Monday, December 18, 2017

December 17. 2017 - 3rd Sunday in Advent - Many Paths to Wonder

Over my 20 years of ministry I have approached the idea of discipleship a number of times.  I have done formal studies put out by the larger church that usually focus on traditional individual practices.  I have encouraged people to the simple actions of prayer and scripture-reading, hoping that those basic actions of discipleship would be transforming.

                What I have found in that time is that the idea of discipline is not that popular.  Sometimes people will try an experiment like contemplative prayer or reading a chapter of scripture each day, and, like many personal improvement programs, they will stumble.  They miss a day and then miss a week and soon a discipline becomes something they used to do or intend to do or will get back to down the line.

                Some traditions add a smidge of guilt to this process.  If you really love God, you will pray every day.  If you really love God you will read the scriptures.  The days when you miss the disciplines are days when you forget to love God.  Others will offer a carrot on a stick, saying that God rewards faithful people and faithful people read the Bible and pray every day.   Although such traditions see themselves in the Protestant heritage, much of what they are preaching is a rediscovery of the joy of legalism, the sigh of relief one has when you know you are doing the right thing because someone, a handpicked line of scripture, a preacher, or a church body, told you what to do.  But that sigh of relief is inevitably followed by the gasp of judgment upon those who do not carry out the disciplines, who fail to meet the standards, who don’t live a proper Christian life.

                I have come to believe that there is not a single Christian life, but there are Christian lives, shaped by the love of God in Christ, yet gifted in different ways, expressing that love in different ways.  For some people prayer is a gift and for others it is a struggle.  Some folks will quickly go deep into Bible study, others are satisfied by the Greatest Hits, a little Psalm 23, a little John 3:16 and I’ll trust more passionate people to work out the rest.  Now there is a danger here, because if you don’t have a deeper knowledge of the story it is easy to be led astray, told a story of separation and judgment, a story of self-righteousness and rejection.  As an example, I once briefly convinced an adult class that, “The lemon tree is pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the bitter fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat,” was a wise saying of Jesus rather than a Peter, Paul and Mary song.  In addition, many Christians believe that the Roman saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a scriptural saying that reflects Christian teaching.

                This diversity of Christian life is part of the reason that this year, when talking about discipleship, I am going to focus more on what I see as virtues of discipleship, the feelings and attitudes which practices of discipleship encourage, because not everyone is going to have the same reaction to every practice.  The virtue of awe and wonder is a great one for this because there are a variety of ways that different people experience awe, and what is a trigger for some will not be a trigger for others.  Last week we talked about rocks and everyone in worship got a souvenir rock to take home.  Some of you may have been impressed with talk of magma and massive amounts of geologic pressure and millions and millions of years in your hand.  You may have had a moment that pulled you outside of yourself and into the great immensity of things.  Others may have said, “Nice rock.”

                For me, I have often had people tell me how amazing an experience of worship has been.  They have been moved, touched, brought outside of themselves.  This has never been my personal experience of worship and I have worshiped in many different settings.  It can be awkward at big synod meetings or worship services where you can tell a lot of time and effort have been put into the worship and where I am looking around the room and can see that many people are experiencing something that I am not.  It’s just not how I respond to worship.  I would love to have that response, but it just doesn’t happen.  I am the kid who checked off the order of service as we worked through the bulletin every Sunday, waiting for the blessed words of  dismissal.  I think part of the reason God called me to preach is because God didn’t want another guy checking his watch through another pastor’s sermon because that is totally who I would be.  But when I am honored to stand before each one of you and place Christ’s body in your hand, as I see a community that greets the sacrament with joy and tears, I am aware of the presence of God in this place.  When I sit in silent prayer, letting things slow down, basking in the presence of God, I am drawn into the wonder that is the living God.   When I learn new things about the world, that there are species of octopus that will run on the sea floor on two of their tentacles (look up running octopus!), I find that fascinating, all these lives around us adapting changing, figuring out how to survive, amazing.

                It is important that each of us experiences this awe, this awareness of that there is something larger than ourselves.  In the Advent season, as we remember the ministry of John the Baptist, this seems to be what he was about, pointing people beyond himself to the one who is to come.  But if you have no sense that there is something beyond yourself, larger than yourself, if your world is so small you won’t know where to point.

                And our worlds have become much smaller.  Somehow with all the information at our disposal all the connections we are supposed have through social media, we are trapped by the technology that was supposed to free us.  How often do you check a phone or device, waiting for that self-gratifying chime or whistle telling that you that you are important and necessary?   And it turns out that many of our windows to a larger world operate with algorithms that tell us what we already wanted to hear and show us what we already wanted to find.  We don’t want to be surprised or challenged.  We want to be affirmed and comforted in what we already believe.

                But God will not and cannot be contained in our little worlds.  He is willing to enter them.  That’s the point of the Jesus story.  God was willing to enter our world, to walk among us as one of us.  But he walked among us with a powerful and challenging message, “Wake up and keep awake.  Wake up and pay attention.  Wake up and change direction, change the focus of your attention.  Wake up to the greatness of God.  Wake up to the presence of your neighbor.  Wake up to what is happening all around you.”  But this message is also why the Jesus story heads to the cross.  The cross represents an ultimate wake-up call; Jesus looks upon us and says, “Wake up to where the paths of selfishness lead, the paths of hatred lead, the paths of separation and superiority lead.”  And in the resurrection he calls to the faithful saying, “Wake up to where the paths of love lead; the paths of life lead; the paths of humility and kindness lead.”

                The virtue of awe and wonder is a virtue of waking up, drawn out of your day to day existence with its chimes and chirps and shiny objects, drawn toward a God whose love is much larger.  The challenge for the church today is to be the John the Baptists, to be the ones who point beyond ourselves toward that something larger, that immense love of God.  The temptation for the church is to get wrapped in the small world that happens in these walls.  We need to experience awe and wonder in our lives.  We need to wake up to the love, hope and joy that is all around us.  We need to wake up so that the world can be awake.  Wake up.  Pay attention.

December 10, 2017 - 2nd Sunday in Advent - Awe and Wonder

During Advent I am going to be reflecting on the virtue of awe and wonder, and inviting you to take part in different ways.  This is a piece of my work on our lives as disciples of Jesus, students of Jesus.  With that in mind, I encourage you to read the articles I have been posting on the capecodlutheran blog which will be supplementary material throughout the year.  As an introduction, let me say that I see the life of a disciple as one that develops certain virtues and attitudes that deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with our neighbors.  We don’t give an offering to make God happy or because God says so, we give to practice generosity and learn contentment.  We don’t pray because the Bible tells us so, we pray to grow in love and peace and compassion.  We don’t read scripture because that’s what real Christians do, but to grow in wisdom and wonder.

                So today I am going to start talking about awe and wonder, an idea that is spoken of in a number of ways: holy reverence, the fear of Lord.  It’s an idea that makes our culture uncomfortable because we often talk about the love of God.  We talk about God with us, in us.  I have met many people for whom prayer is a conversation with a best friend.  Yet again and again in the stories of scripture, people meet God or divine messengers and their first reaction is not joy but fear.  In a couple of weeks when we hear the Nativity story, we will remember how shepherds in the field encounter the glory of God and are terrified; how the first words of the divine message to them are, “Do not be afraid.” 

                The virtue of awe and wonder is realizing that while God is very near to you, God is not you and you are not God.  The apostle Peter pointed to this in our second reading when he wrote, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”  God is not on the same timeline as us.  Wonder is recognizing that this God we proclaim is beyond comprehension.  We may see aspects of God; as Luther put it, we may see masks of God, but the true God is beyond us and we only catch glimpses of the immensity, the power, the glory that is God.  The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing saw prayer as a practice of turning toward God who is hidden so that, every once in a while, you might catch a glimpse of the divine.

                So how do we cultivate this virtue?  Sometimes things happen outside that draw us out of ourselves.  We are surprised by awe and wonder.  You might get swept up in a beautiful piece of music.  You might marvel at the mountains, so large that you have to stop to take them in.  More recently we have figured out how to stimulate feelings of awe.  Musical theater does this.  Rock concerts do this.  Contemporary worship does this, a mixture of sight and sound that engulfs the senses. 

                Those are powerful moments.  Sometimes I think they can be a bit manipulative, but powerful nonetheless.  I want to suggest that we would do well to cultivate a sense of wonder in our daily lives; that wonder and awe don’t need to be reserved for special occasions or special settings.  Wonder and awe can be part of our common experience.  Much of it has to do with slowing down and paying attention.  I know that this is a hard sell, that we live in a culture that is all about, “Go, Go, Go” and “Do, Do, Do.”  I’ve heard you all talking about how things are crazy in December.  Who has time to get lost in the night sky?  Really this is perfect time to get lost in the night sky because we see a little too much of it starting at 4:00 p.m.  Who has time to pay close attention?  On the edge of our labyrinth there is a little garden bench.  Go and sit very still (dress warm).  Watch and listen and be amazed by all this life that is going on around you.  I know many of you have birdfeeders to attract songbirds.  Take 15 minutes and just look at what is happening.  God’s work of life and creation is going on around you.  It’s not on a screen.  It’s happening in real time!

                And here is why I think wonder and awe are a critical virtue for the church today.  It is very easy to take the gospel story for granted.  We are so used to hearing it and assuming everyone knows it.  The story can become a minor detail as we do the “important things” of the church:  the story is great but how is the building doing?  The story is nice but who’s going to serve on council this year?   I already know the story, I’m concerned about the flowers, or the windows, or the coffee, or the music, or the budget. 

But the story is wonderful.  The story is awesome, the story of how the eternal God who is and was and is to come came to dwell among us, not to mess around like some Roman deity, but to deepen who we are with God and who God is with us.  Jesus walked among us to show us the meaning of eternal life, died and rose to show us the reality of eternal life, still gathers us together as we walk the path that is eternal life.
                Each December, as we enter Advent we have the opportunity to marvel at that story.  We have the opportunity to stand with John at the River Jordan and prepare ourselves to receive and experience this story, this Jesus, this Word made flesh once again.  And at the same we as a culture have decided that this time is all about being busy and stressed and distracted.  The greatest gift that you can bring to the manger in this season is your undivided attention.  Take 10 minutes and offer them to God, read the Christmas story (Luke 2), a few times in the season, but don’t skim through it because you think you know it.  Pay attention to the words and the details, the furious search for shelter, the frightened shepherds, the glory of God filling the sky.  Savor it like the work of art that it is.  Close your eyes and imagine and let the wonder of it all overwhelm you.

                Awe and wonder keep us mindful of God, allow us to see the holy in our midst.  Awe and wonder slow us down, stop us in our tracks, get us to pay attention.  And the amazing thing is that the moment when you slow down and pay attention, when you truly pay attention to the wondrous nature of the love of God, that is the moment when you realize how much God has always been paying attention to you.

November 26, 2017 - Christ the King Sunday

The first reading and the gospel reading today may make us uncomfortable.  I have been talking for the past few weeks about how Jesus has a much more  prophetic voice in Matthew than in the other gospels, and this passage about the separation of the sheep and the goats continues that line of thought.  Again, Matthew’s Jesus is not the nice Jesus who loves you no matter what; he is the prophet who warns you to change your ways.  This reading is the culmination of a section about getting ready including the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents that we heard last week.  The Parable of the Bridesmaids ends with the foolish bridesmaids locked out of the wedding party.  The Parable of the Talents ends with the slave who buried his silver cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And then Jesus shares this image of the Son of Man on his throne, judging all the people, separating them as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, the sheep heading to the kingdom of God and the goats headed toward eternal fire.

                First of all, the whole concept of Jesus as judge makes the “Jesus loves me, this I know” part of us edgy.  We sing all these songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Just As I Am”  that reflect an unconditional love and here we have Jesus making conditions.  A few weeks ago we heard Paul write in Romans about how “neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation could separate from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”  And here we have Jesus saying, “I can separate you.  It’s my job.”  Luther would say that this is a passage that drives us to realize our need for Christ, because if I am measured by all the ways that I have helped or neglected others, loved or ignored others, I will fall short.  I will be a goat and can only be a sheep if Jesus chooses it.  I hear the passage and pray, “Lord, make me sheep in spite of my goatful ways.”

                And the standard that Jesus uses to make this separation should also make American Christians very uncomfortable.  I say American Christians because, especially since the rise of Billy Graham and the Evangelical movement since the 1950s, we have been shaped by style of faith that emphasizes personal piety and personal devotions.  Many Christians see Christianity primarily about a personal journey of faith shaped by personal practices such as worship, prayer and study along with the avoidance of various vices.  To be clear, I am not knocking these kinds of practices and, in fact, as my discussion of discipleship goes deeper, I am going to challenge you to rediscover or expand on some of those practices.  But note, the Son of Man on his throne says nothing about how many Sundays you went to church.  He says nothing about smoking, drinking or gambling.  He says nothing about prayer times or Bible readings or fellowship dinners.  How did you care for the hungry, the thirsty and the one in poverty?  How did you care for the sick and the imprisoned?

                There is a pendulum in just about all religions between personal devotion and the love of neighbor.  Is the good news primarily about leading people to a personal relationship with Jesus or is the good news primarily about spreading the kingdom of God through acts of kindness and compassion?  Ideally, there should a both/and answer to that question.  Personal acts of devotion will hopefully feed and support outward acts of devotion.  But historically, we human beings have a hard time sitting in the middle ground of things.  We tend to get pushed off-center by those holding more extreme views.  So the church goes through these periods where we focus on one side, the more inward sense of faith and on the other side the more outward sense of faith.  And both sides can find scripture texts and stories of Jesus that bolster their position.  Several times Jesus wanders off to be alone and pray.  In the Sermon on the Mount when he instructs people to pray he says, “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”  On the other hand we have many stories of Jesus carrying out actions of kindness and compassion, embracing the stranger, the sick and the excluded and saying, “Go and do likewise.”

                When Jesus speaks as a prophet, and when the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures were speaking, they were often speaking about and criticizing a religion that was overly focused on personal piety to the exclusion of outward acts of faith.   The Hebrew prophets critiqued a vision that says the way to God’s heart is through worship, religious sacrifices and personal righteousness and cleanliness.  The prophets  responded that the way to God’s heart is through acts of justice and caring for those in need. 

                When Jesus offers his image of the Son of Man separating the sheep from the goats, I believe that he was making a similar critique especially toward the popular religion of the Pharisees that often became overly focused on personal devotion and keeping one’s self clean.  The Pharisees, especially as they are portrayed in the New Testament, saw hunger and poverty as signs of poor choices and consequences of sin.  The Pharisees saw sick people and poor people as people to be avoided as unclean or unfaithful.  Jesus sees hunger, illness and poverty as the opportunity to share the love of God, the opportunity to encounter the living God in those in need.

                This passage from Matthew should make us think about what Christian faith means and what we as the church might be doing in the world.  It also might challenge us as we look for meaning as the church.  As congregations have tried to figure out how to redefine themselves in the current era, one that in the United States has been shaped by decline, the most common fix has been to throw worship at the problem.  If we can just get our worship more engaging, doubling down on traditional or contemporary, then we can turn things around.  Part of this is that we still measure the life of the church by the numbers in worship.  Christ the King on his throne, separating the sheep from the goats, doesn’t seem to be making the same calculation.  The measurement here is very different from the measurement of donations and average worship attendance to which we are accustomed; those numbers don’t even enter the discussion.

                The image of the Son of Man on his throne is the crowning image in a series of parables.  As such, it is a metaphor not intended as a literal discussion of final judgment.  It is intended to make you uncomfortable as it would have made Jesus’ original audience uncomfortable.  They would not have heard this and said, “Yeah! I’m a sheep.”  They would have heard this and said, “I might be a goat in this story.”    The point of the story is to remind you that the priorities of the kingdom of God are radically different than the priorities of humanity, 2000 years ago and today.   The point of the story is that if you want to find God, stop looking in church buildings and ancient texts and start looking in the world, especially in the eyes of those in need.

                I want to end with my Lutheran theological disclaimer.   This could easily turn into a story that affirms that ultimately good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  Yet we stand on the promise of grace, the promise that we sing about in those favorite hymns, the promise Paul pointed to when he said nothing could separate us.  The good news is that in Christ we have been declared sheep in spite of looking a lot like goats.  And because we have declared sheep, we are free to try to act like sheep, spreading the love of God in the world, caring for all in need.   We are free to do it in spite of our history as goats and in spite of the fact that we will act like goats periodically.  Saint, although sinner.  Sheep, although goat.  That is who we are in Christ.

Monday, November 20, 2017

November 19, 2017 - Parable of the Talents

The parable of the talents that Jesus tells today is not a story primarily about money.  I want to start with that disclaimer because in a season when many congregations are reflecting on financial stewardship, this parable is little bit on the nose.  You could hear a preacher break this story down into “This is how God wants us to deal with money.”  One of the challenges with a parable that involves money in the story is that we deal with money on a daily basis.  When Jesus tells stories about mustard seeds or weeds and wheat; when he tells stories about ancient wedding practices or ancient farming practices, we as moderns can say, “He’s not really talking about mustard seeds or weeds and wheat; he is talking about something larger.”  But we deal with money every day and we also have a cultural restriction that says we shouldn’t talk about money, that it is a sensitive subject.  So when we hear a parable like this, there is a part of our brains that says, defensively, “Jesus wants my money.”  (Now as we go on, I’m going to say that theologically, Jesus already owns your money, but we will get there in a minute).  Right now, I want to say that if this is a parable about money we really should be paying attention to how the servants are getting 100% returns on their investments because that’s pretty good.

                It also points to the fact that we are in the realm of metaphor and story.  The amounts which are entrusted to each servant are inflated.  If you were talking about modern money, each servant is entrusted with millions of dollars worth of silver.  The return is inflated.  You gave me 5 million dollars and here are 10 million dollars.  If your financial advisor were to suggest, “I know a way to double your money,” you might think it was a little sketchy.  And the punishment is inflated with Matthew’s refrain of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

                This is not a story about money.  Like most of the parables, this is a story about life and about that ever-popular theme in Matthew of being prepared, being ready.  It is also a story about God’s hopes for us.  Life is a gift from God.  Everything about life is a gift from God.  We proclaim that life is such a gracious and beautiful gift that God was willing to experience death so that we might have even deeper lives.  So every moment; every breath is a gracious gift from God.  When I say that to the children, everyone thinks it’s very cute, and we think about the possibilities; the exciting things they have yet to learn.  We envy about how their bodies still work, how they can stand up from the children’s time without a grunt or finding a handhold for a little boost, reflecting on our own lives and our own bodies.  How true were the words of Indiana Jones, “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage?”

                Yet even now, every moment is a gift.  We may have moments that we look back upon and say, “That time, that broken relationship, that illness, that pain was not a gift.”  I don’t have any easy answers for that, but there are many traditions that look at difficulties as moments for growth, moments that deepen our lives in God, moments that drive us to depend on Christ, and as such, in retrospect, they also can become gifts in the way that they have shaped who we are now.  The theologian John of the Cross describes the idea of going through the dark night of the soul in order to find union with God, and that dark night is a gift because it leads to God.

                I like using gift language, because it can inspire a sense of gratitude toward the giver, but the Christian vision is a bit more complicated.  If I give you a gift, I lose control of the object.  If I give you a painting, I can’t control whether you will hang it in an important place in your home, or whether it will go into your attic or closet, or whether you will regift it to someone else.  In Christianity the goal of discipleship is to move from simple gratitude for the gift to stewardship of the gift.  God’s hope for us is that we will use the gifts of our lives to grow deeper as individuals, to grow deeper in our love for God and to grow deeper in our love for all other human beings and all of creation.
                So you are not just the recipient of God’s grace but are also a steward of God’s grace.  God’s hope for us is that the gifts that we have received, all of those moments, those breaths, might be used to deepen our lives, our love for God, and our love for others.  Now it’s funny that I can talk about each second as a gift or each breath as a gift and it sounds kind of groovy, maybe gives you a warm feeling inside, maybe inspires you to think about how you use your time.  But if I say each dollar is a gracious gift, the shields go up.  I earned those dollars.  Stop talking about it.  That’s private.  Were you holding your breath when you earned them?  Were you using those gifts of time?  Each dollar is also a gift to be used to deepen our lives, our love for God, and our love for others.

                It’s all right to make a living, to clothe yourselves and feed yourselves.  It’s all right to save for your retirement or go on vacation now and then.  I’m going to be talking about the virtues of simplicity and contentment as we talk about discipleship, because they might also impact our stewardship.  The truth is, you can do some amazing things with those dollars that spread the good news and share the kingdom of God.  You can invest them in ways that don’t simply accumulate more dollars.  You can invest in the congregation.  The reality is, the more we have financially, the more we can do as a community: the better we can reach out, the more creative we can be in worship, the less we have to talk about money in terms of budget instead of talking about money in terms of stewardship.  You can invest in the work of the larger church, when our congregation gives to the New England synod (which then also gives to the work of the ELCA), we are supporting the ministries of Camp Calumet, World Hunger Appeal, new church startups, mission work around the world.  You can invest in the many organizations that are doing God’s work (whether or not they do it in the name of God): feeding hungry people, teaching literacy, housing the homeless, providing health care for veterans, providing companionship to senior citizens.   Those are investments that you can make with those dollars that are the gifts of a gracious God. 

                Now here is a secret, a connection that we have a hard time making.  God doesn’t want your money; God doesn’t need your money.  God is doing just fine.  God hopes that you will become generous people, not so that you can keep the lights on in a church.   Eventually, those lights will go out.  Like all things, they will pass.  God wants you to be generous people because generosity is part of the nature of the kingdom of God.  This gospel of grace we proclaim is a gospel of generosity.   God generously gives us life.  God gives us Jesus.  God gives us the Spirit.  If this is the gospel we proclaim, generosity should be a hallmark of God’s people. 

                The reason that our weekly ritual includes an offering is to train us in generosity.  It is to train us to let go.  You put it in the plate and it is not yours anymore.  We practice it a little bit here so that you can go out into the world and practice it out there.  So the world can see that there is joy in generosity, that the reign of God is a place of generosity, a place of sharing, a place of infinite grace.  We are the stewards of that grace, whether we are talk about time, or dollars, or food, or breaths.

                And I want to close with another disclaimer, because anytime we talk about giving, anytime we talk about acts of discipleship, it is tempting to turn the discussion into an if/then discussion of reward and punishment.  If you give, you will make God happy.  The prosperity gospel says, if you give, you will get more in return.  If you don’t give, then closing the church is your fault.  We don’t do these things to change how God feels about us.  God is already deeply in love with you and you cannot change it.  It’s a constant.  We do these things to change who we are in relationship to God.  We do them to change the world so the world is a little more like heaven.  We are the stewards of God’s grace, empowered to use what God has given us to change the world, and that in itself is also a gift of a loving God.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

November 12, 2017 - Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids

As we get into November, and then start a new church year in Advent.  We hear a number of messages about being ready, being prepared or being awake.  In the story of the 10 bridesmaids, Jesus uses language that hearkens back to wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs, the split between the wise and the foolish.  The author of Proverbs wrote:

                The crown of the wise is their wisdom, but folly is the garland of fools.
                Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.

                In Jesus’ story, the 5 wise bridesmaids are prepared for the groom.  The 5 foolish bridesmaids are not prepared when he is delayed.  Now some will poke holes at this story, noticing a kind of “mean girls” vibe.  What do you mean there is not enough oil to light the lamps for the groom to pass by?  How much luck do you think they will have knocking on the door of the oil merchant at midnight?  And who is this groomzilla who denies even knowing the women who spoiled his perfect procession?

                As I have said before, Matthew provides a Jesus who can make a bit uneasy because he is not the kind and gentle Jesus we like but the prophetic Jesus who challenges us.  He is not the Jesus who lovingly tells us that he doesn’t care about the oil in our lamps or the magic Jesus who makes more oil appear.  He is the Jesus who lovingly tells us to be prepared ahead of time.  He is the Jesus who lovingly tells us to examine ourselves.  A couple of years ago I used a phrase by a Buddhist teacher, Suzuki Roshi as a model for Christian life.  He told his students, “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.”  More than the other gospels, Matthew’s Jesus is the one who tells us we could use some improvement and inspires some discomfort by pointing out the places where we should look, the places in our lives we often would like to ignore.

                That being said, all of the gospels have this theme of uncertainty.  Be ready.  Get ready because you don’t know what life will bring.  I think more than any other time in my life, this feels like an era of uncertainty.  There is a palpable sense of anxiety that manifests itself in so many ways.  There is the unpredictability of terrorist attacks, innocents killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There is the unpredictability of white guys with semi-automatic weapons who settle their scores with mass shootings.  There is the undercurrent of violence against women, where men in positions of power use that power to objectify, to dominate, to fortify their egos by tearing down and taking advantage of others.

                So how is it that we as people of faith should prepare ourselves for the unpredictable?  How shall we respond to troubling stories that inspire fear?  A natural response would be to hide in our sanctuaries, though events In Texas remind us that even these walls are not impermeable.  A traditional response is to throw worship at it, have a vigil; light some candles; find some strength in gathered community.  It’s not a bad impulse, lighting a candle to spite the darkness, creating a space for people to encounter their immediate emotions, but it is an impulse that works best with one-time tragedies and unusual moments of pain.

                At some point we have to admit that we are no longer dealing with occasional tragedies and transgressions but rather with cultural issues.  The sexual harassment scandals that have been coming to light point to a culture of harassment rather than a few bad apples.  The increasing frequency of mass shootings point to a culture shaped by anger and violence and frustration rather than simply a couple of troubled individuals acting out.  Responding to an individual is fairly easy.  We could all condemn Harvey Weinstein and hope he faces the consequences of his actions.  Changing a culture where harassment is a norm, where disrespect is a norm, where acting out sexually or violently becomes a norm, is something different. 

The contemplative theologian Richard Rohr suggests that, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”  I suggest that this is where the church comes in; this is where the life of discipleship comes in.  You are going to be hearing me talk quite a bit about being disciples, students of Jesus, in the coming year because I think this is where the church can find meaningful renewal.  Because we have been set free in Christ to love and serve our neighbor; because we know we are supported by the love of God which is unwavering, we can show a culture that is quickly becoming more and more disrespectful and more and more hateful and more and more anxious, that there is a different way to live in this world.

                We can show the world what it means to disagree on some very serious issues and still be respectful, to listen to others without being dismissive, to take the risk of caring for others who are not like us.  We can show that there is true joy in serving, that there is hope in loving, that there is peace in kindness. 

                And for those of you who have the very natural response, a response that I share, of saying, “How will kindness help us when hate walks in carrying an AR-15?”  As I have said before, I do not believe that faith will protect us from the unexpected.  I am also not a big proponent of the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy, which I think is neither very scriptural nor helpful in tragedy.  There are many things that are simply out of our control, whether it is the actions of a violent and troubled person or the power of a hurricane.  The love of God in Christ is the solid place to stand in the midst of the unpredictable.  As Martin Luther wrote in “A Mighty Fortress is our God,  “though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.  The kingdom’s ours forever.”

                So when Jesus talks about being prepared and awake, I don’t think he means some kind of escapism, ready so that we can avoid trouble and tragedy.   I think we prepare ourselves as Christians by walking the path of discipleship, by regularly reminding ourselves that we are standing on a solid place in the midst of uncertainty and then living as though we were standing on a solid place in the midst of uncertainty.  It has long been said that the opposite of peace is not war, but fear.  We live in a society that is afraid and when people are afraid they are not in control; they become foolish, self-centered and impulsive.  We can be a community with a different message and a different vision, standing on the solidity of God’s love, sharing a message of good news through words and acts of kindness, love and peace; God’s wisdom for the world.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November 5, 2017 - All Saints' Sunday

Let me start by stating the obvious.  You are going to die.  Hopefully not in the next few minutes because that would awkward and a bit disruptive, but someday you are going to die.  You might say to me, “But pastor, we believe in eternal life.  Why would you talk about death?”  I also believe in eternal life, but it is life after death.  I checked it out, even if you go to church, tithe 10% of your income and do a good deed every day, you cannot stop the natural process of aging that leads to death.  You, yes, even you are going to die.

                I say this not to bum you out, but as an introduction to a sermon on All Saints’ Sunday, a day on which we celebrate and remember those who have died in faith, who are still a part of the body of Christ but no longer here in this life.  But first, I want to talk a little bit more about death and the reason I do has to do with a presentation I went to this past Tuesday.  I attended a meeting for clergy sponsored by the Conversation Project, which is a group that is simply trying to get people to talk about death with their families and anyone who will have a responsibility in caring for them.

                What struck me were a few statistics.  First, as some of you may remember, my father died suddenly about a year ago.  I didn’t realize how unusual that was.  It is estimated that, in the United States, only about 10% of population will experience a sudden death in the coming years.  The vast majority of people will succumb to some kind of chronic illness: cancer, heart disease, complications from diabetes.  The vast majority of people will go through a process of dying. 

The other statistic that struck me is that, while 90% of people think it is important to share your wishes about medical interventions and what constitutes quality of life for you, only about 17% of people surveyed had actually had that conversation with their loved ones.   It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have with your spouse or you children, but far better than leaving people to guess about what you might want when you are unable to communicate.  And this isn’t just planning your memorial service as some of you may have done, something that happens after you have died.  This is a conversation about what happens as you approach death.  So tell the people you love what constitutes a good death in your eyes.  Maybe you want family around you.  Maybe you want no one around you.  Maybe you want the calming strains of Chopin piano etudes.  Maybe you want the Rolling Stones rocking you to the great beyond.  No one will know this if you don’t tell them and then you will be stuck listening to the Easy Listening station that they play in my dentist’s office, which is supposed to be calming but is actually a little irritating.  Even worse, you might be stuck listening to the music that your grandkids think is calming which could be Justin Bieber.  (What a way to go!)

Especially as Christians, we should be able to have this kind of conversation because one of our fundamental beliefs is that death has been defeated.  Yes, you are going to die, but through Christ, death has become the gateway into eternity.  As Paul wrote, quoting Hebrew prophets, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  O death where is your victory? O death where is your sting?”  The process of dying may be frightening or troubling, but we proclaim that death is not the end.

The other benefit to having this kind of conversation where we acknowledge our mortality is that it also can make us reflective about how we live.  Those whom the church remembers as saints are remembered primarily for how they lived, how they lived the gospel, how they witnessed to God’s love and God’s good news through their words and actions.  You may have personal saints, people you remember who shared the faith and showed you the meaning of love.  Each new day becomes an opportunity to share that love, to let eternal life start now.

This is a path that could lead to some works righteous, if/then kind of thinking, “If you are good, God will bless you” , kind of thinking.  Traditionally, the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew are read on this Sunday as a model of the saintly life, the good life.  Lutheran thought about this is a bit more complicated because we have this idea of being saint and sinner at the same time.  We are saints because of God’s actions in Jesus and not because of great stuff that we have done and in spite of the not so great stuff we have done.

And yet Jesus offers us the words of the beatitudes as a gift, something to aspire toward.  When we think of saints with names like Francis and Mary and Teresa and Martin and Dietrich we think of people who often, not always, but often exemplified these words: the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the meek, the hungry for righteousness.  In these days of boastful politicians telling us of winners and losers, taking cheap shots at one another, these words suggest that there is a different and better way.

Again, it is tempting to get into if/then kind of thinking, reading each beatitude as a conditional statement.  If you are meek, then you will be blessed.  I prefer to think of them as a direct statements.  To be meek is to live a blessed and happy life.  To be a peacemaker is to be God’s blessing in the world.  To mourn, to have compassion for others, is to be a blessing in the world.  I imagine Jesus offering these words saying, “You’ve tried the rat race.  You’ve tried the life of winners and losers.  You’ve tried the life of acquisition of honor and money and stuff.  You may have found that it doesn’t work so well.  Short term gains, moments of pleasure as you get that new toy, but kind of empty in the long run.  Here is something else for you to try.  Here is another way.  Here is what it means to be blessed and a blessing.  Blessed are the poor in Spirit…”

So, you are going to die.  Sorry to bring it up again, but it’s important.  You are going to die, but right now you have this moment, this day, this life that is a gracious gift.   It’s not merely a prelude to what comes next, but a gift in and of itself.  You have the opportunity to be a blessing to this world.  You are already holy.  God took care of that in Jesus, now you can walk a holy walk.  Be compassionate.  Be merciful.  Be meek.  Be humble.  Be a peacemaker.  Hunger for righteousness.  Hunger for justice and do not fear those who will take potshots and cheap shots at your character for it. 

In our tradition we don’t ask the saints to intercede for us in heaven, rather we celebrate how those saints made this a life a little more like heaven .  You are God’s saints here and now.  Go and live like God’s saints here and now.

Monday, November 13, 2017

October 29, 2017 - 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Today, the Sunday closest to October 31, the church celebrates Reformation Day because according to tradition it was on the 31st that Luther posted his 95 Theses which began the debate that led to the Reformation movement.  This year is especially significant because it marks the 500th anniversary of that event.  But we can ask ourselves, as Luther does in the Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” 

                A couple of weeks ago I was invited to present at the United Methodist Soup for the Soul event and I talked about the Reformation.  My message to them is part of what I will share today, that we need to realize that the Reformation was more about ideas of God than practice, heritage or culture.  Now many of our practices grew out of those ideas of God, but removed from those ideas, they are just practices.  Being Lutheran is far more defined about how we think about God than the things we do in the name of Lutheranism.

                And if the measure of Lutheranism is how we think about God, there is likely a good portion of the congregation that will fail, and I will guess that 100% of the congregation will fail at some point this year.  Because when you ask many Lutherans about the nature of our relationship with God, they will still answer with some kind of conditional statement.  Although we officially proclaim that we are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ, many Lutherans when asked about faith, will respond a variation of, “If you do good works, you will go to heaven,” or, more recently, the popular evangelical, “If you live faithfully, God will reward you.”

                This makes sense, because conditional thinking is how most of our lives work.  If I do this, then there is a consequence, cause and effect.  Many common health issues are consequences of how we have lived in the past.  We can look back on our lives and say, “If I had made a different decision then, my life would look different now.”   It should not be surprising that when we think about God, we come to the same kinds of conclusions.  If I am good, God will reward me.  If I am bad, God will punish me.  And to make matters more complicated, we have voices in scripture who talk about life in this way.  This kind of thinking is very much what the Pharisees were teaching in Jesus’ time.  God rewards the righteous so let’s figure out how to be righteous.

                The concept of justification by grace through faith is in part a reflection of what happens when a cause and effect universe doesn’t work, when if/then conditionals have failed.  Jesus questions the idea that failure is a sign of God’s disfavor.  Paul writes at a time when faithful Christians are being punished specifically for being faithful.  Martin Luther writes at time when the cause and effect version of faith was being abused, with Johann Tetzel coming to Wittenberg to sell papal indulgences to rebuild Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome.  If you pay the church, God will reward you or at least punish you and your loved ones a little less.  For Luther the if/then statement of the church became impossible.  If you are good, if you are cleansed from sin by doing enough good works, then God will reward you, forgive you and save you.  Luther realized that he could never attain the “if” part of that statement, never do enough good works to make up for his sins/mistakes.  In reading Paul, he came to believe that only God, out of God’s pure goodness as witnessed in Jesus, could forgive, could make us righteous.

                The good news of grace is that the relationship between God and you has been taken care of.  It is solid.  You cannot break it.  You cannot turn God away or turn the love of God off.  This is good news and good news that the world needs.  It is good news for every person here today and good news for everyone in the community.

                Now 500 years later, while hopefully we all agree that it is good news, why do we seem to have such a hard time sharing it and why do people seem to have such a hard time hearing it?  First, we need to understand that this good news is a hard sell.  It is hard to sell something that cannot be sold.  As you look through Christian history, the popular forms of religion almost always become “If/then” kinds of religion.  If you do church, your life will be better.  If you are faithful, God will reward you.  If/then statements are a strong hook.  They make sense and, as I said before, 100% of this congregation will fail at holding a pure, grace-centered theology this year at some point because those kinds of statements make a lot more sense than what we proclaim.

                Instead, Lutheran thinking represents a paradigm-shift in religion.  At its heart, Lutheran faith is not about if/then kinds of doing or thinking.  It’s about an invitation to see the world, faith and God in a different way, with the vision of abundance, love and hope that Jesus shared.  We are more like conspiracy theorists, announcing that the world that God has made and intends is far different from world that you have been taught to believe in.  It is what happens when you realize that the relationship between you and God is solid and will not melt away.  It will always sustain you.

                The challenge with why we have such a hard time sharing the gospel I believe has to do with the aspects of that vision that we have emphasized.  My experience over the past couple of decades is that we focus on comfort.  The good news is comforting.  I have had the experience and I have had a number colleagues share the experience after a funeral being told by someone, “That was the best funeral I have ever been to.”  I believe that the reason people have that kind of reaction is most Lutheran preachers focus more on God’s relationship of love to the person than trying to say what a wonderful person he or she was.  Because of course we know that every person is a mixed bag (this is also a very Lutheran statement: saints and sinners at the same time).  But we proclaim with certainty that God loves that person, whether or not anyone else in the room does.  

                I think this is an important message but I also want to note over those decades many of the discussions I have heard within the church, within various committees, when we talk about worship or fellowship or other issues, we end up making decisions that keep us comforted and comfortable.  When we say, “I wish we sang the old hymns,” we are asking to be made comfortable, looking for comfort.   When we try to preserve old traditions and old dynamics simply because they are familiar, we are seeking comfort.  We are seeking stability but not in the gospel, rather in the organized church itself.  So again I say, we, good Lutherans, struggle to believe this good news that the relationship is solid.

                I suggest that we need consistently to remind ourselves of another aspect of the gospel, what Jesus mentioned today in the gospel lesson.  The good news is a message of freedom.  The good news sets us free.  When you realize that this relationship is solid, that the love of God does not disappear, it’s a liberating experience, every time you realize it (because we often forget).  When I was a teenager I once did a high ropes course with a camp group.  A high ropes course is basically an obstacle course that is 40 feet in the air.  You are connected to cables by mountaineering harnesses.   The obstacles are challenging:  walk across a wobbly ladder rung by rung, jump from one platform to the next, walk across a telephone pole, like a fat tightrope. 

Most of us were pretty timid until we fell for the first time.  Even though you have been given the safety talk, the first time you fall, your brain tells you that you are going to die, half a second of intense panic and fear, and then the cables and harness stop you and you take a deep breath and pull yourself back on the obstacle to try again.  Once you realize that the cables work and the harness works, you are able to try things that you would never attempt: leap, run, and swing on ropes 40 feet in the air.  I’ll give you that it helps to be thirteen and stupid, but the point is, when you feel secure, its sets you free to move in new directions.

When you know that the love of God is solid, what the rest of the world thinks of you ceases to matter.   You don’t have to prove yourself anymore.  The world ceases to be a competition of winners and losers.  You can stop trying to win because God has already won.  In Lutheran thought, we have been set free, so that we can be loving, so that we can be free to be living witnesses of the solid love of God in Christ.

As I said, we are conspiracy theorists, announcing that the world has been lying to everybody, that the real world is one of love, hope and joy.  And we can keep saying that until we are tired out and just want to come back and get comfortable.  The only way we prove our great theory is by living into it.  As we baptize Calvin this morning, we are living into the good news, because he is a baby and has no idea what we are doing or why an oddly dressed person will pour water on his head, but the love of God is solid, touching him, working through him even before he has any idea of how or why.  We live into the gospel,  living as though the world is one of love, hope and joy.  And not just for an hour once a week but every day and every moment we are living in that open secret world, living in a world where every person you encounter is loved intensely by God, living in a world where material things are just things, living in a world where every moment is a precious gift of love.

500 years ago Martin Luther didn’t wanted to divide the church.  He wanted it to rediscover itself, rediscover a gospel message that had been there from the beginning.   We are always in need of reform because that gospel message of grace is so easy to forget, so easy to doubt, so easy to ignore in favor of a simple if/then exchange.   But the love of God is not conditional, it is a constant reality that sets us free.

Now I was going to the sermon by hitting the last line of the gospel reading, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” and I realized that it is an if/then conditional statement.  But pay attention.  In popular if/then brands of religion, the “if” clause is dependent on you.  If you are good or live faithfully or do penance.   Jesus’ “if” clause is dependent on him.   If the Son makes you free.  We proclaim that he has already done it, this conditional is already 100% satisfied, which means that the “then” clause is also already true.  You are now and already free indeed.

Monday, October 23, 2017

October 22, 2017 - Memorial Service

When we considered this service, Sunday worship including a memorial service, I realized that there were some challenges.  Some might attend the service who aren’t strongly connected to a church or faith tradition, but knew Debbie well.  Some might be visiting, looking for a place to worship on Sunday morning with no strong connection to Debbie or her family.  And there are those in the Christ Lutheran community who are here for both.

                And as I considered this in terms of preaching, I realized that my task is the same for all three groups, to proclaim good news, to proclaim the promise.  So how might we do that today?  First, we can acknowledge that we are here on Sunday morning and we are here on Sunday morning because somewhere 2000 years ago the church decided that it was fitting for Christians to worship on the day of resurrection, that every Sunday is an Easter Sunday.  The church gathered on Sunday morning to be reminded of an essential idea of faith, that through the cross of Christ, death is no longer an ending to be feared, but a gateway to new life, a gateway to a new existence where mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  And to this idea those of you who knew Debbie know that she would give a grand “Woo-hoo!”

                We can also hear the gospel in the words of scripture.  Now at first hearing the gospel lesson for today may seem like its about paying taxes and has something to do with money, and those of you who may not have a strong church affiliation may be wondering if I am going to ask you for money.  In fact, many of my members may suspect that I would talk about money.  This is not a text about money, but rather it is a story about images.  Jesus tells the people to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar based on the fact that the coin is stamped with the image of Caesar.  Way back in Genesis 1, in the story of creation, the author also talked about images, saying that the human beings were made in the image of God.  It is this image that Jesus refers to when he says “Give to God what belongs to God.”  Give to God the things that are stamped with the image of God.  Offer yourself back to God in love and caring, offer yourself back to God in joy and hope.  Offer yourself back to God by offering yourself to those around you, by treating those around you with kindness and love and care.  And here again we can reflect on Debbie’s life among us.  I remember one of the last days that I was able to have a real conversation with Debbie was shortly after she had found out that her cancer had spread and there was a tumor growing on her leg.  We talked about her disappointment and, at the time, possibilities for treatment.  I gave her communion and as I left she said, very quietly in her Southern lilt, “Love you, Carl.”  Not some romantic declaration, but the simple love that Christians are supposed to have for one another.  It is rare that we speak it, perhaps because it is so connected to romance and that can lead to confusion.  Yet it was an honest and beautiful moment, a reflection of the person who Debbie was and is.

                We can also see the gospel in the community this morning.  When we worship together in our tradition we do not sit still through the service.  Yes, as you listen to readings and preaching, you can be a group of individuals, each of you listening and interpreting, the Holy Spirit at work, using my words to create a message that makes sense to you.  But in a few moments you will be invited to stand and share God’s peace with people you know and people you don’t, shake hands or hug or nod or bow, look a stranger in the eye and say, “Peace be with you.”  And in that moment you are the good news to one another.  You are a message of peace, a gift of grace.  That is God working through you, the promise that began on the cross 2000 years ago reaching to this moment, this community.  The peace which, the apostle Paul wrote, “passes all understanding” the peace that goes by many names, “Shalom, wholeness, security, wellness,” the peace which Debbie experiences right now, be with you.

                And finally, we can receive the gospel at the communion table.  For those who are visiting, I will announce at that time that we have an open table, which means, whatever your tradition, you are welcome to receive the sacrament at our table.  Our table is open because it is an encounter with the gospel and the gospel is for all; Jesus is for all.  As you come forward this morning, as you receive bread and wine, we proclaim that you are receiving Jesus, internalizing the promise, which is simply a beautiful idea.  But there is another aspect of the communion table that I would like to highlight, an idea that we refer to as the “mystical communion.”  It is the idea that when we celebrate communion, in some mysterious way we are connected to the whole body of Christ, all Christians in all times and places in some way celebrating with us.  Jesus gathers us all together at the meal.  When we gather at the table, Debbie will be with us celebrating along with all those that we have lost over time.

                Think of it as one of the implications of Paul’s message from Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death nor life, neither things present nor things to come nor anything else in all creation.  There is no diagnosis; there is no cancer; there is no final breath that can separate us.  There is no mistake; there is no harsh word; there is no regret that can separate us.  There is no time; there is no place; there is no ending that can separate us.  This is the good news that we celebrate every Sunday in some way or form, but especially today as we remember one who is no longer with us in body, but remains connected to us in the body of Christ.

                It is never easy to lose someone you love, but we take comfort in the good news that Debbie is held in the hands of God.  Though her loss may leave us with sadness, this is where she belongs today, in the hands and promise of a loving God.

Monday, October 16, 2017

October 15, 2017 - Parable of the Great Banquet

Each gospel author presents a character of Jesus, much the way an artist might paint a picture of Jesus, an image of how the artist imagines Jesus might look without having seen him.   The character in the gospel text is not Jesus, but a reflection of how the author has experienced or learned about Jesus.  So you will hear me talk about Matthew’s Jesus or John’s Jesus.  Although the characters are similar, they are presented in different ways.  These differences are part of the reason the early church felt it necessary to include multiple gospels to tell the story.

                Part of the character of Matthew’s Jesus is Jesus as prophet.  Matthew’s Jesus tells stories that are meant to disturb and upset, the prophet poking at our conscience, challenging our self-understanding as good and faithful.  When Luke tells the parable of the great banquet, the story is much more palatable.  The people are invited; they reject the invitation; the host gets angry and invites everybody else and it ends with a really nice party.  Matthew tells the story and the first invitees not only blow off the invitation but also kill the servants that brought it.  The host, a king, is upset so he sends soldiers to kill them and burns down their city.  Then there is a nice party except for the one person who show up unprepared who ends up in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

                Jesus the prophet is not the Jesus we like to listen to nor is he the Jesus we want to meet.  We want the nice Jesus in the portrait in the narthex; the handsome man with unkempt hair and piercing eyes who is just on the verge of saying, “You are awesome.”  That Jesus is trying to make us feel good about ourselves.  The prophetic Jesus is trying to get us to pay attention.  He is trying to get us question the idea that everything about our relationship with God is good.  He is trying to get us to question the very foundations of our faithfulness.  He is trying to get us to question ourselves when we feel we have faith figured out.  And I will say that I have met many Christians who think they have faith figured out, whether it a glib line about “Just doing what the Bible says,” or a checklist of discipleship actions (so many chapters of the Bible a day, so many sessions of prayer a day, a 10% tithe and gratitude journal) or a proper understanding of Reformation theology and a fascination with (fetishizing of?) liturgy and four-part harmony.  The prophetic Jesus says, “If you think you understand God, you are way off;  if you think you are doing faith right, you are probably doing it wrong.”

                The Lutheran perspective would say that this is exactly the kind of story we need to hear.  We often come to church looking to hear words of comfort and words of love.  We come to hear the invitation God gives, to live in a world that is shaped by hope and peace.  We sing songs that console our hearts and are invited to the table to be fed.  And yet we also need to be reminded of the number of times that we have heard God’s invitation and turned away to our important business that could not wait.  God has invited us to imagine a world of wholeness in the cries of those in need.  God has invited us into a world of hope in the voices of those who cry for justice and equality.  God has invited us into a world of peace, waiting for our response to those who call for war.  But that God-imbued vision of a world is a challenge, a world that calls us to turn away from self-centeredness, a vision that calls us to be different, less focused on the love of things, more focused on the love of others, no longer defined by what others think of us and expect from us and more defined by who we are as children of God.

                All of us, every day, spurn that invitation, ignore the voice of God speaking, ignore the messengers among us, dismissing them as troublemakers or unpatriotic or simply too extreme.  We ignore the implications of the good news, that the love of God we have received in Christ is meant to multiply and expand, not be held close like a sacred totem.  Like sunlight shining on a solar panel, God’s love is meant to be absorbed by us and converted into loving action.  When we fail to let it out, we ignore the invitation to the party, because in this lifetime, loving action for our neighbor is the party.  Now some of you may say that this time in worship is the party because after all we sing here and we are fed here.  No this is where you prepare yourselves for the party, the staging area for the celebration.  This is where you find the wedding robe and make the 7-layer dip you are going to bring.

                We need to hear this story because as much we are troubled by the message, troubled by the wrath of the king, it is a message that might remind us to repent because we don’t have everything worked out.  And remember, one of the foundational discoveries of Luther in the Reformation was that repentance was not about completing a church-mandated penance, but was about changing our hearts and changing our minds.  Repentance is about walking in a new direction.  Another very strong Lutheran theological idea is that repentance is not only something God calls us to, but something God leads us to.  The Holy Spirit works on us, sometimes in subtle ways that develop over time, sometimes in powerful, life-changing moments, sometimes in periods where we can only look back in retrospect and say, “God was at work.”

                Such is the nature of the prophet and the prophetic voice.  The prophet intends to cause you discomfort.  The prophet intends to make you squirm and question yourself.  The prophetic voice does not do this because he or she doesn’t like you, but because the prophet has been given a vision of what you could be.  The Israelite prophets spoke harsh words to the people of Israel and it wasn’t because they didn’t love Israel or love the people.  It was because they had been given a vision of what God intended and hoped for Israel and were despondent about how Israel had fallen short of its calling to care for the poor and needy; to care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger.  And they cried out with words of warning and words of frustration and sorrow.

                When we hear Jesus’ difficult parables it is not Jesus speaking out of hate, but Jesus speaking strongly out of sorrow, frustration and finally out of love, sorrow for what humans are intended to be and how we fall short, sorrow for the self-serving paths we often walk and their inevitable destinations of pain and loss, sorrow for the joy we sacrifice in order to walk those paths that we think are so wonderful and so secure, but also love, love for simply who we are as God’s good creation and love for what we could be and love for the joyful love we experience in loving the neighbor.

                So listen for that invitation, because God is calling you out of here and into the great party of humanity.    Listen because there is warning to the story.  Now I do believe in a loving God and not a God who is waiting to wipe us out.  The wrath of the king is a strong image but I suggest that it is in line with other Israelite prophets who offered similar warnings, that a world that fails to listen to God’s invitation to love is doomed to destruction, and not because God will throw lightning bolts at it, but because it will simply collapse under the weight of its own greed and anger.  As the Church, we are invited to follow Christ and show the world that there is a different way, a way that leads to celebration and life.  Let’s sing and pray and share the peace.  Let’s be fed at the table and sent into the world.  May the love we experience in this place send us out with love to God’s great party.

Monday, October 9, 2017

October 8, 2017 - Parable of the Wicked Tenants

After church last Sunday, I was asked about the passage from Ezekiel, a passage that ends with what seems like a death threat from God “O Israel, are my ways unfair?  Is it not your ways that are unfair?  Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God.  Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin…Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have not pleasure in the death of anyone…Turn then and live.”  And then we had the lessons for this morning that involve harsh words from Isaiah, the beautiful vineyard turned into wasteland, and Jesus’ parable that calls back to it, the violence of the tenants resolved by the violence of the landowner.  We are in the realm of language where Jesus doesn’t sound like Jesus.  Matthew’s Jesus uses harsh language more frequently than the other gospels.  There is more weeping and gnashing of teeth.

                But it is a kind of language that can be confusing in a tradition that talks about the grace of God and a culture that is far more attuned to messages of the love of God than the wrath of God.  It is the language of the prophet and I would like to talk about the role of the prophet and prophetic literature in the Bible.  It is important that, for the most part, prophets in the Israelite tradition were not predictors of the future, rather they were sharp critics of the present.  They pointed out the path that the people were on, especially paths of injustice and pointed ahead saying that this road leads toward death and pain, that a path where the rich take advantage of the poor or the justice system works in favor of those in elevated positions would lead to the destruction of Israel.  And always the prophets called the people to repent, to change the heart, to change the direction, to walk a new path, one that leads back to wholeness, to shalom.

                Last week in conversation I used the example of a doctor talking to a patient who smokes.  The doctor will say, “If you keep smoking, there will be severe consequences to your health and eventually it can kill you.”  Emphysema and lung cancer are not punishments that the doctor gives you for smoking, nor are they punishments that God gives you for smoking, they are possible consequences built into the habit.  And in a medical way, the doctor will tell you to repent.  Stop smoking.  Use a patch.  Change your ways.

                So when Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and the leaders of the Temple he challenges one of their assumptions, that the path they are on leads to righteousness and closeness to God.  Instead, in their desire for personal righteousness, they have become exclusive in a way the destroys the faith of others, judging those who are less observant than them to be less in the eyes of God.  The parable challenges them in a number of ways.  First, it puts the leaders in the role of tenants of the faith and not owners of the faith, which is something religious leaders often forget.  We have been trained how to do faith the right way and forget that it is God’s faith given to us and not a faith we own.  Jesus’ story also says that this is not the first time that the leaders of the faith have needed a reminder, represented by the slaves that come before the son of the landowner, that the caution of former prophets still needs to be heard by the current generation.  No one likes to be told that they are on the wrong side of faith; that their view of the nature of God is off, and so Jesus’ story leads to anger which leads to what becomes the greatest prophetic action of Christian faith, Christ’s death on the cross, the moment when all creation pauses to look at the dying Son of God showing where the paths of hate and jealousy and judgmentalism lead.

                Yet we never quite learn the lesson.  We keep rediscovering hatred as a way of motivating people; we keep rediscovering judgmentalism as a balm for our fragile egos; we keep rediscovering scapegoating as means of overlooking our own shortcomings.  And then we are surprised and shocked when hatred and anger show up in the news out of control, when racism slithers out from beneath its rock wearing a “Free Speech” costume, when bottled anger bursts out as random bullets shooting into a crowd because yet another person was fed up, or ticked off, or couldn’t take it anymore, when opioid addictions take our young people because they feel they have nothing to lose.  Every cross that someone wears as fashion statement or faith statement or posts as decoration should be a reminder of where the paths of hatred lead.  Every cross should be a moment to change direction, to repent, to go a different way.

                At the same time, all those crosses can serve as reminders that there is a better way, that there is a way that leads to resurrection, a way that leads to hope and life.  There is a way that is a gift to those who walk it and a gift to those who see it being walked.  It is the way of love; the way of Jesus.  To be clear, it is not an easy way or a touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy, kind of way.  Otherwise our gospel story could just be Jesus showing up and giving everyone big hug.  The path of love in the face of hatred, jealousy and judgementalism leads Jesus to the cross.  The good news is that while it leads to the cross (confrontation with the powers of hate) it does not end at the cross.  Love is popular when it is safe.  It is safe to love your family.  It is safe to love your country.  It is safe to love people like you.  It is dangerous to love your enemies.  It is dangerous to love those with whom you disagree.  It is dangerous to love beyond the socially acceptable boundaries.  Yet that is who Jesus is and what he did and path to which he calls us.

                And this world, this angry, frustrated world needs to see people walking that walk, needs to see you walking that walk.  One of the most important ideas that came from Martin Luther was his understanding of the priesthood of all believers.  By virtue of your baptism, every one of you has been ordained a priest, bringing the love of God into the world.  In fact, if there is a virtue that we Lutherans need to rediscover in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is that priesthood, that calling to serve.  And an important part of the priesthood of all believers that we need to rediscover is that the calling to be a priest has little to do with the church building and organization.  Luther didn’t imagine the church as priests serving in their special buildings.  He imagined the church as priests in the community, priests bringing healing and hope and love in their day to day lives.  He imagined a few people, called by communities to serve as pastors, but most of the church serving as priests as they made their living, as they raised their families, as they did the normal things that people do from day to day outside of church buildings.  He imagined all of us seeing our lives as a constant call to holy work, wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

                When Jesus uses the vineyard image, the hope of the landowner is the same as the hope from the image of Isaiah, that the vineyard will bear good fruit, that the tenants will offer their portion of the harvest.  It is God’s hope that our lives will bear fruit.  And, as I said before, if the world needs anything right now it needs the fruits of discipleship, the fruits of the life of Christ, the fruits of love and peace and hope.  And we are called to share those fruits, having experienced them in the grace of God, having touched them in this place, we are called to share them with the world.

                The voice of the prophet calls out a warning, “Keep walking this way and you walk toward destruction.”  The voice of Jesus calls out, “Follow me and walk toward life.”  The path of Jesus is a gift that brings hope to the world.  Let us walk this path together.


Monday, October 2, 2017

October 1, 2017 - Parable of the Two Sons

The parable that Jesus tells has sometimes been interpreted in an anti-Semitic way.  There have been many interpretations that boil down to, “The Jews are the first son, who says “Yes” but doesn’t go.  The Christians are the second who said “No” to the initial invitation but went and worked anyway.”  And the basic problem with that interpretation is that Jesus is telling this story within a Jewish context.  While he has encountered and ministered to a few non-Jewish people in the story, the bulk of the characters are Jewish.  The story had to have meaning to a Jewish audience.  So to say that this is a story that boils down to Jews are bad and Christians are good misses the mark and is lazy interpretation. 

                I think that this is a story about the way we deal with religion and faith and represents strains of thinking that you can find in any religion.  Within any religious tradition, you have people who think they have it figured out, who approach religion without any sense of humility, who look at other religions or differing ideas in their own religion and say, “I have it figured out so I have nothing to learn from that person, that tradition, that idea.”  These are people who may come to have important places within the religious body because they seem to know what they are talking about; they have strong convictions; they can tell you unequivocally what is right and what is wrong.  And sometimes in life it can be helpful to have someone who seems to know what he or she is talking about.  But that kind of conviction can lead to a very non-gospel-centered pride, because if I know unequivocally what is right, then people who are different or disagree have to be wrong.

                I think this is the attitude that Jesus criticizes and, as I said, this is an attitude that develops in any form of religion, a religion without humility, a religion without kindness, a religion that loves itself and forgets to love others (and it turns out that  the primary work for those who are called to God’s vineyard is loving others.)  There are Christians who hold this attitude.  Dare I say it, there are Lutheran Christians who hold this attitude.  It is the kind of attitude that hears this parable and always comes back, “Thank goodness I am the good guy in this story.”  Often it will think boastfully, “In fact, I am better than either son because I said ‘Yes’ and I went to the vineyard.”

                As I have been reading the past few parables, I keep thinking of variations on the theme of Jesus’ stories.  So I want suggest that there was a third brother in the story, a brother that will be familiar to anyone 40 and older.  There is brother who said, “Yes” and didn’t go.  There is the brother who said, “No,” and went anyway.  I think there is a brother who went to the vineyard, looked around, and forgot why he was there.  Somewhere on the path, some pressing idea or some distraction knocked plan out of his head and he forgot what he was supposed to do in the vineyard.  I know I am supposed to be here, but what am I supposed to be doing here again (and did I leave my keys here)?
                I believe that this is the situation that the church finds itself in today.  We know we are supposed to be doing something but we have kind of forgotten what it was.  So our answer has been to go to the vineyard and sing songs.  There is a long tradition of people singing songs while they work.  We just kind of minimize the work part and focus on the song part because songs make us feel warm inside.

                What I mean is, we have bought into the idea that the primary purpose of the church is to worship.  We measure our success by bodies in the pews and dollars in the collection plate because these are tangible things we can evaluate.  Now worship is important.  In fact, I think that worship gives us a mini-seminar on what salvation looks like and what life in Christ can look like every week.  Think about what we have in worship.  We confess and hear words of forgiveness; we listen to words of scripture and words of instruction; we sing songs of praise to God and, in our tradition, songs that are meant to teach us about faith; we share peace and are reconciled to one another; we offer gifts to God as an act of stewardship; we come to the table together and are fed by Jesus.  This time is a microcosm of salvation.  Salvation is the freedom of forgiveness and reconciliation; it is the joy of generosity; it is being fed and nourished together with all the saints;  it is the gift of listening and learning and deepening; it is having someone look you in the and offer you peace; it is the wonder and mystery of the love of God that leads us to praise.

                But worship is a little like our children going off to school.  Good education prepares them for what happens when the school day is over, after they cross the graduation stage.  And we want them to have good schools and we want education to be enjoyable but also meaningful and we want them to get beyond it.  Good education creates a desire for learning beyond the school room.  Good worship creates a desire to grow beyond Sunday morning, to let the love of God that we encounter here be part of our every day reality; to let the love of God be part of who we are, the decisions we make, the way we treat others; to let the love of God move beyond us, beyond these walls, this parcel of land and into the world.

                This space is not the vineyard that Jesus is talking about.  This worship is not the work that Jesus is calling us to do in the vineyard.  Jesus talks very little about worship.  He establishes some of our practices, but you can’t say that worship is a major theme of the gospel story, rather worship develops for the church as a way of supporting the work in the vineyard.  We sing the songs because they help us do the work, the work of love to be done in the vineyard that is out there.

                We come here to be reminded of the work that God has been doing in our own lives.  We come here to be reminded and celebrate that God has set us free from our mistakes, that we are already reconciled with the God who loves us deeply.  We come here to be reminded that salvation has already come to us; that abundant life is already in the midst of our day to day reality; that we are already complete and whole in the eyes of God.  We come here to be reminded that although we may look at ourselves and say, “This is part of me is not good and this part of me is embarrassing and this part of me is ugly,” God looks at us and says, “Beautiful.  If you want work on the weak spots, go ahead, but realize that you are beautiful and then go make something beautiful.”

                And reminded of all of those wonderful promises of faith, we go out to the vineyard.  And sometimes we have the best of intentions but never quite get there.  Sometimes we have no intention and the work of vineyard finds us.  And sometimes we get to the vineyard and forget what we are supposed to be doing.  And God continues to send us out even though we are not perfect even sometimes irresponsible, because working in the vineyard is part of the gift of salvation.  We have been declared beautiful so we can make something beautiful with this life.  We have been declared loveable so that we can be loving in the world.  The work of the vineyard is part of the gift, part of the way of salvation.  The work of the vineyard is our work as the church, the work of peace, the work of hope, the work that is good news.