Wednesday, June 29, 2016

June 26, 2016 - On Letting Go

Today we heard Jesus describing following him as a path of sacrifice.  Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.  It is a path that involves letting go and leaving things behind.  No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

In the part of the Bible, the book of Galatians, Paul describes the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace patience, kindness, generosity faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Add rainbow, lollipops and free-wifi and you will have a utopia.  It makes it sound like following Jesus should be this wonderful experience.

                How do these images fit together?  One is about a Christian community founded by love and dwelling in peace; the other is about a Christian walk shaped by uncertainty and a disconnecting from what was once familiar and comfortable.  How can there be peace in uncertainty?  How can Jesus suggest disconnection as a positive?

                Some of it may be hyperbole, the way that Jesus has of speaking in an extreme way to drive a point home.  If your hand causes you to sin, chop it off and throw it away.  Yet if it is exaggerated, it is language that points to a theme that is part of many religious traditions; there is great peace to be found in detachment.  Flipped around, it is often that to which we are most attached that causes us the greatest grief.

                In the same passage in Galatians when Paul talks about the opposite of the fruits of spirit, what he calls the works of flesh, it is a different list: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery (and the proliferation of this rock and roll music), he’s really talking about becoming overly attached to an aspect of life that in many ways is created good.  Sexuality is good, but an over-attachment to sexuality can become destructive.  Food is good, but an over-attachment to food is unhealthy.  Debate and discussion is good, but an over-attachment to one’s point of view leads to anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions within the community.  If it is always your way or the highway, that is not the Holy Spirit at work.

                From Tuesday to Thursday this past week, Margaret Hall and I were in Grand Rapids, Michigan at Calvin College for the concluding conference around our vital worship grant that helped establish the Still, Small Voice.  There were representatives of thirty grants that were finishing and thirty grants that were starting up that took part.  Groups came from all over the United States and Canada.  They represented several denominations as well as independent congregations and parachurch groups.  It was large and small churches.  It was African-American, Anglo and Latino congregations.  It was many different communities of many different traditions coming together to ask how can worship deepen our connection to God; how can worship expand our ability to share the gospel?  As one of the speakers put it, it was a gathering for people who, in many different contexts, ask, “What if we did this?” 

                For some, it was looking at things we Lutherans take for granted.  What if we used the liturgical calendar?  What if we celebrated communion more often?  For some, it was going in a direction radically different than we might experience in our congregation.  What if we had an outdoor church for people experiencing homelessness?  What if we added a service geared toward the Latino community in our area?  For us it was, what if we used silence and contemplation as a way to deepen our experience of God in worship?  For those who have participated in the Still, Small Voice, I think you have a positive answer to that question.  For those who haven’t, I still encourage you to try.

                At some point, every person who led a grant project, every person who experimented with worship, had to let go of some assumptions about what Christian worship, Christian community and Christian life look like.  And in doing that we got to experience God at work in new and renewed ways.  We got to connect Mt. Aerie Baptist Church, in Bridgeport, CT where young men of the church dance as part of communal prayer.  We got to connect with Emmanuel Reform Church in California where evening worship in Spanish is always preceded by a fellowship meal for anyone who can make it.  We got to connect with the More than Twelve community in Vancouver, where God is praised with hard rock and hip hop.  Now to be clear, I personally don’t have a lot of interest in hard rock/hip hop service.  They probably don’t have a lot of interest in a worship service of silent contemplation.  But the fact that I know that God is at work in a hip hop service and that God is at work in a contemplative service and that God is at work in a liturgical service and that God is at work in a light rock contemporary service is freeing.  I know that God is not extremely attached to any one of those.  We are the ones who attach ourselves, who limit our own vision of how the gospel can work.

                Often we talk about the church as a family.  We might talk about our church home or wanting to make visitors feel at home.  Today’s gospel lesson can be taken in at least two ways.  On the one hand, it challenges the notion of that family model that has shaped a lot of congregational ministry.  One of the long-standing criticisms of the idea of congregation as family is that it can be very difficult to truly welcome other people into that family, especially if they refuse to become like us.  I’ve have heard it argued that part of the reason we are experiencing aging congregations is that we have been so protective of the elders of our family and their traditions that we neglected the needs of the younger generation.

                A more positive spin on the passage is that when you are not attached to any one place as home, then every place is home.  God is not in love with our church buildings.  God is not overly attached to this space.  God is here.  As we gather at the communion table in a few moments, Jesus will meet you there.  But peace happens when you realize that God is also with you as you leave, that you are walking the walk of faith on Monday morning as well as Sunday morning.  Peace breaks out when we realize that God is at home in every face we see and every place we wander.

                Both Paul and Jesus in different ways are talking about the freedom of the gospel.  For Paul, when we become less attached to the things of the world, we are set free to love others, to be generous, to be joyful.  For Jesus, the call to follow is a call to let go.  The process of letting go can be uncomfortable and disorienting, but it is in letting go we find the freedom that leads to life.  Let go.  Let go of your past.  Let go of your mistakes.  Let go of your assumptions.  Let go of your expectations.  Let go of every could, should and ought.  Let go and find peace.  Let go and be free.  This is the good news.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

June 19, 2016 - Dissolving the labels

There is a tendency in religion to use faith as a means for figuring out who is inside and who is outside.  Faith becomes a marker of identity.  I am a Christian.  I am a Lutheran Christian.  I am an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Lutheran Christian.  Each of those markers define who I am and create a subset of people to whom I belong.  But making that kind of statement is also a means of saying who I am not.  I am a Christian therefore I am not a Muslim.  I am a Lutheran therefore I am not a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian.  I am in the ELCA which means I am not in the Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Synod.
                Sometimes we ignore those markers and sometimes they become very critical in our lives and in our history.  Think of Protestants and Catholics fighting in Northern Ireland.  Think of Shiite and Sunni Muslims in conflict in the Middle East.  Throughout much of history, these labels were not something you chose but something you were born into.  Christianity in much of Europe is still affected by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 which basically stated that the ruling prince picks the religion.  So if your prince was Catholic, so were you.  If your prince was Lutheran, so were all the churches around you.  For most people in the world, religious identity is still more a factor of where you were born than what you believe. 
                One of the important ideas that Paul brought into Christianity is the dissolution of labels.  The struggle for the early church, one that affects many of Paul’s letters, is whether Gentiles (non-Jewish people) needed to adopt Jewish customs in order to follow Jesus.  Remember, the Christian story grows out of Judaism.  Jesus doesn’t abolish Judaism and doesn’t reject Jewish law.  He challenges a particular way of interpreting that law, one that made the law a burden rather than a gift.  The first converts to Christianity were Jews who probably didn’t see themselves as converting from Judaism as much as continuing the Jewish story through Jesus.  But then, non-Jews, Gentiles start hearing about Jesus; start believing that this good news is for them as well.  And the early Jewish Christians at first are thrilled and say, “Let us show you how to do it.  First, gentlemen, you must be circumcised.”  At which point people seemed to have asked quickly for a second opinion.  Paul is asked to weigh in on the situation.
                Part of his answer is what we heard today in the book of Galatians.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  In the waters of baptism our labels, which we thought were permanent and really important, have melted away.  They have become markers that may help identify who I am in day to day relations, but they are not my true identity.  My identity was made known to me in a baptismal font.  I am a child of God.  I am your sibling in Christ.  That’s who I am.  That’s who God made me.  That’s who we are.
                Yet we still find ways to create and use labels.  Again, sometimes they can be helpful.  When we talk about the life of the church it can be helpful to note that baby boomers relate to faith in a different way than millennials.  It can be helpful to note that the culture of Scandinavian heritage congregations tends to be different from the culture of Hispanic heritage congregations.  The labels help us to respect how we are different.  The gospel reminds us how we are the same.
                The gospel shouts out and says, “But remember there is no longer Scandinavian or Hispanic.  There is no longer millennial or baby boomer; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  I would suggest that the voice is broader and pushes us toward the edge of our comfort zone, saying in the wake of the shootings in Orlando “There is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer normal or queer for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
                I would even suggest that the trajectory of God’s work and God’s love is broader than even Paul could recognize in his day.  This story begins with a couple, Abraham and Sarah, and expands to a family, and expands to nation.  In Jesus, the story expands beyond the borders of Israel, expands throughout the world.  And I wonder if God looks at us, challenges us to look at others saying, “Remember there is no longer Christian or Muslim.  There is no longer theist or atheist.”  For in the eyes of God we are all one humanity, worthy of God’s love.
                Now some of you may say that I am taking things too far, that sounds suspiciously universalist.  I will let God sort that part out because God will sort it out right.  What I will say is that I believe God challenges us to live as though that were true.  At our synod assembly we talked about the important work of the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal, how we work to bring people out of poverty and to become self-sufficient.  We do not show preference to Christians in doing that work.  When Lutheran Disaster Relief goes out, we work with Lutherans and other Christians, because that is often where we have connections, but we serve everybody in the place of disaster, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist.  We don’t do that work to convert people; we do it because they are children of God, worthy to know the love of the God whom we have encountered in Jesus through our words and our actions.
This month I have been preaching about peace, how peace is one way of experiencing the gospel.  Peace is what happens when we drop the labels, when we stop treating some people as inside and some as outside.  Peace is what happens when I look at you and don’t primarily identify you as a gay person or an Hispanic person or a Lutheran person or a homeless person or a Muslim person.  Peace is what happens when I look at you and see a precious child of God, when I begin to see you as God sees you.

And that is difficult because we have been taught to use the labels.  We have been taught to make the distinctions of gender and race, sexuality and class.  But we have a God who doesn’t make those distinctions, who calls us into communities where those distinctions simply do not matter, where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  That quote from Galatians is not a limit, it is a beginning of a broader vision, a vision of love united in Christ; a vision of peace united as precious children of God.

June 5, 2016 - Sharing peace; living peace

For the month of June (except next week when I will be at our synod assembly), I will be preaching about peace.  This is a continuation of theme of discipleship that I have been talking about throughout this church year.  We have talked about worship.  We have talked about hope.  We have talked about compassion.  We have talked about growth.  Now I am going to start talking about peace.
                Peace can be a tricky subject because we don’t all define it in the same way.  Some people hear the word peace and immediately they think about nonviolence.  Peace is the opposite of conflict and war.  Peace is living in safety without fear.  There is truth to this point of view but danger as well.  Life can be very peaceful if everyone is afraid of you and we have gone through eras where peace was established through the creating and amassing of bigger and more dangerous weaponry.  Somehow real peace has to involve not just the absence of fear from my perspective but also you not needing to be afraid of me.  Then we are at truly at peace with one another.
                The other danger of saying that peace is the opposite of conflict is that it assumes that conflict shouldn’t happen.  But we will have conflict, even when we are at peace.  Part of being human is disagreeing with one another because we each see things from a unique point of view.  We are at peace when we can disagree with one another and come to a resolution without damaging our relationship with one another.
                Other people will hear the word peace and jump to a sense of inner peace, the personal sense of peace that we hear in phrases like, “All will be well” and “Do not worry about tomorrow.”  This is the peace as often experienced by the contemplative tradition, where we learn to be focused and mindful, where we learn to slow our reactions and cultivate responses, where we learn that most of our worries are simply thoughts that are fleeting, clouds that disperse in the warmth of the sun.  The contemplative tradition seeks  to find peace by dwelling in the presence of God.  The danger of this definition of peace is that it can become self-serving and self-involved, disconnected from the neighbor, a way of avoiding reality.  We create a bubble of calm and just avoid anything that might pop it.  Peace, if it is the peace that Christ talks about, has to be something that doesn’t just dwell in retreat centers and meditation circles.  The contemplative Christians that we have studied in the Still, Small Voice, people like Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart and Francis of Assisi, have all looked for ways to walk around with the peace that they nurture in retreat and contemplation.   You calm yourself down so that you can carry calm into the world.
                Jesus wants us to have peace.  Jesus wants us to be peace for the world.  Jesus shows us what living in peace looks like.  According to the gospel of John, on his last night with the disciples Jesus said to them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”   Peace is part of the message.  Peace is part of the good news.  If we are not nurturing peace in our community, then we are missing out on a big part of what Jesus came to share.
                I have sat through a lot of discussion about the sharing of the peace during my time in ministry.  Part of this comes from the fact that we don’t quite know what to do with it.  Some less formal traditions just have a moment to greet your neighbor.  More formal traditions will say that sharing the peace should involve little motion.  Stay in your pew.  Share peace with the people around you.  We have the little disclaimer that says please don’t use the time to conduct business, share news or make plans because sometimes that is what people are apt to do.   I think that much of the discussion stems from the fact that maybe we don’t think it is so important, just another part of the ritual that we check off the list.
                Yet understand what you are doing in that moment.  You are being the voice of God for the person you greet.  Those simple words, “Peace be with you,” are important.  You are witnessing to God’s vision of a life without fear, a life that is whole and complete.  You are sharing the peace so that person can take it with them.
                I’m going to challenge you a little bit today.  Generally I am not a big fan of over-instruction, worrying about whether we are doing it right or proper, just like I learned in seminary.  I like good order but I also like to see what happens with minimal instruction because (God bless you) you are mostly adults.  But today, and maybe for a couple of weeks as we talk about peace, I am going to invite to pay a little more attention as you share the peace.  You may not get to share with as many people as you normally do but that’s why we have fellowship.  With whomever you share peace this morning, I want you to look them in eye for a second or so and then say the words.  Peace be with you.  Pay attention as you say them.  Think about what they mean.  Think about what God is saying and doing through you.

                Peace be with you.  Those words are a hope and a vision and a promise.  Those words are a wish that God would be active in your life, casting out fear and sustaining you with the assurance of the cross.  Peace be with you.  Those words are marching orders, sending you out in peace to share peace in a world that desperately needs it.  The peace, the shalom, the promise, the good news of Christ be with you always.

May 29, 2016 - Finding holiness

A group of about 15 people gathered together to talk about why the church exists this past Tuesday.  It was part of an ongoing discussion about the future of our congregation.  My sense is that if we have a better sense of why we are here, we might have a better sense of how we might move forward.   As part of the conversation, I had the groups get together and examine five different passages that pointed toward the meaning and purpose of the church.  They were moments when Jesus talked about offering peace and abundant life.  We had Jesus declaring his mission to set the world free.  We had the great commission, “Go therefore and make disciples…”  We had an image of the early church in Acts that shows the church as a place to learn how to live.
                As we were debriefing those discussions together, someone from the group said, “Those don’t have anything to do with getting together in a building.”  This was absolutely right.  Most of what Jesus proclaims has very little to do with a group getting together in a particular sacred space.  Jesus challenges some very basic assumptions about sacred versus secular, holy versus common.  In Jesus’ time the Jerusalem Temple, the one we heard about Solomon building in the first reading, was considered the holiest place on earth.  If you wanted to be close to God, you went to the Temple.  In its day, the Temple was spectacular, white stone with gold accents that could be seen from a distance as you approached the city.  It looked holy.  It reflected the sun, bright enough that some said it was difficult to look upon in the daytime.
                Now some time after Jesus’ resurrection, Christians began to continue that tradition.  It may be that as some of the Greek and Roman temples were converted into churches, people began to associate grand buildings with Christian worship.  As European towns and cities began to build cathedrals, these great structures that were built over decades, the visual focal points of many cities, the idea of sacred space began to take greater significance.  We continued to build on the idea that some places are holier than others and some people are holier and some times are holier.
                That idea always reasserts itself.  It doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ idea.  Even in the reading today, as Jesus heals the slave of the Roman centurion, he challenges the idea of where holiness can be found.  I often talk about Jesus moving the center of faith from a place (The Temple) to a person (Jesus), but in this reading Jesus points to something larger.  Most of the time in the gospel stories, healing happens with a touch, sometimes even without Jesus’ initiating the touch.  People sneak up to touch the hem of his cloak and are healed.  But in this story, Jesus never actually enters the room with the sick slave; never actually meets him.  The centurion understands that what Jesus has is not some form of divine magic, but a much broader divine authority.  Jesus doesn’t bring holiness into the room, Jesus reminds us that the world is already holy.
                But we have a hard time believing that vision, that the divine presence is not only in a church or temple and not only in a sunset or a meadow or woodland scene.  The divine presence is in our bedrooms and kitchens.  It is in our stuffy attics and damp basements.  The divine presence of God is as present in the traffic jam to get over the Bourne bridge, a time where we are apt to curse and moan, as it is at a breezy beachfront where we greet the rising sun with a contented sigh.
                We are the ones who forget that even though we have church buildings, places where we come together at agreed upon times to pay deeper attention to God, God’s presence, God’s love, God’s joy, God’s peace are not confined to those buildings.
                This is a theme in the story of Jesus.  Several times in the story, people want Jesus to stay put, to set up camp.   When he was in Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry and spent the day healing, his disciples figured he would stay there and set up shop, but he insists that they move on.  At the scene of the Transfiguration, Peter and James and John want to build shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, figuring that this mountaintop will be the new holy place and the voice of God tells them to move on.  Even when Jesus ascends into heaven after the resurrection and the disciples are staring into the sky figuring this spot should be holy, the messengers of God tell them to move on. 
                Holiness is not waiting in heaven.  It is not contained in a building or a ritual or a person.  In Jesus, holiness has entered the world and can be found in you, in a neighbor, in a stranger, in an enemy.  This is good news because it means that we no longer need to look for what we already have.  We don’t need to create holiness through a particular set of actions.  We cannot lose this holiness on account of our mistakes.  We simply need to remember that it is here; that it is with us and in us and everywhere we go.
                And I think this can be part of what the church is for.  We have buildings and worship not to produce holiness because that is God’s job and God has chosen to release that holiness into the world.  We have buildings and gatherings as landmarks, places and moments to remind us of where we are and who we are in Christ.  We have buildings and gatherings not so that we can escape from an unholy world but so that we can be reminded that we are walking out into a holy world, that the next person you see is a holy child of God, that the next place you go is God’s sanctuary.

                God will not be contained, as much as we might like to keep God in our buildings or try to confine God to an hour of worship.  You are in a holy place and this time and day are holy, but wherever you stand is holy ground and tomorrow is also a holy time.  Go be holy people in a holy world.

May 22, 2016 - Holy Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity Sunday has always been a difficult Sunday to preach.  It is a festival that is based on an idea rather than an event.  It is much easier to talk about the birth of Jesus at Christmas or the resurrection at Easter or even the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  In its history, Trinity Sunday seems to be a festival created in protest.  Often when there have been challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity in history, this Sunday becomes a bit more important.  It seems to have its origins in the debates about the doctrine of the Trinity in the 4th century.  It spent centuries as a secondary festival in the Roman Catholic Church until 1911 (when groups such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses were challenging the doctrine) when it was elevated to a primary festival.
                At its heart, the doctrine of the Trinity is a celebration of the mystery of God.  Three-in-one and one-in-three is another way of saying, “We don’t get it either but it seems to work something like this.”  God the creator is fully divine.  Jesus is fully divine.  The Holy Spirit is fully divine.  How it works is a mystery and yet this is how it seems to be.  The Trinity is all of us agreeing that we don’t know how it works and gathering to celebrate that mystery.  We don’t know how God works but we praise God that God does work.
                Thankfully in our lectionary readings we also have this discussion of wisdom in Proverbs.  The image of wisdom is often associated with the Holy Spirit in Christian tradition.  What I have always liked about the image of wisdom in Proverbs is wisdom reaching out to us, available to all.  As the child of an academic, wisdom was something that you worked hard to cultivate.  Wisdom was obtained through thesis statements and oral exams.  But here wisdom is just standing out in the street.  “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”  Wisdom wants to be known.  Wisdom wants to be found.  In Proverbs wisdom is always available but difficult to see when it is right in front of you.  The author of Proverbs was not saying that wisdom is easy to find so now we all have it.  Rather the author was saying the wisdom is easy to find, but we choose to ignore it.
                And that brings me to Kate and her confirmation today.  I’m not saying that Kate is unwise at least not unwiser than the rest of us.  Rather, I want to dwell on a temptation that happens around confirmation.  The temptation is for the confirmand; for the family; for the church to say, “Now they have it.  Now she knows everything that she needs to know about faith.  Now Kate knows everything that she needs to know about God.  It is tempting for the confirmand and her family because now you can check this process off the list.  Kate, I can’t demand you read things anymore or answer my questions.  It’s tempting for the congregation because wouldn’t it be great if everything you needed to know about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, you learned when you were 16-years-old.  Now we can relax and enjoy some pretty music together.
                But there are a couple of issues.  First, God refuses to be known this way.  I can have you memorize the catechism, read every page of scripture and every commentary on scripture and you will still not fully know who God is.  For centuries people have been trying to throw nouns and adjectives as a way to describe God.  Here is a poem by Saint Francis of Assisi that we meditated on at the Still, Small Voice yesterday…
You are holy, Lord, the only God,
and Your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong.
You are great.
You are the Most High.
You are Almighty King.
You, Holy Father are King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God of gods.
You are Good, all Good, the highest Good, Lord God, living and true.
You are love, charity. You are wisdom.
You are humility. You are patience.
You are rest. You are inner peace.
You are joy and gladness.
You are justice and moderation.
You are all our riches, and You are enough for us.
You are beauty.
You are meekness.
You are our protector.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are strength. You are refreshment.
You are our hope; You are our faith; You are our charity.
You are our eternal life, Great and Wonderful Lord,
God Almighty, Merciful Savior.

None of it is wrong and yet to all of those descriptors God seems to say, “You are on to something but you don’t have the full picture.”  Even the name God revealed in Exodus, Yahweh, is really just a variation of the Hebrew for “I am what I am.” 
                Second, for all our good intentions, faith is not something that you learn, it is something that you live.  A big part of the whole Jesus story can be reduced to that statement.  Faith is something you live in response to a gracious God.  Where we mess it up is when we try to codify it; turn faith into a list of shoulds and shalts and musts when really faith is a bunch of cans and coulds and mights that are opened to us through the love of God.  We say things like, “If you have faith, then you should love your neighbor.”  Jesus seems to say, “If you have faith, you will love your neighbor, not because you have to, but because you can in the freedom of the good news.”
                So if faith is to be studied, it is really done more as an apprenticeship than in a classroom.  But more importantly it is a lifelong apprenticeship.  We study it by living it.  This is why I talk about the importance of being disciples, because we are always students.  We don’t graduate because there is always somebody else to learn to love, somebody else to share good news with, somebody else to find peace in Christ.  We don’t graduate because we make mistakes.  We forget the freedom.  We forget the promise.  We forget that we can love; we can be at peace; we can live.

                So to Kate I say that what happens today is a beginning.  You are taking greater responsibility for the walk but you are still on the walk with the rest of us.  To all of you, people of God, I remind you that today is a beginning, another day to grow in faith, another day to deepen in love for God and for others.  Wisdom will continue to stand at the crossroads calling to us.  Some days we will pay attention and other days we will walk by, but each day is a new beginning on the path and each day an opportunity grow more deeply into the beautiful mystery of God.