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.