Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas Eve 2016 - Virtual Reality and the Beauty of Real Life

One of the recent advances in technology is virtual reality.  You can now buy a headset to turn your smartphone into a virtual reality screen.  The Playstation 4 is advertising games that are designed for the virtual reality medium.  For now, you strap on the headset to block out the real world, so you can be totally immersed in the virtual world.  The technology recognizes where you are looking, so that as you turn around, the field of vision changes, so the bad guys can come from behind you, from the side and up above.  

I think that is pretty amazing, so much more immersive than the Super Mario Brothers I played when I was a teenager.  There was no illusion of reality.  You might get lost in the challenge to defeating the boss in each level, but there was no question that you were in the real world, that your Mom could stand between you and the screen and simply break all concentration that you had, any connection to the game. 

Science fiction has long played with future scenarios that blend the real world and a virtual one.  Total Recall involved implanting false memories of vacations and adventures in your head, so real that you would swear you had actually experienced them.  Star Trek had the holodeck, where players could escape to any virtual setting they desired.  Perhaps most famous are the Matrix movies where all of humanity was kept in a virtual world and only a few could access the real world, but the real world was so bad and depressing that one of characters was willing to sell out all his friends just to forget the real world and go back into the virtual one. 

In all of these stories is the theme that the virtual world is better, more entertaining, more exciting.  It makes sense in the gaming world, because once the game starts, you immediately have a purpose and a mission.  You have to get from one place to another or blow this thing up or get that object at all costs.  This is far more interesting than the real world where you have to do your taxes, brush your teeth and walk 10000 steps to nowhere every day.

In some ways religion plays into this as well.  For most of Christian history, heaven was the virtual reality the church promised and proclaimed, because for much of Christian history, life was not pretty for many people.  The real world was dirty and difficult.  War wiped out millions.  Plagues wiped out millions.  Diseases like cholera wiped out millions.  Farming without the help of modern machines broke the body down at a young age, especially as one started doing hard labor as a child.  And the solace that the church could offer was heaven.  If you can get through this lifetime without doing anything terrible, you will get to be in heaven where everything is perfect.

The emphasis on this message that made sense in its time.  Heaven was used as both carrot and stick, encouraging people to good behavior and forcing them be part of the church (because if you don’t go to church, you can’t go to heaven.) 

Certainly eternal life is part of the promise of the good news.  But tonight, this Christmas Eve, we are invited to consider that there is more to the story than heaven, there is more to eternal life than life after death.  If that were it, there is no need for this evening, this story.  There is no need for angels or shepherds, a baby in a manger and a no vacancy sign.  There is no need for Jesus if this life is just a temporary home, a testing ground, a place from which to escape.  I believe that the nativity story is one that draws our attention to this time, this place and this life.  The Christmas story is about God making this life into a piece of eternal life.  Because eternal doesn’t just mean from now until forever.  It means always and always.  It means right now and back then and over there and until forever.  Eternal life is the journey as much as the destination.

Christmas celebrates Jesus coming down and saying, “Come follow me.  Come walk with me.”  When we are walking with Jesus, we are already walking in eternal life.

But, you may counter, the world is not perfect.  There are hungry people and people who are afraid and people who get sick and not just serious illnesses but really irritating illnesses that do nothing but stuff up your nose and take you out of circulation for a few days.  What about mosquitos?  Not just the ones with disease, but the ones that suck your blood and leave you with nothing but an itchy bump.  What about poison ivy?  That’s just misery for touching the wrong plant.  Not only are there car accidents but there is Boston traffic and there are Boston drivers.  And what about all the stuff I have to get done?   What about my job and saving for retirement?  What about all the errands that won’t take care of themselves?  How is all this part of eternal life?

The child in the manger is there in the manger precisely because this life matters, this reality matters.  Jesus is born into our reality this night not to draw you away from this life but to experience it with you.  The child in the manger is there to transform this life, your life, into eternal life.

The child in the manger is going to grow up and look at you and love you and say, “Walk with me.”  Walk with me through sick days and traffic and worry.  Walk with me through mosquitos and poison ivy (maybe walk around the poison ivy).  Walk with me through your job and your retirement and through that moment when you breathe your final breath.  Walk with me and approach other people with love and kindness.  Walk with me and learn to be content with what you have and who you are and where you are (even in Boston traffic).  Walk with me and be a person of peace and hope and joy.  When we are walking with Jesus, we are already walking in eternal life.

Virtual reality is not better than the real world.  This world is already fascinating.  Every breath gives us the possibility of a new start, a new change, a new direction.  Every person gives us the opportunity to love and be loved.  The child in the manger says, “Pay attention to this life because it is beautiful; it is already a gift.”

The child in the manger alerts us to the possibility that we are already in the midst of eternal life.

December 18, 2016 - 4th Sunday in Advent

I have been talking for the past three weeks about the importance of the incarnation within the Lutheran tradition.  You can argue that the incarnation is simply a part of the broader Christian tradition.  We all celebrate Christmas in some way, the story of Emmanuel, God with us.  Acknowledging the humanness of Jesus is part of the historic Christian litmus test.  If you proclaim Jesus as something other than fully human and fully divine, you end up in one of several camps of heresy.
                But while other Christian traditions have focused more on the wonder of the resurrection and ascension, how he conquered death and left the building and are waiting for him to come back to take us with him, Luther and the Lutherans that followed were much more affected by the incarnation, marveling at the idea that Jesus is among us as one of us, marveling that this God among us suffered and died on the cross, not seeing the Christian life as working toward an escape plan for humanity, but rather God doubling down on this reality, this humanity.
                This has led to a strong emphasis on service, a belief that the Christian life is fundamentally about caring for others.  As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while he was imprisoned by the Nazi government, “The Church is only the Church when it exists for others.”   Luther talked several times about the Christian call to be Christ to and for one another.  This was coupled with the idea that when we serve others we are serving Christ himself.  “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”
                For Luther, this life of service was a natural outgrowth of the grace of God in Jesus.  We have received the gift of life that we didn’t earn, that we couldn’t expect, that we can’t deserve.  The natural response was loving service, worshiping God and serving those in need.  For Luther, if faith did not inspire such works, it was time to consider the depth of one’s faith.
                The good news about this is it has led to some wonderful and inspired service around the world.  Through the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal we are feeding people, helping people around the world achieve independence and stability.  Through the Lutheran Disaster Response we have helped many people in crisis and have a reputation for staying on the ground, connecting to local partners, not leaving until there is stability.  In the United States, Lutherans have been involved in senior care and housing, orphan care and adoption, resettling refugees, local hunger programs, urban housing renewal, urban farming and gardening in food deserts not to mention all of the smaller projects that congregations do like our own stress kits and hospital pillows.
                Those of you who are reading Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking will note that this past week he made a distinction between wishful thinking and hopeful thinking.  Many times I hear wishful thinking expressed in the life of the church.  Wishful thinking is when we treat God like a genie, praying that God would reach down from heaven and break the rules.  It assumes that we are either trying to persuade God with the strength and numbers of our prayers, or proving our worthiness by the faithfulness of praying daily for the difficult or the impossible.  And there are times when this kind of prayer is all that is available, when we turn toward God at our wit’s end and say, “Into your hands…”
                But most of the time we should not be in wishful mode but hopeful mode.  Wishful mode waits for God to act.  A hopeful mode and hopeful life is different.  Hope lives toward the goal, lives toward the change.  Hope is based on the God who is not far away but has been and is among us in Jesus.  It is wishful living that simply prays for an end to world hunger.  It is hopeful living that prays and buys extra food to donate to the food pantry or prays and offers bread to the needy or prays and puts on a free meal for all.  It is wishful thinking that prays for peace.  It is hopeful thinking that seeks to be reconciled with our enemies, that stands or sits in nonviolent protest, that actively seeks to do actions of kindness and love.  And as always I give the Lutheran disclaimer, we do not do such things in order to earn God’s respect or appease God’s anger or prove our faith to God.  We do such things because God has already acted, because God has been among us as one of us.  In Jesus, God has given us a reason to hope.
                The bad news about this is that as one of my colleagues put it that in our current culture, “We are serving ourselves to death.”  It takes a lot of time, talent, money, planning and energy to serve people in a faithful and respectful way.  When that is where your efforts go, you may not pay as much attention to your buildings and programs (and that may be a faithful thing.)  Historically, for the Lutheran tradition, when we have talked about evangelism, it hasn’t been about growing churches (we assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that the churches would take care of themselves); it has been about caring for others.  Our focus in evangelizing has been making sure that people are fed and clothed and housed.  I think this may be why we struggle with the concept of evangelism as sharing faith or inviting people to church.  That just hasn’t been our definition or experience.  I think about a few years ago when we were hosting the Overnights for Hospitality and would have several women who were experiencing homelessness staying in the fellowship hall.  And we had a reputation of being a place where the meal was carefully prepared, the atmosphere was of an informal dinner party where, if you didn’t know the people, you wouldn’t necessarily know who was serving and who was being served..  The women were not just fed but also respected.  Even though it may not have put one more bottom in a pew on Sunday morning, that was superb evangelism that was happening.  Certainly it is something to work on, we should be able to talk about how our faith inspires the work and invite people into that work and worship.  But we should also be a voice saying that a life lived in service is a life that lives the gospel.  As trends toward wishful thinking and wishful praying and wishful living have grown more popular, we should be a voice inviting people to think, pray and live in hope. 

                Because that is the nature of the gospel, that is what the nativity is all about, hope.  We are not wishing for God to do something.  We live hopefully because God has done something.  As we consider the baby Jesus in the manger, we are looking at hope, a hope that can send us out to work toward peace, to work toward justice, to work toward an end to poverty, to work toward respect for all people, to work toward joy, to work toward the gospel.  Wishful thinking says God hasn’t done enough.  Hopeful thinking praises a God who has given all we need in Jesus and sends us out to live the good news.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

December 11, 2016 - 3rd Sunday of Advent - Incarnation 3

When I watch a game, I tend to notice the good plays on both sides, because I have respect for the work of athletes.  Good plays don’t come out of nowhere.  That “nothing but net” three-point shot, that perfect spiral with a one-handed catch in the N Zone, that goal in the top-right corner, that paint-scraping pass on the outside lane, that finishing kick at the end of a marathon, that kind of moment comes from years of dedication, years of air-balls and wobbly throws and hitting the wall both literally and figuratively.  And as spectators, we take all those successes and failures, injuries and recoveries, pre-dawn runs and late night weight training and boil them down to one question.  Did they win the game?  All the moments that make up a game get boiled down to “Who won?”
                A regulation soccer game is ninety minutes, plus a little stoppage time, but you can watch the highlights of most games in one or two.  Most soccer games are 88 or 89 minutes of anticipation with a couple of minutes that stand out.  The soundtrack of most soccer games is a mix of various team chants with a song of anticipation, “Oh, oh, oh…darn.”  And now and again, the announcer gets to cry out in joy for a goal.
                The great mistake of organized religion, and I think Christianity is one of the worst offenders, is making faith about the end of the game, that is making it all about heaven, winning eternal life.  Because a couple of things happen.  First, we spend time trying to figure out if we can control who gets to win and who loses, we put all sorts of pressure on ourselves about whether we are good enough to win and we form communities based on winners and losers, giving the message that only winners are welcome here.  Second, we opt out of the game itself.  Since by grace I have already won, I no longer need to play.  Whenever you hear Christians treating the environment as a temporary resource that doesn’t matter because, after all, we’re going to heaven anyway, that’s a cop out of the game.  Whenever communities get so wrapped up in personal devotion that they ignore what is going on outside of them, that’s a cop out as well.  Whenever, and this is what I see among mainline churches, faith becomes compartmentalized, a cross-shaped pendant among other beads on a necklace that represents our lives when faith should be the chain that keeps all the beads together, that is a cop out of the game.
                In talking about the incarnation, one of the things I have said is that, Jesus coming among us as one of us, gives greater purpose and importance to this life, this moment right now.  And what is that greater purpose?  We may all answer that differently depending on which part of the gospel we are reading.  The purpose seems to be expressed in a collection of values and vision:  love, abundant life, hope, joy, peace.  One theme that occurs again and again is that of freedom.  We heard a bit about that in our gospel lesson this morning.  John the Baptist sits in prison, wondering if he has wasted his life, wondering if Jesus is the real Messiah, the one he proclaimed, the one he waited for, the one Israel waited for.  And Jesus tells the messengers to tell John what they see.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  This isn’t just about a celebration of the miraculous; this is about people being given freedom.  These are images that go back to the prophet Isaiah who used similar language to describe Israel set free from the power of the Babylonian empire.  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  Jesus wants John and all of us to know that in Jesus God is setting the world free.  It is important to note that in the first century, things like blindness and deafness, premature death and poverty were seen as the result of somebody’s (either the person or a parent or an ancestor) sin.  So when Jesus comes on the scene healing and raising and bringing  good news, it’s all part of freedom from sin, from the guilt of our mistakes, from the whispered voices of our failures reminding us that we will fail again, freedom from the shame that tells us that if someone knew that real me, they would hate me.
            Jesus sets us free not to pull us out of the game, but so that we can play the game with joy, so that the game of life itself becomes heaven for us.  That’s the whole point of the nativity and incarnation, Jesus comes to enter the game with us, to change it for us, to turn it from a job on which our life depends into a game played with love and joy.
            You could say that Jesus comes to change our status from professional to amateur.  Professional players are those whose livelihoods depend on their ability to play.  Amateurs are those who play for love, without pressure, without worry of failure.  Amateurs can fail and yet win because it really is about the joy of playing more than the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
            You know how you feel which you watch the sunset at Chappequoit beach?  You know how you feel when you have helped someone out of tight space?  You how you feel when you feel loved or love someone else?  Do you remember how you felt when you had your first crush?  Do you remember how you felt when you learned to ride a bike?  Do you remember how it feels to drink a simple glass of water when you are really thirsty?  That is the joy of the game.  Jesus sets us free so we can enjoy living.  That does not mean it will always be fun.  Sometimes life will be painful and sometimes stressful and sometimes sad, but even in those moments that can be an underlying and abiding joy, a sense of peace found in the love of God that is always present even in the midst of the deepest losses.
            But there is another part of this game, one that we sometimes forget because we have a tendency to turn in ourselves, to say, “I am so thankful that Jesus has set me free.”  I think what Jesus shows us in the incarnation is that to be fully human is to be free, but we only live out that humanity when we seek to set others free.  The true joy of living is found in allowing others to be free, to also be free from shame and guilt, from the fear of failure, to be free from arbitrary judgments and the crushing weight of poverty.  This is the divine direction in which Christ sends us, eternal life is being set free to set others free.

            Eternal life is not winning the game; it is playing the game.  Jesus entered the game to play alongside us, not so that we could win, but to show us that the winning is in the playing and the playing is in the winning.  So get in the game people.  You have been set free to get in the game.  You have been set free to set others free.  Get in the game.

December 4, 2016 - 2nd Sunday in Advent - Incarnation Part 2

There was a time in the life of the church when none of you would have been welcome.   You would have walked in the door and eventually someone would have asked you how you were connected to Judaism.  Because that was where the church began, with a Jewish Messiah born to Jewish parents in a village in Israel.  His first disciples were all Jewish and although he had a few interactions with Gentiles, non-Jewish people, they are exceptions in the narrative.  Perhaps the most memorable is at the end of the passion story when a Roman soldier, witnessing his death, recognizes that there is something important about this man, saying, “Truly this man was son of God.”
                But to my knowledge most of you are Gentiles and members of the earliest church would say that you do not belong.  This has always been the challenge of the incarnation.  We assume that Jesus’ physical appearance or lineage is the standard for what it means to be human.  In the early church, it was Jews saying that because Jesus was Jewish, everyone who follows him should be Jewish too, obedient to the law especially the physical law around circumcision.  The twelve apostles took it for granted that the extent of the ministry was Israel and the gospel was for the children of Israel.  It was Paul who expanded the vision, who told them that Christ was bigger, that to be human was more than a matter of lineage.  The gospel is expansive and open to all.
                Unfortunately, the Gentiles pulled a great reversal and forgot the Jewishness of Jesus, portraying him as a European character, to the point that far too often within Christian history, we have treated the Jewish people as less than human, as threat, as scapegoat.  We labeled the genetic ancestors of Jesus as Christ-killers and felt justified in the exclusion.
                Also in our history, we have focused on the maleness of Jesus which has led to some sad understandings of what it means to be human, with one gender labeled as superior, truly human.  After all, Jesus was male so doesn’t that make male the ideal gender?  And doesn’t that make women inferior in some way?  Even Paul gets tripped up in his vision here, in one passage saying that in Christ there is no longer male or female and in another commanding that women be silent in the assembly, heads covered in humility.  It took almost 1900 years before people started taking the role of women in leadership seriously in any expression of the church, suggesting that a woman could preach to a congregation as pastor.  It took Lutherans an extra 70 years to think that a woman could stand in the place of Christ at the communion table. 
                  This is where a literal reading of scripture can trip us up.  I am going to talk about Lutheranism and scripture later on this year but will say that, at its core, the Lutheran tradition finds value in the Bible in the way that it witnesses to the Word (with a capital “W”) that is Christ and God’s grace in Christ.  The Bible is inspired by God, but it is also a reflection of a specific place and time, an assemblage of very human authors with very human assumptions and predispositions.  It was written by people who thought the Earth was the center of the universe and the stars were little points of light in the sky.  It was written by people who didn’t know that the American continents existed.  It was written by people who had a pretty hazy idea about how bodies worked, what the brain did, what the blood did and where babies come from.  We read good news that has been filtered through 1st century (and older) minds.  New knowledge should inform our reading, new knowledge about anatomy, about psychology, about the planets and universe, new knowledge that has been researched and studied, examined and cultivated, should challenge us to reexamine our reading, not frighten us away from the knowledge itself.
                When I approach the Bible, I look for broad themes rather than hidden messages.  I hear themes of love and life, welcome and acceptance, forgiveness and promise, themes that overshadow the stories about tribalism, exclusion, judgementalism and violence that we have to admit are part of the biblical story.  Those of you with a more literalistic upbringing might accuse me of picking and choosing scripture.  I assure you that you are picking and choosing just as much as me.  Every time you eat a ham sandwich or cook a meal on Saturday or, just for women, come to church without a hat, you are saying that one part of scripture has more weight than another and some words can be ignored.
                Coming back to the incarnation, I do not believe that Jesus was seeking to exclude anyone by coming to us a male Jew.  In fact I think that he was trying to show that everyone is included even those who are commonly ignored.  He does not come in the guise of a powerful and wise person.  He doesn’t come as the next Roman emperor or even the next political king of Israel.  He comes as one of the least, implying that if God can be found in a manger in a backwater town, God can be where you are right now.  If the Messiah comes to earth as a nobody, then God is opening the kingdom to all the nobodies.  If this divine nobody is fully human then all of the nobodies are fully human.
                And once you start to consider that everyone is truly human from those on top to those way at the bottom, you might have to deal with some difficult conclusions.  All the people that you want to reject and ignore and hate are fully human, are included in what it means to be human, are part of what Jesus came to redeem, are included in the love and loving nature of God.   Muslims are fully human.  Refugees are fully human.  Jews are fully human.  Donald Trump is fully human.  Hillary Clinton is fully human. Terrorists (I didn’t say this would easy) are fully human.   Addicts are fully human.  Beggars are fully human.   CEOs are fully human.  Native Americans are fully human.  African Americans are fully human.  Neo-Nazis  (really, I didn’t say it would be easy) are fully human.  Homosexuals are fully human.  Transsexuals are fully human.   And you are fully human.
                You can be fully human and foolish.  You can be fully human and misguided and wrong.  You can be fully human and set that humanity aside to do something terrible and yet in the eyes of God you are still part of the humanity for which Jesus came.  So this is the challenge of the incarnation because our impulse is to reject the people we don’t like and keep them at arm’s length, surrounding ourselves with people who make us comfortable with shared heritage or shared ideas or a shared cultural taste.
                Jesus comes to us fully divine and fully human but as a human that very few us would aspire to be.   What I mean is that while early Christian Jews focused on Christ’s Jewishness and the Christian priesthood focused on his maleness, only a handful of Christians have ever really focused on his poverty and powerlessness as a model (people like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa).  Nobody in our culture says to a child, “I hope you grow up to be a peasant just like Jesus.”  Yet the message of the incarnation is to challenge us to look for Christ where we don’t expect to find him. 
                I suggest that the message of the incarnation is that Christ can be found wherever we don’t want him to be and that challenges us to look and love where we don’t want to look and love.  Because if you don’t want Jesus to be at a Trump rally, that’s exactly where you will find him.  If you don’t want Jesus to be at a Black Lives Matter protest, Jesus will be standing there holding a sign.  If you don’t want Jesus to be in a mosque, you will find him on a prayer mat.  If you don’t want Jesus to be among the poor, he is sleeping near a steam vent.   And it may be that Jesus is to be found at some of these places weeping, but nevertheless he is there where we don’t want to find him, because Jesus is not fully human for the sake of a few people who are the right kind of human.

                Jesus is fully human for the sake of all humanity: the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the wonderful, the strange (and we are all strange to somebody).  This peasant God from Galilee is fully human so that we can find the full humanity of all people, to look at and love all people as he has looked at and loved each one of you.  There was a time in the life of the church when none of you would have been  welcome and there are people whom each one of us would rather not welcome, but the fully human and fully divine one, the peasant God from Galilee, offers a welcome to all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

November 13, 3016 - Do Not Grow Weary in Doing What is Right

When I was a child, I enjoyed a lot of reading.  When I was very young I would go to bed with a pile of books beside me so I could read them to fall asleep but have them near when I woke up.  As I got older I read stories like the Hardy Boys and the Three Detectives and Encyclopedia Brown.  What I never noticed was that all the characters in these books were white, usually white men or boys.  They didn’t make a big deal about their whiteness.  It’s just who they were or at least how they were portrayed on the cover.
                When I got to middle school and high school (in the mid-1980s) and we were taught American Literature, it was mostly comprised of the works of white men (usually troubled white men).  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Sherwood Anderson.  Again, they didn’t make a big deal about being white men (though Hemingway made a big deal about being a real man) and we didn’t talk in class about them being white.  Now and then they would trot out a book called Kaleidoscope that had short stories by more modern authors and authors of color, but when we were asked to discuss “great” literature, it was typically the works of white men.
                When I was in college and seminary, that was when I became aware of people criticizing the white male as the dominant voice of American culture.  And you don’t have to scratch the surface of history too deeply to find stories of white men doing bad things, terrible things in order to be that dominant voice or keep that dominance.   So we started looking for other voices, voices like James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, voices like Gabriel Marquez, Alice Walker and Barbara Kingsolver.  But there are only so many hours in the day and so many books you can read and when you start reading other voices, you don’t have as much time for the classic books of white men.
And they are good books and they still hold up today, but what we have discovered in the past 40 years is that there are other interesting stories and interesting voices in the world.  When I was growing up as a white man I read books about people who looked like me written by people who looked like me.  Today as I look in my children’s rooms, my daughter is currently rereading a book called Wonder, by Raquel Palacio, the story of a boy with facial deformities trying to fit into a new class.  She recently finished the biography of a transgendered teenager.  My son likes sports books and recently finished the biography of an African runner.  His favorite book of late is A Home on the Field, the true story of how the children of Hispanic poultry factory workers (some legal and some illegal immigrants) developed a state winning soccer team in rural North Carolina.  They are listening to other voices, more diverse voices, and not so much in protest as they simply find them more interesting.
This is one of the transitions that America is going through right now as we become more diverse.   That is simply what is happening.  It’s far too late to stop it with border walls and immigration bans.  America is becoming more diverse and that freaks people out.  The story of dominant white males is being crowded out by other stories.  And even worse than being told that your story is bad, is being told that your story is boring or irrelevant.
At no point in this next part am I looking for someone to say, “You poor middle-aged white guy,” but my experience as a white guy in the ELCA has been one of seeming increasingly irrelevant.  Remember, up until the 1970s, Lutheran pastors were pretty much all white men.  Diversity was whether you were a Jensen or Nielsen or Schultz or Schmidt.    But as the ELCA became more diverse, the stories of pastors were far more interesting, stories of women who started down a career path and then became pastors when that new path was opened to them , African-American men and women who grew up in the urban housing projects, people who struggled to make ends meet during their education and overcame the barriers of a resistant church and resistant congregations, stories of bilingual pastors leading aging congregations from potluck suppers with jello salads to fiestas with homemade tortillas.  My story:  I went to college and then to seminary.  I didn’t struggle to pay for it because I grew up with some advantages, had some really good pizza in Chicago and now here I am.   It is not that interesting and tends to get pushed to the side because it is just a standard, white guy in America story.  And I am fine with it getting pushed aside because other stories need to be heard and celebrated and acknowledged.
Looking at some of the rhetoric of the election and how the voting broke down, some of Tuesday’s results are a pushback by a white America saying, “Pay attention to us.  Don’t push us aside.  We are still relevant,” a group for whom making America great again means returning to a time of cultural relevance and dominance.   And the problem with that is America has changed.  According to the Pew Research Foundation, about 1 in 3 eligible voters this year were people of color.  In the year 2000, it was about 1 in 5.  The problem is that this is not the same America as when it was “great” and even then it was not great for everybody.
And as I thought about this, I also thought about the church and how often I hear us pining for the past, the big choirs and the Sunday schools, and we also have this feeling of being pushed to the side and being irrelevant to the conversation.  And there are parts of the church that have become irrelevant.  Most of America doesn’t care about hymns and pipe organs.  Most of America doesn’t care about historic buildings.  Most of America doesn’t care about committees and sub-committees.  That is all cultural stuff that we have built up and has allowed us to forget why it is we gather.  We gather for the most relevant reason, because of the love of God in Christ and we are sent with the love of God in Christ to the world.  And if we are grounded in that love and living that love then we are, by definition, relevant.
It was very tempting today to dig deep into the lesson from Malachi with its message of God burning up the evildoers or Jesus’ message of “Everything will be thrown down.”  Now that the election is over, it feels like people want to say, “That talk was just how you win the campaign.”  I know of many people who are wondering that if hate and insults is how you get elected, we have a broken system.  We end the campaign with ethnic groups and many women wondering what their real status is in America.  I’ve heard a couple of stories of Muslim children, children of American citizens, waking up on Wednesday and wondering if they get to stay in the country.  So it is tempting to take the path of panic and say, “Everything will be thrown down.”
Yet regarding the election, we are a nation of laws, so we will probably have 4 years where half of America has a president it doesn’t really like (but that has been the case most of my life).  I guess Nixon got 60% of the popular vote in 1972 but we know how that turned out.  If people can keep their fingers off buttons, half us will enjoy 4 years and half of us will endure 4 years and then we will see.
So I want to close with a focus on the final words of the reading from 2 Thessalonians.  First we have Paul challenging idleness in the community.  I guess you can keep that in mind as you fill out your Time and Talent Sheets this week.  (Anyone unwilling to work, gets no cake).  But he closes with a simple statement, yet one that is deep in relevance.  “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

This election shows that we as a country may not always agree on what is right, but as a community of faith we have been given some pretty significant clues.  Love is always right.  Compassion is always right.  Looking at a person, whatever their story or their status or their political leaning, and seeing a child of God is always right.  If we hope to be relevant in the next few years, it will not be because organ music comes back in style, it will be because we lived out the love of God.  So whether you feel disappointed by the election, or fearful because of the election or elated by it, the message is the same, “Do not be weary in doing what is right.”

November 6, 2016 - All Saints' Sunday

I have avoided talking about the election much.  There may have been a couple of references to the candidates along the way but I have not been trying to sway you.  It would be problematic if I were to endorse a candidate, threatening our tax exempt status.  Thankfully, with each passing day and each passing news story, both major candidates are making it easy not to endorse them.  What I will do is give you the advice of Saint Augustine that I have mentioned in a couple of places.  In a sermon on 1 John he announced a small commandment, “Love and do what you will.”

                It is actually a beautiful quote so I will give it to you in its entirety:  “Therefore once for all this short command is given to you, ‘Love and do what you will.’  If you keep silent, keep silent by love, if you speak, speak by love; if you correct, correct by love; if you pardon, pardon by love:  let love be rooted in you, and from this root nothing but good can grow.”  And to be clear, he is not talking about self-love but love that is turned out toward others.  So if you vote, vote by love.

                Love and do what you will.  Some people will say that words like these are simply an invitation to lawlessness.  It sounds like it could be a motto from a hippie commune from the 60s.  And periodically in Christian history we have movements that say, “Christ set us free so do whatever you want.”  That is not what Augustine had in mind.  This quote comes from a fairly conservative bishop from the 4th century who saw much of humanity’s problems arising from wills and passions that are out of control.  He took quite seriously Paul’s line of, “I do not do the thing I want, but the thing I do not want is what I do.”  It was Augustine who began building on Paul’s concept of grace, an idea that Luther rediscovered centuries later.  For Augustine, our passions are out of control: wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth, pride.  It is a sign of our fallen nature that we are out of control.  It is only with God’s help that we can be reined in.  Discipleship is a process of getting back in control.  But we cannot manage it on our own; we need consistent exposure to God and God’s love.  This is what sustains the process of discipleship.

                So Augustine would say, “Love and do what you will” but only after you have been exposed to the love that is God.  As George Oliver is baptized today we say this is a beginning.  Of course we are not saying that God has been absent in George’s life through September and October.  But today God is doing a new thing and, as the community welcomes him in our midst, he is being exposed to God in a new way.  It is the start of a new stage of an eternal relationship.  Today he will be washed, sprinkled, dipped and drowned in that divine love.
                Start from that love and you will want to do different things and come to different conclusions about what is important and how to live than if you start from fear or if you start from anger.  Start from that love, and you will have a much better sense that even the mistakes that you will make are not the end of the world.  Because sometimes you will forget about that love, you will make decisions based on selfishness or pride or fear or anger or passions out of control.  But it is that divine love that allows us to say, “Oops” and try again.  It is that divine love that accepts us even after the mistake and not just because we avoided making one.

                It is a divine love that helps us see the world differently.  Whenever we read the beatitudes in either Luke or Matthew, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” I am afraid that sometimes we tune it out.  You know when you are on an airline and the flight attendants give the mandated safety speech, maybe you check for the nearest exit but as you are checking you notice that everyone else is just tuning out.  These days they are doing last minute texts before flying or paging through the in-flight magazine to see if someone has already done the crossword.  And I think there are two major reasons for this move.  First, many people have heard it before and so don’t feel they need to hear it again.  Second, you just don’t want to imagine that you will need this information.  You don’t want to imagine that the masks will fall out due to a loss of cabin air pressure.  I think the Beatitudes are much the same.  We hear them and think, “I know how this goes.  Jesus is talked about blessing” so we don’t necessarily pay attention.  But I think we also hear them and don’t want to think about them, think about their implications.

                Because as lovely as they are Jesus’ words also a great challenge.  Especially in Luke where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” and then says, “Woe to you who are rich.”  And “Blessed are the hungry” then “Woe to you who are filled.”  Where he says, “Blessed are you who weep.” And then says, “Woe to you who laugh now.”  We want to assume that whenever Jesus is talking about blessing, we are part of it.  Yet there are not many of us who can say honestly, “I am poor and hungry and weeping, “even fewer who would aspire to be poor and hungry and weeping. 

                I think that in these beatitudes, Jesus is challenging some very common assumptions about God and God’s love, that one’s status is a reflection of one’s character.  Now in what I am about to say, I don’t want to take away from the importance of diligence and commitment.  Living a disciplined life can change a lot of things for you.  Working hard can make things happen.  At the same time, every time society has assumed that a group is poor because they are lazy or morally bankrupt and every time society has assumed that wealthy people must be hardworking or have high moral standards  we have bought into the very idea that Jesus challenges in the beatitudes.  Jesus speaks to those in poverty and says, “You are not poor because you are bad and God loves you less.”  Jesus speaks to those who are wealthy and says, “You are not rich because you are good and God loves you more.”

                There have been rich saints and poor saints and saints who have voluntarily chosen poverty and God loves them all.  Wealth doesn’t make a saint.  Hard work doesn’t make a saint.  Even perfect morality and self-discipline don’t make a saint.  What makes a saint is the love of God that has come to us in Christ Jesus.  What makes a saint is going to be found today in the waters of the font and in bread and wine at the table.  What makes a saint is the Word at work in words of scripture and the words of preaching and in words of prayer and in the words of support and peace for one another.  What makes a saint is love.

                When we are grounded in the love of God, then we are saints walking on earth.  Then Augustine makes perfect sense in saying “Love and do what you will.”  Grounded in love the thing we want to do is the very thing God hopes for us to do.  It doesn’t need to be bound in extra rules and regulations.  What love looks like may depend on the situation, the people involved, the time and place.  Sometimes love is saying “Yes” and sometimes love is saying “No.”  But as Augustine says, “Let love be rooted in you, and from this root nothing but good can grow.”  Let love be rooted in you and let love send you out as saints in the world.

November 27, 2016 - First Sunday in Advent - Incarnation 1

Since we are entering the 500th year of the Reformation, I am going to be spending time with some of the common themes that defined the reforming movement that started with Martin Luther.  I am also going to talk about their implications for the church and how they have developed over time.  We will talk about some of the standard ones like justification by grace through faith.  We are going to talk about word and sacrament.  We are going to talk about less familiar themes like the priesthood of all believers and two kingdoms theology.
                As we begin, I want to start by sharing my understanding of the Lutheran tradition.  First and foremost, the Lutheran church is defined by a particular understanding of God, a particular theology.  This understanding of God is what shapes our worship practices and our service practices.  But we are not defined by the practices.  The things we do grow out of what we believe.  This is why if you were to travel from church to church in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, you would find churches worshiping in a variety of styles, some traditional liturgy, some contemporary and some completely different.  You will find churches worshiping in several different languages, from Swedish to Spanish to Chinese to Arabic.  You will find congregations engaging in a variety of ways of service: local, national and international.  You will find Lutherans engaged in directly caring for those in need, political advocacy, environmental work and advocacy.  And all of this work: worship, feeding the hungry, advocating for justice, helping people recover from disaster, local efforts to clean the environment, resettling refugees, organizing adoptions, operating senior care facilities, falls under the umbrella term of being evangelical.  We use that word in a different way than other groups who take that name.  Whereas the Evangelical tradition in the United States seems to focus on bringing people to Jesus, the Lutheran tradition sees the meaning of evangelical as sharing Jesus and Jesus’ vision with the world. 
                I remember a conversation I had with an Evangelical Baptist in Pennsylvania who insisted that it was the Baptists who really knew how to do evangelism.  “In all kinds of weather we were out on the street corners of Harrisburg handing out tracts.”  If you are not familiar (because I don’t see too many tracts handed out in New England) tracts are pamphlets with a summary of the Evangelical version of the gospel.  I used to find them all over the place in Pennsylvania because not only can you hand them out on street corners but you can leave them in random places.  There was a popular one disguised as a discarded $10 bill because who isn’t going to pick up a $10 bill?  And the pamphlets told a common story.  You had to recognize that you are sinner unworthy of heaven, repent and invite Jesus into your heart or seek God’s righteousness.  And the last page was usually a prayer you could say to invite Jesus into your heart or pray for God’s righteousness.  And if you said the prayer and meant it, then you had been evangelized. 
                Traditionally for Lutherans, evangelism is not so much about bringing people to Jesus as it is being Jesus for the world.  When we feed the hungry, we are evangelizing.  When we visit the lonely, we are evangelizing.  When we work for justice and peace, we are evangelizing.  And when we invite people to experience worship and the sacrament, we are evangelizing.  A weakness of this view is that we can do a lot of these things without mentioning Jesus by name which means we sometimes have trouble seeing these as acts of faith and evangelism and they are not always perceived by those outside as acts of faith (Aren’t those Lutherans so nice?).  We have trouble articulating the “why” behind the actions, often just doing them because that is what we do.  I believe that a strength of this view is we can do these things without mentioning Jesus by name, because it means that we are breaking down the divide between the sacred life and daily life.  We are dismantling the division between common time outside and Jesus time in the building.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about Jesus as the one who leads us to evangelize.  We are growing into an incarnational faith, a faith that is lived by being Jesus for the world.
                And that leads to the first step on this path of theology.  It is the season of Advent and we are looking toward the Christmas celebration.  So for the next few weeks, I am going to be focused on a critical idea in Lutheran theology which is the incarnation.  In Jesus we experience the grace of God as God coming to us as one of us.   In Jesus’ time this was a radical idea because it was understood that there was a strong division between the divine and the human.  God is in the heavenly realm and this is a good thing because God’s holiness is so great that it would destroy anyone who encountered it.  You cannot look upon the face of God and live.  For Judaism the Temple in Jerusalem was the one place that you could have a direct encounter with the holy and that only happened once a year to the high priest on the day of atonement.
                In Jesus, God breaks the division between the divine and the human by coming to us fully divine and fully human.   As Martin Luther wrote in a discussion on Galatians, “When we all must struggle with the Law, sin, death, and the devil, we must look at no other God than this incarnate and human God.”  God becomes a God who takes people by the hand, who breaks bread, who embraces and smiles and laughs and weeps.  God makes eye contact with you when you speak.  God knows what it is like to be hungry and thirsty.  God knows the nature of joy and the nature of pain and the smell of fresh bread.  The human God has paid attention to this reality and this has important implications that I will talk more about in the coming weeks.
                One implication is that this life, this reality, this creation matters.  Although many modern Christians have the sense that the goal of faith is to be raptured away, the prevailing image in scripture is this reality transformed.  In the image of Revelation, it is not everyone going up and out, it is the creation transformed when the New Jerusalem comes down.  Jesus does much the same.  What we remember as miracles, healing the sick, walking on water, feeding crowds with a little bread and a couple fish, are signs that the world is not the same.  The holy has been among us.  The division has been broken.  As Jesus says in Mark, “The kingdom of God has come near.”
                And so we as God’s people are called to live in that transformed world, to live as if the world were, in fact,  transformed.  We are called to live finding the holy in the ordinary.  We are called to live seeing creation as good and significant.  We are called to live without a division between regular time and Jesus time. 
                But most importantly, we are called to continue the incarnation, not just believe in the idea of God among us as us, but to be the incarnation for the world around us.  Martin Luther wrote in his book The Freedom of a Christian, “Each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all.”  In Christ it is not just the world that has been transformed but us as well.  So there should be a part of us that feeds the hungry and cares for those in need and loves the stranger not so we can help them know Jesus but because that is what we do, because in the actions themselves we are encountering Jesus.   I don’t breathe so I can prove that air exists, I breathe because that’s what I do and if I stop breathing I stop being me.

                The incarnation means that faith is not just a collection of ideas to believe, but a vision to be shared, a life to be lived.  Christ is among us as one of us.  May you grow in faith so that you can be Christ for those around you and together we can be Christ for the world.

November 20, 2016 - Christ the King Sunday

This morning you will be invited to dedicate your financial pledges and Time and Talent sheets for 2017.  Whenever we come to this part of year, where we are talking both about stewardship and planning the annual budget, I am reminded of the strange dual role that I have within the congregation.  Formally, I am your minister of Word and Sacrament and in that role, I will have a particular message about giving that is gospel-based.  But practically, I am also a church administrator, a member of the church council, and that will lead to a different message about giving that is more need-based.  That’s the role where I have to look at the church budget and say, “The people need to give more.”
                I know some of you will respond, “No, we need more members,” but my challenge to you as a church administrator is to say that this group that is gathered here this morning, is responsible for the future of the congregation.  This group is the group who will decide how we will move forward.  You will decide if we can move forward in a strong and balanced way, and as I wrote in the letter of appeal, that wouldn’t be a huge leap.  If every individual here right now gave $5 more each week, I don’t think we would have a deficit or certainly not much of one.  You have to decide whether $5 or $10 a week is an insurmountable burden, an annoyance, or a step in growing generosity.   You have to make these decisions.  You will decide if we move forward surviving on a deficit, relying on emergency appeals.  And for those of you whose response to giving appeals is a need for new members, understand that the instability of that way forward is not attractive.  People don’t want to come and fix our problems.  They want to come and experience the gospel.  They want to find the love of Christ.  They want to encounter God.  And this is why I am not fan of the church administrator role of the pastor.  As an administrator, I have to come before you and attach strings to the faith.  I have to talk about the faith in terms of “If-then.”  If you don’t give, then you won’t have the church you hope to experience and share.
                And that is where my role as minister of the Word and Sacrament comes into conflict, because the gospel cuts those strings.  The gospel sets us free from those things we have to do or should be doing.  To really understand what I mean, I need to take you back about 2000 years to an organizing principal known as patronage.  Patronage is the original pyramid scheme and was one of the ways Greeks and Romans maintained order in society.  The emperor is at the top of the pyramid.  Beneath him are his advisors in positions of power.  They do favors for the emperor, pay taxes, give their daughters in arranged marriages for political gain, give their sons as army officers.  The emperor returns the favor by giving them authority over another group of people, who do favors for them.  There is no real gratitude in this system.  It’s more like the gangster movie scene where the boss grants a favor and then says, “Someday down the line, I may ask a favor of you…”  And the people below are always somehow obligated to the people above and everyone is obligated to the man at the top.
                This still affects us today in our rules of etiquette.  Never show up empty-handed to someone’s house.  Always write a thank-you note.  When signs of gratitude become a rule and not a response, we are looking at the vestiges of the system of patronage.
                Unfortunately, our faith is also shaped by this system.  God, if you save me from this crisis, I will become a monk.  If I come every Sunday, then I will go to heaven.  These days I hear this especially in Evangelical circles where often the good news is described in terms of, “If you prove your faithfulness to God, God will reward you in this life and the next.”  It is very hard to escape the system of divine Quid pro quo, this for that, because it makes much more sense than the gospel itself.  This can be especially tempting on a Sunday with a title like Christ the King.  Faith becomes us acting as faithful subjects so that the king can reward us.
                But did you hear the gospel story?  Did you hear the interaction of Jesus and the thief crucified with him?  This man crucified with Jesus cries out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He appeals to the one whom he has realized is the true king, who is the true authority of the world, the one who has all the power and yet embraces the powerlessness of the cross.  There is no favor that this man can do for that king.  His life will soon be over.  He has nothing to offer.  And to this one Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 
                This phrase of Jesus has born a long debate in the nature of the meaning of eternal life.  In most other places, the authors of scripture proclaim a day of resurrection, somewhere in the future, where the living and dead will be united together.  Paul writes in 1  Corinthians, “The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised.”  But Jesus’ answer here in Luke is immediate.  Today you will be with me in paradise. 
                Yet we can be so excited about that message that we lose the sense of the meaning.  In that moment all the strings that bound this man, his guilt, his past actions, have been cut away.  Yet just as importantly, there are no further strings attached.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Okay, but…”  Okay, but from now on you have to believe in the literal word of the Bible.  Okay, but from now on you have to say you believe in the Trinity even though you don’t get it.  Okay, but from now on I expect you to tithe and fast and pray several times a day.  And truth be told, religion would be a lot easier if Jesus did say this sort of thing because then we would know what to do.
                Instead Jesus does this overwhelming favor and asks nothing in return.  He gives himself, dies on the cross but then gives us another a gift, a resurrection, a message, that to give is to live.  The resurrection tells us that real life is found in generosity, in giving ourselves, in giving away.  The Christian ethic can be summed up in the idea, “You know how you felt when you found out that I had died for you, that you were really free?  Make other people feel that way.”  Be generous because it is hope for the world; because it is right; because it is joy; because it is life.
                The church administrator in me says, “Give it away to the church.”  And that’s not a bad thing because, once we get beyond the heating oil and the salaries, we do some amazing, life-giving work.  Your giving is connected to the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal which feeds people and teaches them to feed themselves all over the world.  It is connected to Lutheran Disaster Relief which is active around the globe.  And locally, I received an email this past week from a young woman who attended our congregation for about a year before she moved away.  It was a thank you for the way we welcomed her and helped her rediscover her connection to faith.  The church administrator says, “Give it away and support that work.”
                The minister of Word and Sacrament says, “Give it away wherever it gives life.”  Give to people who are feeding  other people like the service center.  Give to people who are housing other people like Belonging to Each Other.  Give to medical research.   Give to any place where you see someone being set free because that is where God is at work. 
                Jesus has given himself to you without any strings attached.  And it is very hard not to turn his example into a string, saying something like, “Jesus has given freely so you should give freely.”  His example is not a mandate, but it is a gift.  I think one of the things that keeps us from being generous is the fear that we will not have enough, that when we give of ourselves, we will have less.  I think that what Jesus is trying to show us is that when we give of ourselves without strings attached, that is where life begins, that is where resurrection happens.

                So my challenge to you both as church administrator and minister of word and sacrament is this.  Give generously so that we can be a community that gives generously to the world.  Give without strings attached so that we can act as a witness to God who gives without strings attached.  Give so that others may give.  Give freely so that others may be free.  Give joyfully so that other may find joy.  Give because it is right; because it is hope.  Give because it is in giving away that life begins, life with no strings attached.

Monday, October 31, 2016

October 30, 2016 - Reformation Sunday

Last week I talked about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and said I would talk this morning about how we keep discovering the way of the Pharisee.  Just a review on that, the way of the Pharisee is not all bad.  The primary belief of this form of the Jewish religion was that anyone could live a righteous life, God had revealed what it means to be righteous in the Torah.  The Pharisees studied that law and interpreted it as times changed.  As Israel went from being a nomadic people to a settled, farming people, to a city people, especially around Jerusalem, to being an occupied people, the meaning of the text changed.  Work means a different thing to a farming people than a city people.  Most of the discussions of tithing in Leviticus are based on an animal economy, everyone has a flock and dedicates every tenth animal to God.  What happens when you go to a money-based economy?  The Pharisees asked these kinds of questions and helped Israel adapt their religion to changing times.  Especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. it was this flexibility that allowed Judaism to continue.
                They were more focused on daily life than formal Temple religion.  This made them some of the more popular teachers because they talked about practical matters of faith.  How should I prepare my food?  How should I wash my dishes?  How should I do these daily things in a way that is pleasing to God?  The Pharisees offered an answer, and the people who followed their teaching had the confidence that they were living lives pleasing to God.
                So that sounds good to me: a practical faith; a day to day faith.  I spend a lot of effort on the on the goal that what we do here on Sunday morning will walk out the door and affect you on Monday morning.  How does a group that, on the face of it, seems to be helpful and faithful, become the adversaries to Jesus?  For one thing, rule-based religion tends to leave people behind.  It is a lot easier to talking about tithing 10% when you have a surplus of income.  It is much easier to observe a Sabbath when you know you have enough food for the day.  This kind of theology also struggles to deal with tragedy.  When you have been taught that righteous are rewarded and bad things happen to bad people, this kind of theology falls apart when tragedy strikes because either there is a secret sin you didn’t know about or God is unfair.  But fundamentally,  I think it is what happens to many religious traditions and certainly happens within Christianity.  We turn a good idea into a law.  We turn a way of honoring God into something you have to do and if you are not doing it, you must not be a good Christian.  And at our worst, we get so attached to the rules, figuring out who is following them best, who is breaking them, that we miss the fact that Jesus came to set us free from this very line of thinking.
                  For example, the Sabbath is a great idea.  It is a gift that reminds us that we are not made to work all the time, that we need to rest.  I think everyone should find time for Sabbath, whether a day a an intentional hour.  Resting on the Sabbath is a traditional way to honor God, and in Jesus’ time, people wanted to do it right.  The Pharisees had long lists of Sabbath rules to help them.  And Jesus comes not to disagree with the Sabbath as a good idea, but with the burden the rules could create.  You don’t have to go hungry to observe the Sabbath.  Pick some food if you need it.  You can heal people on the Sabbath.  It is a day for setting people free.  The Sabbath was made for you; you were not made for the Sabbath. 
                It’s a beautiful message and a beautiful way of being.  It is so easy to get wrapped in Christianity as a way of life, but Jesus seems to present faith much more as a way of being in the world, a way of seeing the world.  Jesus presents a vision where we have been set free from the social and family structures that often bind us, told that the last will be first and the first will be last; we have been set free from the mistakes that pursue us, told by a joyful Messiah that our sins are forgiven; we have been set free from the fear of death, by a Son of God who accepts death and walks away from it leaving an empty tomb; we have been set free by the love of God to love the world and love the people God has made.  It is a beautiful vision.
                But you know what is easier and more practical?  Following rules.  Just telling people to love God is nebulous but telling people to love God by tithing 10% or telling people to love God by going to church each Sunday or telling people to love God by obeying God’s church, that’s more concrete.  Once again, the Roman Catholic church of the Middle Ages was popular.  It helped people feel secure in their relationship with God.  It told people, “Do this list of things and God will love you, accept you and forgive you.”  Of course, that open up all sorts of possibilities for abuse, but it also provides a way to say, “I am living a righteous life ; I am living a good life.”
                Martin Luther was one of those folks who felt left behind in that system.  Today we might call him obsessive, but he just couldn’t get behind the idea that our actions alone, no matter how frequent, no matter how holy, could free us from our mistakes, especially when it comes to the way our minds work.  I go to the confessional.  I do my penance.  But then these thoughts creep in.  I’m jealous of people.  I’m selfish.  I’m spiteful and hateful and now I need to confess again and the cycle never ends.  The gospel only works if it is God who chooses to set me free.  That’s the grace we talk about in our tradition.  It only works if it is God acting and not us.  This is why Romans 3 was such good news, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift.”  By grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.
                But you know what is easier and more practical?  Following rules.  Oddly for our tradition that seems to have gotten much more wrapped up in rules of liturgy and organization.  The greatest arguments in the churches I have served have been about the dippiest things: the shoes the acolytes were wearing, the color of the paraments, which committee makes the road sign, which mixer for the kitchen.  Yet there was this sense that we had to get it right, that there was a right way to do it and that really mattered.  And people were left out because traditions were too strong and new ideas were frowned upon.  Others left because they were asking, “Is this really what God’s church is about?  There has to be something more than the color of the pew cushions.”
In response to these deficiencies, we have seen the rise of more Bible-centered traditions.  They serve as a critique, really questioning whether the things that we thought were so important actually matter.   We get wrapped in the rules liturgy and they come on the scene with worship that looks nothing like ours and the world does not end.  However, we are at this strange place where seemingly the most popular and growing traditions are the most rule-based.  They use very positive language about it, things like “Biblical principles for successful living” or “How to live God’s way,” but subscribe to a literalism that the Bible was ever intended to have and offer a faith that is similar to what the Pharisees were promoting.  Let us show you how to live a righteous life or a godly life.  And again, it is not bad in and of itself.  Many people are changed by it and deepen their faith through it.  I am reminded of a story that one of my seminary professors, Ralph Klein, in Chicago told me.  He was waiting at the airport and one of his neighbors in the terminal engaged him in conversation.  When he found out that Dr. Klein taught at a Lutheran seminary he said, “I used to be a Lutheran.  Now I go to Willow Creek (a nondenominational megachurch).  I go to church twice a week.  I help guide traffic for one of the services.  I tithe my income.”  And I remember Ralph said he wondered how to grow that kind of enthusiasm within Lutheranism while at the same couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector we heard last week.   If you recall the Pharisee came before God bragging about what a great and faithful guy he was because of the things he did while the tax collector stood before God acknowledging his need for God’s mercy.
And people do get left behind in this model, because when you are bound up in literalism, it is very difficult to talk about things like same-sex relationships or interfaith discussions.  When you are focused on personal piety, it can be very difficult to talk about social justice and advocating for those in need and seeing that as part of Christ’s message.  When you think you have figured out God’s way, it can be very difficult to respect those who don’t follow it.
What I am saying is that no one gets it right on this end.  As long as we think we have it right, we are missing the point.  The only one who has it right, who has ever had it right, is God.  Jesus, the divine one walking among us, came to show us what right looks like but not to turn right into a rulebook.
I sometimes imagine the gospel story as though Jesus comes to us and sings this marvelous song of love and life and then he says to each of us, “Go and sing your song of love and life.”  And some people respond saying, “We don’t want to sing the song, but we will listen to other people sing (and then critique it).”  And some people respond saying, “We will research and learn how to sing exactly the song that you sang, because that is the only way to do it right, Jesus.”  And other people listen and say, “We will sing song of love and life, but we’ll include a few verses about death to our enemies.”  And other people say, “We will sing the song if you agree to pay us or bless us in some fashion.” 
And Jesus looks at us and loves us saying, “You don’t have to sing my song.  Listen to my song but also listen to all the songs that are out there.  Listen to the songs of Israel.  Listen to my song but also listen to Buddha’s song and Muhammad’s song.  You don’t have like the whole thing but you’ll be surprised how much beautiful music is there.  Listen to the songs of the universe.  Listen to the songs of Steven Hawking and Rachel Carson and Neil Degrasse Tyson.  Listen to the love songs of parents and children: lullabies and silly songs and songs to make us wiggle and dance.  Listen to the songs of lovers: tender songs and whispered songs and songs of promise.  Listen to all these songs and then go and sing your song of life and love.  Sing it because it is what you were made to do.  Sing it because it is the song that is in your heart.  I sang first to teach you what music sounds like, but you go and sing your song life and love.  This is the kind of praise God hopes for.”

Sisters and brothers, sing your song.  It doesn’t have to be on key.  It doesn’t have to have perfect rhythm or compelling lyrics.  It doesn’t even have to follow the conventional rules of music.  Let your life be your song of life and love.  Dedicate it to God who gave you breath to sing and showed what love and life mean in the first place.  You have been set free to sing your song.  You have been set free to be life and love for the world.

Monday, October 24, 2016

October 23, 2016 - A Faithful Religion

The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector should come to us as a warning.  This is a story about what happens when we think we have faith figured out, when a philosophy of faith is taken to the extreme.  The Pharisee in the story is an easy target.  The Pharisees are the bad guys of the gospels.  They are the ones who create difficult rules to follow, who challenge Jesus’ authority.  They are so judgmental and so legalistic.  One might say, “I’m so glad that we are not like those Pharisees.” Ignoring the irony of saying it.

                It turns out that historically the Pharisees were not so bad.  In fact, they end up as some of the heroes of ancient Judaism.  What was their religious philosophy?  God had revealed how to live a righteous life in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) but the Torah needed some interpretation.  Even in Jesus’ time, the stories of the Torah were centuries old.  When it says, “Don’t work on the Sabbath,” what does that mean?  How many steps can someone take before walking becomes work?  The rabbis got together and debated these questions.  They then created bodies of interpretive work like the Talmud which showed people what it means to be righteous. 

                That work gave people certainty and security.  It made them feel better about their relationship with God.  A few decades after Jesus, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, it was the Pharisees who were able to continue Judaism.  Judaism, as we know it today, is a product of the work of the Pharisees.  If you look at their writings you will also find that it is not all about making law.  It is instead about living a righteous life, a life that pleases God.  For the most part, they were popular, not seen as creating burdens.  Instead, most people saw them as freeing them from difficult decisions.  If you don’t have worry about how to live, then you can just go about the business of living.  This is still a popular message.  Walk into almost any Evangelical church, any Baptist church, any megachurch; listen to almost any Protestant preacher on television, you are going to hear a message about how to live a faithful life or the rewards of living a faithful life.  I’m going to talk more next week about how we keep adopting this way of thinking and why it is problematic.

The Pharisees we encounter in the gospels are probably a bit exaggerated by the authors for dramatic effect, and certainly the Pharisee in the parable is a caricature but Jesus is making point.  Almost any time a religion is based on a particular way of life, somewhere there is transition and the people who follow that way of life end up judging people who don’t.  The things that the Pharisee talks about are good.  He doesn’t steal from people.  He doesn’t commit adultery.  He fasts, showing self-discipline.  He tithes 10% of his income, showing dedication.  Pull him out of the story and this is someone you wouldn’t mind having sit next to you in the pew. 

The things the Pharisee does are good things.  I know people for whom tithing, intentionally giving away 10% of their income, is a transformative experience.  It forces you to pay attention to what you have and how you use money.  That 10% represents both a discipline and a biblical standard for giving.  People who tithe aren’t looking at church needs to decide what they give, what they give is based on what they have.  Tithing has been transformative on the religious front.  One can argue that a big part of the growth of the evangelical movement is that they challenged people to tithe, which meant a larger income, which meant the ability to simply do more, maintain better facilities and have more paid/full-time staff.  It also meant that while congregations like ours were spending time and energy doing bake sales and yard sales, fundraisers and relying on special emergency appeals, they were developing ministry.  As I said last week, the church you have is a reflection of the stewardship of the people.  If you give just enough to get by, that is what the church will look like.

But as I said there is often a transition that happens where the person who fasts or tithes or adopts some other transformative way of life starts to become judgmental.  First they are so excited about it that they want to tell other people.  And the response they get is underwhelming.  People say “That’s great,” but they don’t start doing it.  I can testify to this with contemplative prayer.  That silent prayer has really transformed how I understand and experience faith and those who have participated seem to have been helped by it, but the general reaction has been, “That’s great, Carl.  I will try to make it some time.”  And there was  a time when I would think to myself, “What is wrong with these people?  This is such a good thing.”  And periodically I find myself going down that road.  I had to realize that the forces that were driving me down the road toward contemplative prayer were not the same forces that were operating in everybody else’s lives.

Yet it is the religious impulse that says, “There is something wrong with the person who isn’t adopting my understanding of faith and practice.”  What Jesus is pointing out in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that you can do wonderful things in the name of God and still miss the mark.  You can be a very religious person and still not be a particularly faithful person.  What seems to happen to us is we teach religion as though it were faith, when religion, whether its prayer or fasting or tithing or Sunday-morning liturgy, is a response to faith.  Faith is a relationship and it is a relationship based on need.  The tax collector in the story knows that he needs God’s help.  The Pharisee thinks God wants him there whether he personally needs it out not.

There is a popular saying these days, “Fake it until you make it.”  If you want to be happy, act like you are happy and eventually you will be happy.  Faith doesn’t work that way.  Traditional religious disciplines can be transforming in some ways.  If you give away 10% of your income to charity as a discipline, other parts of your life will be changed by that action, but that has little to with faith and more to do with being disciplined.  Faith is about being able stand in front of God with your doubts and fears, with your mistakes and failures and knowing that you are welcome and accepted.  Faith is acknowledging your brokenness and imperfections.  Faith is admitting the sins and addictions of our lives to a loving god and by admitting them finding freedom in that love.

And then we respond, with our time, our talent and our money, whatever we have; with our acts of devotion and acts of service; with prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of intercession and prayers of silence.  When we have encountered the love of God in Christ we are freed to turn back to God in love and turn out to others in love.  And when we are living in ways that spread that love or deepen that love, it is pretty hard to mess up the religious part.  There doesn’t need to be a cookie-cutter Christianity by which we measure true faith and worthiness.  If you tithe 10%, 5% or 20%, good for you.  If you say grace before every meal, good for you.  If you get the worship every Sunday, good for you.  But doing these things doesn’t make God love you any more and not doing them won’t make God love you less.

Yet there are some attitudes that need to be present.  There does need to be a sense of humble need, not that God is nice to have around but that God is necessary for us, and there does need to be a sense of gratitude for what God has done in creation, in Christ, in the community of faith.  If the religion that we are living and teaching doesn’t inspire those kinds of feelings, the religious actions we take will be dry disciplines, maybe helpful in some ways but unimportant in the long run; the community that gathers will be a social group maybe with a shared heritage, but only appealing to people with that heritage.

Our faith is not based on the things we do.  We do not have to prove our love for God because God has already proven an infinite love for us.  The things we do are a reflection of our faith.  If we say we have been touched by the love of God but are not moved to respond (and again I am not telling you how to respond but that there needs to be some response) maybe we need to dig deeper into that faith.

The punchline to the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that holy reversal that “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  The story doesn’t say that tax collector left and starting living a clean life.  Instead it says he left justified before God.  It is not that he fixed his mistakes and perfected himself.  Instead, he was the one who trusted God enough to stand before God and admit his brokenness.  He was the one who knew he needed to be at the Temple rather than just feeling good about being there, another duty to check off the list.  He was the one who came before God because he was faithful, and not because he was religious.  May your religion be a reflection of your faith, and may your faith in God’s promise, God’s forgiveness and God’s love deepen and grow.