Wednesday, January 18, 2017

January 15, 2017 - Being Saint and Sinner

The key to understanding Lutheran theology is a small word, a familiar conjunction: “and.”  Our understanding of God and faith resists the convenient pull and exclusion of “or” and lives in the tension of “and.”  This tradition looks back to the impulse of the earliest church that insisted that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, even though that makes no practical sense.  We talk about a faith founded on law and gospel; that Christians are fully free and fully bound to serve; that God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful; that in Jesus the kingdom of God has come in its fullness and the kingdom of God has not yet been fulfilled. 
                Today I want to talk about a bedrock idea in the Lutheran tradition.  You can’t watch a Luther documentary without someone, somewhere throwing out a fancy Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator, roughly translated it means that we are saints and sinners at the same time.  The saint and sinner idea springs forth from the place where gospel and experience meet.  The gospel, the precious good news, is that everything necessary to be in right relationship with God, to be justified, to be saved, has already been accomplished through the work of Jesus.  If the cross saves then it saves completely.  If the loving actions of Jesus makes us saints, then we are already saints, because it has already happened.  Jesus has died.  Jesus is risen.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  The cross is not dependent on us.  There is nothing we can do to add to or take away from its life-giving power.  Everything necessary has already happened.
                So this is the gospel, but that promise of sainthood sits in tension with our lived experience.  Most of us cannot look at our day to day lives and say, “I am a saint,” at least as we imagine saints to be.  Most of us have moments where we are turned in on ourselves, or ignore someone in need.  Most of us have moments where we just hate somebody, even for a second or two.  Most of us have moments where we say words we regret or take actions that, in retrospect, were simply the wrong move.  We make mistakes.  We miss the mark.  We sin.  Typically, we might say we weren’t that bad but we can’t say we were perfectly good either.
                Now if we can sit with those realities in tension, saint and sinner, it can be a beautiful thing because I can acknowledge and openly admit that I do make mistakes but rest in the assurance that the consequences of those mistakes are not the last word, that God’s love and God’s promise are greater than anything I can toss at them.  But we don’t like to live in tension so we actually end up creating more in the form of guilt and shame.  It’s much easier to put things in categories.  It’s much easier to think that one side is 100% right and one side 100% wrong.  It is much easier to say that conservatives are fully without compassion and liberals are fully without sense.  Some religious professional looks at you and says, “God loves you and if you really loved God you would do this or if you really loved God you would stop doing that.”  And we look deep in our souls and say, “But I don’t do this and I may not, cannot, will not stop doing that.”  So I may do this now and then because I am told to but I never really enjoy it because it feels forced and I don’t have time for this so I feel a bit guilty because this religious professional says I have to do this if I love God but I don’t enjoy this, so does that mean I don’t really love God and I am a little angry because I live in New England and, “Nobody tells me what to do.”   And as I said before I may not, cannot, will not stop doing that so I just do that in secret and now I am ashamed because deep in my heart I know if I am still doing that I must not really love God, at least that is what the religious professionals tell me.
                That is why we like the “and” in our tradition, saint and sinner in tension.  As Luther wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but trust even more boldly in Christ.”  This is grace-centered thinking, thinking that says God is the primary actor in our relationship and in Christ God has done the work.  We then are set free and invited to respond.  Part of our response may be acts of discipleship; part of our response may be trying to turn away from ways of being that hurt ourselves and hurt others, turning away from sin.  But we don’t have to be perfect.  As I said to the 4 stalwarts who made it to church last Sunday, God is constant so that we can be inconsistent.  We may admire people who have the self-discipline to spend hours in prayer and study or choose voluntary poverty and simplicity.  We may elevate those who seem able to work past selfishness and pettiness and sacrificially care for others.  Some people are gifted and fall into such patterns naturally but for most of us, faith is path of growth over time.  The further we go, the deeper we go, the more beautiful it becomes.
                So when Luther says, “Sin boldly” it is not an invitation or a celebration of sin and mistakenness.  Rather it is an acknowledgement of who we are and where we stand.  God’s love in Christ is simply more powerful than anything we can throw at it.  Now a lot of people don’t like this because it makes us seem rather insignificant, part of our pride is that I can do something that will have an effect on God.  But the effect of your mistakes on the love of God is a bit like the effect of dropping a match in the ocean or throwing an ice cube at the sun.  Yet I think that this is another important “and”: that the love of God means that God knows each one of you deeply and specifically and the love of God is essentially unaffected by what you do.
                Again, many Christians, especially Western Christians, struggle with that idea because we really want our actions to be somehow necessary to the relationship, even if that means God won’t like us if we are bad.  But as I said, if the cross saves, it saves completely; if Christ did everything necessary, then nothing we do is necessary.  So where will that leave us?   Because if nothing we do is necessary, why are we sitting in church and paying a religious professional?  The word that keeps coming back to me is “beauty.”  When we deepen our lives as disciples; when we actively seek to connect ourselves to the love of God, when we share our food and care for our neighbor, when we seek to refrain from harming others, we are creating something beautiful.  You have been set free to make something beautiful, your life as a holy work of art.

                You know when you look at a sunset or you have watched the full moon rising the past couple of nights, and you take a deep, contented breath and you are moved to say “Thank you,” or even “Wow.”  We always seem to talk about those beautiful moments as something seen in nature, but I suggest that those moments are happening around you every day among people you know, moments of compassion and thoughtfulness, moments of lovingkindness and creativity, each one a work of art.  You have been set free to be God’s beautiful work of art, crafted in love and with love.  You are a saint and a sinner, and when we dwell in tension that is balanced by the love of God, true beauty can be found.

Monday, January 9, 2017

January 8, 2017 - Baptism of our Lord

As I have mentioned before, I am using this 500th anniversary of the Reformation to focus on some Lutheran theology, ideas that define our tradition of Christianity and define how we live as the church.  Today, since this festival is focused on the baptism of Jesus, it is a good opportunity to talk about baptism.   In addition, instead of the regular creed we are doing a responsive reading from Luther’s Small Catechism.
                In Luther’s time, the Catholic church taught that there were seven sacraments that were seen as moments of additional grace in a person’s life.  Yet as Luther defined a sacrament based on what he read in scripture, the Protestant church was defined by only two: baptism and communion.    It wasn’t very long, in fact within Luther’s lifetime, that various Protestant groups  began to split from one another on the interpretation of these sacraments.  For Communion, it was the question of the real presence of Jesus versus caring out a purely symbolic action out of a sense of obedience.  Around baptism, it was whether infant baptism counted or not. 
                We still have this division today.  Most Evangelical and Baptist churches refer to baptism and communion as ordinances and not sacraments.  Their understanding is that baptism and communion are symbolic actions that prove our devotion to Jesus.  Jesus is baptized; in Matthew he commands his disciples to baptize the nations.  Therefore baptism is a command that Christians should obey but God isn’t doing anything.  Rather it is a symbol of one’s devotion.  The person being baptized is the actor, seeking to please God through obedience and publicly acknowledge his or her faith.  If God is doing anything, it is God looking down and smiling.
                Most of the first generation of the Reformation movement (Lutheran, Episcopal, and branches of Calvinism) see baptism as something more.  Historically we have baptized infants (we will baptize adults if they haven’t been baptized before) because we see baptism from a different angle.  We see the triune God as the primary actor in baptism.  As we will read from the catechism, it is the word of God “that is with and alongside the water” that is doing the work.
                The question, or disagreement, is really about the nature of faith.  Does God give us faith or do we choose to be faithful?  Although most people end up somewhere in the middle of that question, you can understand the debate when you look at the extremes.  The extreme form of God gives us faith is predestination.  Luther was a reluctant predestinarian.  He saw faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit, one that we cannot produce on our own, a line of thought which leads to a sense of choseness.  Some people seem to have faith and some people don’t.  God seems to be involved in that, but Luther advised people not to dwell on who was in and who was out, just live the faith.
                Other reformers, especially those that followed John Calvin, followed stronger ideas about predestination.  For the Puritans in New England, the Christian life was all about figuring out if you were among the elect, which you did in discussion with an advisor, reflecting on scripture and through prayer.  But this was the line of thought that gives the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” vibe, because it has already been decided at the beginning of time.  Faith and salvation are gifts for a predetermined few and not for all.
                On the other extreme are traditions that see faith as a personal choice, something we do or accomplish.  Faith and salvation are open to everyone, but only if you choose it.  In Jesus, God makes available the conditions that are necessary for salvation, but we have to buy in, sometimes described as making a personal decision for Jesus or inviting Jesus into your heart.  Faith in this mode is a bit like an on/off switch.  I was lost but now I am found.  I was blind,  but now I see.  I see not only because Christ is the light, but because I chose to look at the light.
                As a side note, you can sort of see why the personal choice traditions have seen some growth in a culture shaped individualism and the self-help movement.  The believer is told that he has ownership of his faith, has, in a way, saved himself.  The purpose of the church is about helping other people make that decision, which makes churches in this tradition more comfortable with outreach, marketing and persuasion, because that is clearly their job.
                Traditions that are more grace-centered, that see God as the primary actor of faith, struggle in this environment.  We struggle with a sense of purpose, usually trying to figure out what it means to “be” the church in a given time or place, knowing it has something to do with community, something to do with loving others, something to do with worship.  Again, this is reflected in the emphasis on community service and care for those in need that have been a hallmark of Lutheranism.  But we struggle with outreach and invitation.  After all, if God is the primary actor, it should be God’s job to convert and get people into the community and our job to be the church.  As the year goes on, I will suggest some tweaks to that understanding.
                But I want to get back to baptism.  If Fundamentalists see faith as an on/off switch, Lutherans see faith as a dimmer switch.  In baptism the switch is turned on, or one can argue that because of Christ, the dimmer switch is always on, has been turned for all creation, but we just don’t know it, baptism is the moment when we are given the ability that the light of the world is shining.  But to us the light isn’t constant.  It seems to wax and wane.  Sometimes it is bright and clear; sometimes it is barely visible.  This isn’t God changing; it is us changing.  This is why in the Small Catechism Luther talks about a daily drowning and a daily rebirth.  God is the one who is constant, whose love is constant.  We don’t talk about inviting Jesus into our lives so much as discovering Jesus who is already always there.  God’s end of the relationship of faith is always present.  Grace is knowing that God is constant so that we can be inconsistent.
                It is the daily part that we Lutherans tend to forget as well.  We are guilty of treating baptism as something that gets done, a one time event, a spiritual vaccination against sin, death and the devil.  We are guilty of assuming that God is maintaining the relationship and there is nothing we have to do, missing the point that the relationship is a gift that becomes so much more beautiful when we invest ourselves in it.  When we respond to God’s actions, it is a beautiful thing, not a necessary thing (God will keep up God’s end), but a beautiful thing.  When we pay attention to God in prayer; when we share Jesus in service; when we respond to Christ’s invitation to the communion table, these are all moments that flow from and renew the gift of baptism.    Baptism is not a past tense event but a current reality.  We should not say that I was baptized (though sometimes that may be necessary in describing the historic event) but I am baptized, I am being baptized every day.  I am drowning and rising every day and this is not my own doing, but a gift of God in Christ.
So the Lutheran idea of baptism ends up (as we will see it often does) between the two extremes.  We see God as the primary actor in baptism.  It is far more than a symbolic action but a gift from a loving God.  At the same time, we are called to respond to that gift, to live out, celebrate and share the baptized life, and much of that will be a matter of choice and a matter of work.  There is a famous quote attributed to Martin Luther (that he never said.  It probably belongs to a nameless pastor of yore) but it sounds like Luther.  “When you wash your face, remember your baptism.”  The reason it is easily attributed to Luther is it expresses the theology.  God doesn’t forget our baptism; we do.  So every day becomes an opportunity to remember what God has done for you and who you are in God’s sight.  Every day is a day to remember and share the love God has shown in Jesus through our words and actions.  Every day is a gracious gift, a gracious opportunity to live the baptized life.

January 1, 2017 - The Name of Jesus

I wrote an article about Christmas for the Cape Cod Times that ran on Christmas Eve Day.  Often when I write one of these articles, I get feedback from the community, a few emails from people, mostly positive but some critical.  And I always write back, thanking them for the response, clarifying the criticism when possible but often acknowledging we simply disagree on some basics issues of faith.  As the year progresses, we are going to talk more about how the Lutheran tradition, especially the ELCA understanding of Lutheranism doesn’t agree with some other understandings of Christianity.  For example, I often find that when I get into a conversation with someone from a Bible-centered,literalist tradition, we often end up talking past one another, because there are some assumptions that I have that they don’t and some assumptions that they have that I don’t.
                So on Christmas Day I look at my email and I have pretty long letter from someone who is criticizing the whole celebration of Christmas as unbiblical.  Now the point of my article was to say that we should celebrate Christmas but don’t look for joy in the season itself or in the trappings of the season.  On their own, they will disappoint.  Like an inflatable snowman, the first time you see it, it might make you feel happy; the next time you see it, it’s neutral; and finally someone unplugs it and it’s a floppy mess on the ground.  First find joy in the birth of Jesus; first, center yourself in the joy, the love, the hope that is constant because of that birth, that life, that death, that new life and then let that joy launch you into celebration.
                The bulk of the letter was information that the author had cut and paste off of several fundamentalist, anti-Christmas websites basically pointing to the pagan significance of December 25, a celebration known as Saturnalia by the ancient Romans as well as various solstice festivals that happen around that time.  And the information isn’t wrong.  Most of what you see decorating our congregation has some sort of non-Christian influence.  In neither birth stories does anyone bring a tree to the manger or hang a wreath on a stall.  These were part of Germanic and Scandinavian solstice celebrations.  Lutherans are credited for starting the Advent wreath tradition but it probably goes back to pre-Christian Germany where a wagon wheel with candles was used to mark the passing of winter.  As Christianity spread, it often looked at existing traditions and invited people to keep them, but found ways to “Christianize” them.  Yes decorate the tree and lights candles, but now they are about Jesus the light of the world, and that’s okay.
                We say that’s okay, but a few traditions say that it’s not in the Bible and therefore we shouldn’t observe it.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say you should or must celebrate the birth of Jesus.  In fact, at different points and places in history, the Christmas celebration was forbidden.  The Puritans in New England made the celebration of Christmas illegal from 1647-1681 because back in England, Christmas was less about Jesus and more about drunken parties, including tipsy carolers standing at your door demanding figgy pudding and they won’t go until they get some.   Truthfully, the gospels don’t instruct the church to set aside any new holy days outside of the Sabbath.  Our festivals, like Christmas and Easter and Pentecost developed over time. 
                Our festivals developed as ways to pay special attention to the story of Jesus through the year.  The Christmas season invites us to take the time to pay attention to the birth of Jesus.  The Easter season, especially the time we take during Holy Week, invites us to pay attention, to sit together with the stories in a deeper way than we might on our own.  Along with the major festivals, there were some minor festivals that developed because of the timeline.  Once December 25 became the fixed date of the birth celebration for the Western church, January 1, 8 days later, became a smaller celebration of the naming and circumcision of Jesus.   Are the days 100% guaranteed historically accurate?  Who knows?  Probably not.  What  matters is not the accuracy of our calendar but the attitude that we bring to the celebration.  Are we paying attention?
                As I was preparing for the Still, Small Voice this month I came across a writing from Saint Bonaventure (a 13th century priest and scholar who carried on and expanded and work of Saint Francis of Assisi).  He wrote a book about meditating on the events of Jesus’ life and his Christmas chapter includes this call to devotion:

                Now, then, my soul, embrace that divine manger;
                Press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.
                Then in your mind keep the shepherds’ watch, marvel at the assembling host of angels,
Join in the heavenly melody, singing with your voice and heart:
                Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those of good will.

He invites you to step in and imagine yourself as parent, as shepherd and as angel in the scene.  This is one way of paying attention.

                Today you are invited to pay attention to the name of Jesus.  Jesus is our pronunciation of the Greek word “Yesous” which is the Greek pronunciation of the Hebrew/Aramaic, “Yeshua,” a variation of the name Joshua and means something along lines of Yahweh (the formal name of God) rescues, Yahweh delivers, Yahweh saves.  For Lutherans this is great because even in the name of our savior itself we have the message of grace; it is God who saves and not us.

                And this is a great time of year to pay attention to that name and that message because this is exactly the time of year when start trying to save ourselves.  I’m going to eat healthy this year.  I’m going to lose 20 pounds this year.  I’m going to watch less television and read more this year.  I’m going to do more things to be a better person this year.  I will drop all the bad habits and just do good. 
               
                Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve yourself.  Most resolutions are dropped by February but that doesn’t mean that the impulse to improve is bad.  It means that you are human.  It means you have this wonderfully developed brain that can think and imagine what you could be, and you have this primal brain that sounds like cookie monster saying, “Give me cookie.”  And the good news is that in Jesus God saves and we don’t.  God doesn’t save us from stumbling.  God saves us when we have stumbled.  God rescues us when we have done the thing that we didn’t want to do or didn’t mean to do.  When we pay attention to Jesus, God stands us up, brushes us off, reminds us of the direction of the journey and allows us to try again.

                Today in the midst of the Christmas season we pay attention to the name of Jesus.  Let us be mindful that in Jesus it is God who saves, God who rescues and God who delivers (and not us).