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.