, I had an article published in the Cape Cod Times religious column.  It is also now up on my blog (capecodlutheran.blogspot.com) if you want to read it.  I was thinking about Reformation Day and the meaning of faith.  It is language that I have used here before, challenging the idea that faith is in the realm of the logical/rational.  I suggest that faith is more in the realm of the beautiful.  It is not an idea we need to prove but a vision that we are called to live.

                When I think about the Reformation what I see is a fundamental change in vision, how Christianity was understood, how the church was understood, and how God was understood.  To oversimplify it, the change in vision that Luther ushered in was a move from seeing God’s primary feelings toward you to be anger and judgment to a God whose primary feelings toward were a mix of love, sorrow and mercy.  In the former case, God is really angry at you for being a sinner and is ready to send to you hell.  Thankfully, God has given the church as a means to escape the wrath of God for the moment.  By participating in the ministries of the church you are getting yourself into God’s good favor again.  God is gracious to the extent that Jesus died for you (and you should feel very guilty about that) and the forgiving power of the sacrifice of the cross continues to flow through the ministry of the church.  To be outside the church is to be subject to God’s wrath.

               Luther and the other reformers began to suspect that maybe God’s motivations are not all centered on wrath and judgement.   Maybe God actually likes us a little bit.  Two things.  First of all, not every voice before Luther was about wrath and death and judgement.  The Still, Small Voice group has been studying the English mystic Julian of Norwich who lived 150 years before Luther and her writing is all about extreme love and a God without wrath.  God formed the universe in love and sustains it through that love and, her understanding seems to be, that in the end God will in some way unite all of us in that love.

               Second point, Luther does not imagine God without anger and judgement.   Luther believed that God was just and gracious and merciful and loving, ideas that are seen most clearly by looking at the cross.  But he also labeled the Pope as the Antichrist.  He said some really problematic things about the Jewish people and he often broke into exaggerated insults to those who disagreed with him, “May God punish you, I say, you shameless, barefaced liar, devil’s mouthpiece, who dares to spit out, before God, before all the angels, before the dear sun, before all the world, your devil’s filth.”  He was a judgmental person and he believed in a God was just and judging, whom we should fear, but who was gracious and merciful, whom we should love.

                Nevertheless, Luther’s recovery of grace ushered in a major change in vision, affecting how people viewed their relationship to God and how the viewed the place of the church.  It also had some unexpected side effects, which lead to our current situation.  Martin Luther loved the church.  He did not want to break it up or destroy it.  In 1517, Luther was hoping to begin a debate that would help the Catholic church transform itself from within.  Throughout his life, he was a strong proponent of the sacraments.  Although he reduced the number of sacraments from 7 to 2, he believe very strongly God’s work and Christ’s real presence in the sacraments.  He would have had a hard time understanding why Christians would not insist on weekly communion at the least.

                Yet one of unexpected directions that the Reformation takes is the idea that the church is not necessary.  How many of you agree with this statement, “Missing church once in a while is not a sin.”  Luther probably would have agreed.  If you insist on church attendance, it becomes a work by which we are saved which is against the good news of grace.  How many of you agree with this statement?  “You don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian?”  Luther is now spinning in his grave.  He would say something like it is not necessary to be there for salvation, but if your faith doesn’t drive you there, you need to explore that faith.  (I don’t think he would have put it as nicely).

                In many ways we have created a theology of nice.  It would be nice if you came, but it’s okay if you don’t.  Every congregation describes itself as nice and friendly.  We try to be nice people with nice music and nice, inoffensive faith.  Sadly, there is nothing compelling about nice.  The church may be  nice, but so are the people at Wal-Mart and Applebee’s and Disney.  Often they seem even nicer, because you don’t have to know them well and you are giving them money.  Going to church is nice, but so is hanging out in sweatpants on the sofa, so are my Facebook friends, so is Sunday brunch.  People can find nice anywhere.

We don’t need a faith that is nice and tidy.  We need a faith that is compelling.  We need a faith that gets us drop our nets at the lakeshore, a faith that makes us truly free.  This is the faith that Jesus opens to us.  This is the grace of God that makes us whole.  We need to recover and rediscover that compelling way of life that sets us free.

So on this Reformation Sunday I say we need to continue to reform.  We need to continue to have our minds blown and our vision changed.  We need to take every opportunity we can to encounter this Jesus who speaks to us in scripture, who calls to us in the voices of poverty and injustice, who comes to us the communion meal. 

And I think that may be the key to re-reforming the church, moving from being the place that praises Jesus to being the place that seeks to meet Jesus.  I think it continues the cheap grace versus costly grace idea I was talking about last week.  Praising Jesus is easy and nice.  After all, this grace we talk about is wonderful.  The promise of life that we share is beautiful.  The story of the cross and empty tomb is worthy of our praise.  We are good at praising Jesus, and we should, but we also need to meet Jesus in our lives.

Encountering Jesus is not always easy and not always nice, but it is always compelling.  Sometimes he comes to us and says beautiful words of good news like, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your mistakes are forgotten.  You are loved by God.  You are free indeed.”  Sometimes he comes and speaks words we don’t want to hear like, “Forgive the sins of others.  Forget the mistakes of others.  Love your neighbor, and while you’re at it, love your enemy.”  And both the easy words and the challenging words are part of our faith, our part of the good news that sets us free.

Every time we encounter Jesus we are renewed and reformed.  Every time we encounter Jesus we are reminded the things that bind us and we are set free.  Every time we meet Jesus, we are set free to be loved and to be loving, we are set free to be alive and live for others, we are set free indeed.


Welcome to My Preaching Blog

I have had some folks in my congregation ask me to put my sermons in blog form so that they could be readily available and shareable.  Many of my colleagues preach from notecards or from memory and I have done this from time to time.  Yet I find that for me, the sound and rhythm of the words is an important part of the delivery and message.  This leads me to write a full text of my sermon as part of my weekly preparation, part of the reason that it is easy enough to present them in blog form.

Some preachers want to be conversational.  I would rather think of preaching as the starting point for a conversation, where preacher and listener inform and witness to one another.

I hope you enjoy this space.  Feel free to comment; feel free to start a conversation.