Monday, February 20, 2017

February 19, 2017 - Sanctification

Today I want to talk about a concept in Lutheran theology known as sanctification.   It is not a topic that you hear preached about much because it revolves around works, the things we do in the name of faith.  We have proclaimed that we are saved by God’s action in Christ and not our own actions so often that it has put an unclear value on our actions, our works.

                In Lutheran theology, the bad idea is a thing called works righteousness which is pretty much any theology or scheme that says that through my actions I can make God do something.  I can make God save me.  I can make God bless me.  I can make God reward me.  I can make God like me more by doing good things.  Historically, the problem is that people really like the idea that by doing good things, I can please God, get a little more notice from God, I can affect God.  It is self-empowering.  It feels good and justifies my hard work of discipline.  It is also a biblical concept.  You can find this idea in the scriptures.  This is why it is important to realize that the scriptures don’t have a single image of God or a single voice or a single understanding of God.  The oldest Hebrew scriptures describe God as the best deity among many regional deities, blessing the particular region of the territory of Israel, blessing the reader in his or her own lifetime..  This is a very different concept of God than the one who is described a couple thousand years later by the author of Revelation, a God who is and was and is to come.  Our understanding has expanded to the point of saying that the God who is made known through Jesus is infinite, and if God is infinite and God’s love is infinite, you can’t get more of it than you already have.

                But that doesn’t mean that good Lutherans shouldn’t be doing good things.  There is no place where Jesus says, or Paul says, or Luther says, “You have been saved by grace, so sit on your rump.”  In the Lutheran tradition the idea is that for people of faith, works are just a natural part of it.  If you are in relationship with this infinitely loving God, that love can’t help but flow out of you.  A few times Luther suggested that if there are no works, it calls the faith, the relationship, into question.  If you claim to have faith in the good news that you have been set free by the love of God in Christ and it doesn’t move you to respond with love of God and love of neighbor in some form, there is a disconnect in the faith.

                What the Lutheran tradition is skeptical of is that there is a single, legalistic formula for what those works should look like, for what Christian life must be.   The exception to this is one you might be able to predict if you have been listening to these sermons:  word and sacrament.  Luther assumed that Christians would gather and would hunger to hear the gospel and hunger for the meal that Jesus both promised and commanded.    In Lutheran understanding, Christ is fully present at the communion table; it is not a symbol for Jesus but is in fact a living encounter with Jesus.  So if you have faith in Jesus, you will be at the table. 

                But the Lutheran tradition does not mandate how you are going to grow toward God; it assumes that you are seeking to grow.  And that growing toward God idea is the meaning of sanctification.  As we find ways to deepen our faith and deepen our love, it’s not that God loves us more; it’s that we become more aware of the expansive nature of that love.  We become more aware of our need for Christ.  We become more aware that God is present in every moment.

                Once you get beyond word and sacrament, you discover that there are many and various ways to deepen your faith: prayer, study, serving others, giving, sharing, welcoming, protesting, Sabbath keeping, seeking justice, working for peace.  One can argue that stewardship of your body, stewardship of your home, especially working toward greater simplicity, stewardship of the environment are also acts of discipleship that help us pay attention to God.  The legalistic thing is to say this is in the Bible so this is what you have to do.  Again, that is an attitude you can find in some traditions who see it as coming from the Bible, especially if you assume that Bible has one united voice.   But within scripture the thinking seems to evolve.  For instance, observing the Sabbath is an identifying marker for Israel (and by Sabbath observation I mean a full day of rest, not just morning worship as it has become for many Christians).  The Israelites will not work on that day.  It is one of the ten commandments, commented on at length, punishable by stoning to death.  Then Jesus comes along and invites people do the work of feeding yourself and healing others, saying the Sabbath is about freedom and not legalized rest.  “The Sabbath is made for people and not people for the Sabbath.”  Then Paul comes along and makes it sound very much like a personal choice.  In his letter to the Romans he writes, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.  Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.  Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. “  The Sabbath goes from something that you have to observe under threat of death to something that you could do because of the freedom we find in Christ.

                And this is how Lutherans treat most ideas about works.  Here is something that you could do to deepen your faith.  Here is something you could do to grow toward God.  As such, works are not a requirement but a gift.  And here we will get another Lutheran paradox.  We are free in the gospel.  We are free from legalistic interpretations of scripture that say you have to do it this way.  At the same time, self-imposed legalism that we take on in the freedom of the gospel is itself freeing. 

                Just about every morning I sit for 20 minutes in silent prayer, seeking to pay attention to God.  At first this was very difficult and some mornings it still is.  For those of you who think that this kind of prayer isn’t doing anything, I challenge you (invite you) to sit with me.  I have established a personal discipline.  I don’t have to do it.  God doesn’t love me more or less for doing it.  But what I have found is that when I carry out this discipline, the rest of my day is transformed, more focused, calmer, more peaceful.  Some may say, “See, God is blessing you.”  I think that there is a gift that is inherent in the discipline. 

                Some people establish a discipline with their prayer, some with their finances, some with scripture.  Some people create a habit of serving.  Some people create a habit of giving.  In the Still, Small Voice we have been looking at selections from the African American theologian and contemplative, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman.  One of the quotations we used fits this well.  “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

            The Christian life doesn’t have to be uniform, but it needs to be turned toward God and this turning is the process we call sanctification.  So I want to make an invitation.  It was something that I wrote about in my report for the annual meeting so I know that you all read it and remember it.  But in case you have forgotten.  I want to invite you to some one on one time with me as your pastor to talk about how you are growing toward God, sort of a Christian coaching session.  We can talk a little about faith and I will share some things that you could do to deepen your relationship with God.  To some of you, I might invite you to try silent prayer.  Others, I might encourage you to read a book of the Bible.  Maybe others, to work at getting rid of some of the clutter in your life, a discipline of saying, “No,” to more obligations and more stuff.  We might look at ways to serve or look at ways to grow in awareness of God during your daily lives.

                This is something new.  It is new for me as well.  The good news is that none of you have to do it  but all of you are invited to try, like so many things in the Christian life.  I know that people are concerned about numeric growth, how to we get a little bigger.  I want to suggest that being place that is conducive to personal growth in faith is key.  As I have said before, if you are not interested in growing in faith why do you expect anyone else to want to come here and not grow with you?  There are so many beautiful ways to grow toward God and wonderful consequences of following them.  But the greatest consequence is drawing yourself more deeply into the story of Jesus, the story of promise and life, the story of hope and joy.  The greatest consequence is realizing that we are always only able to respond to the God who has already shown us infinite love, respond to what God has already done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

February 12, 2017 - Lutherans and the Bible

Today I want to talk about how Lutherans look at scripture, and to be honest, it is a difficult topic because I have found several different approaches within the Lutheran church as it exists today.  One case, and I think the most troubling case, is, we don’t.  I have met many Lutherans who simply assume that their pastor has read the scriptures and will interpret the Bible for the community.  This is unfortunate because Luther himself hoped to make the biblical story more available to the Christian community so that more people would read it and discover the gospel of grace.
                I have met Lutherans that assume that scripture should be taken literally, that a six-day creation is a six-day creation; that anything that challenges the biblical world-view, whether it be a growing understanding of biology, geology, psychology, sexuality, world history, comparative religion, must be wrong because the Bible cannot be wrong.  This is also unfortunate, not because Martin Luther held a loose interpretation of scripture, but because the Lutheran tradition has historically been one that celebrates the use of the mind as a gift.  As we grow in understanding of the world around us, that should have an impact on how we read the Bible.  It is okay to recognize that there are parts that are simply a product of their time, for instance, the parts that assume slavery is normal and simply a part of society.  Today, hopefully, we can say that such passages are a product of 1st century and earlier life and not something we have to affirm because it is in the Bible.
                Yet I think the most important Lutheran addition to how we interpret scripture in the church has little do with religion and science and much more to do with where we begin, and we begin with Christ.  For the Lutheran tradition, the Bible itself is not the Word of God.  Jesus is the Word of God.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God,” writes John.  The Bible is important so long as it is a witness to that Word.  We affirm the scriptures as being inspired by God and a primary way that we encounter the good news.  The line that Luther used at one point was, “Does it push Christ forward?”  Whatever place you are reading and however you are reading it, does it point to Christ?  Does it put Christ forward?
                So when we look at the Bible, the Christ-event becomes the lens through which we read the rest of it and affects our interpretation of the rest of it.  So if someone comes to me saying, “I want to read the Bible,” I will start them with Mark rather than Genesis, because as we encounter the gospel, we encounter Jesus who changes the way that the scripture of his time was interpreted.  Sometimes he intensifies it.  “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  Sometimes he loosens it.  A parenthetical comment in Mark (“Thus he declared all foods clean.”)  means we get to disregard several chapters of kosher law in Exodus and Leviticus.
                Often he challenges the common understanding, similar to the prophets before him.  I want to give an example based on the reading from Deuteronomy.  This section of Deuteronomy expresses a worldview that you can find several times in scripture: choose to follow God and you will be blessed; choose to turn away and you will be cursed.  It’s very simple.  It’s always popular because, for religious people, it suggests that you will be rewarded for being faithful.  Especially in the examples from Hebrew scripture, where there is not a sense of an afterlife, the reward is what happens now: children, land, peace, good harvest, wealth.  This scheme was essentially what the Pharisees were teaching in Jesus’ time.  They were trying to teach people how to live a righteous life, a God-pleasing life, a God-centered life, interpreting the Torah scripture in a context that was very different from when the Torah was written some centuries before.
                I will talk more about the Lutheran take on this idea next week, but for now I would simply say that when you are centered on grace, you’ve already been given the greatest gift, so a righteous life is more about response than reward.  You might go so far as saying a righteous life is its own reward, but, as I said, more next week.
                This idea of reward and punishment is always popular every time it is “rediscovered” in scripture.  It was popular when the Pharisees taught it.  Because the Pharisees are portrayed as the bad guys of gospel story, we assume that nobody liked them but in reality, many people liked them, especially those that were outside of the lower classes.  It was popular when medieval Catholic church taught a variation.  It is popular when the revivalists teach it in tents and stadiums.  It is popular among some of the “Bible-based” churches that want to show you biblical principles for life.  What people miss is that it is also critiqued and challenged in scripture.  Read Job; read the prophets; read Jesus and you find voices that are calling it into question.  They call it into question not because the formula is bad or expresses an idea that is absolutely false.  They call it into question because as human beings we have a tendency to hear this formula and draw conclusions from what we see.  If the formula is God blesses the good and God punishes the bad, we have a tendency to look at someone whom we define as successful and assume that this person must be good.  “Look at her.  She is rich.  She must be righteous.”  “Look at him.  He is so successful.  He must be good.”  God wouldn’t let them be successful if they weren’t good.  “Look at her.  She is in poverty.  She must have done something wrong.”  “Look at him.  He is a failure.  He must be bad.”  “I have been diagnosed with cancer.  What did I do to deserve this?”
                Jesus takes that formula and turns it on its head.  He hangs out with the people that all the good people say are bad: tax collectors, prostitutes, sick people, unclean people.  “Blessed are the poor,” he says in Luke, “Woe to you who are rich.”  “The last will be first and the first will be last.”  A rich man comes to him and asks. “What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?”  He claims to have kept all of the commandments.  He has lived a righteous life.  And Jesus says, “Take all you have, sell it and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.”
                Most importantly, Jesus lives a life among us where faithfulness leads to rejection and the cross.  Now some of you will talk about how resurrection is the eventual end and I won’t deny that.  The point is that Jesus’ life shows that faithfulness is not a guarantee that life will get better and better and more and more successful.  The three years of ministry start with Jesus looking pretty good and things getting better and then things getting difficult and then things getting desperate and the things getting tragic and then things getting amazing.  But you cannot get to amazing without the desperate and tragic.  Jesus does not invite us to follow him and we will go out for ice cream.  “If anyone wants to follow me, let them deny themselves, take up the cross and follow me.”
                When Lutherans read the Bible, we read it with that cross in view, both as a gracious gift but also as a reminder of where faith can lead.  We read a passage like the one in Deuteronomy without patting ourselves on the back for making good choices but giving thanks to God who chose not to reject us when we had made bad choices and who will not reject us when we inevitably make some more.  We give thanks to God whose love is not dependent on our choices, but rather sets us free to make choices, seeking to do good but knowing that our mistakes do not condemn us. 

                The Bible is a gift to the faithful, not to be idolized, not to create just another set of restrictions, but rather as a witness to the good news that sets us free.  Take it.  Read it.  Celebrate it.  Question it.  Let the scripture warm your heart, confuse you, challenge you.  But most of all let it point you toward the one who is Word beyond the words on the page, Jesus, the Word made flesh.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

February 5, 2017 - Priesthood of All Believers

Today I am going to talk about a concept in the Lutheran tradition and most Protestant traditions that is known as the priesthood of all believers.  Luther himself did not use this phrase, but developed the idea saying things like, “We are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized.”  What Luther was responding to was the idea that we need a go-between in the relationship between us and God.  In Jesus, any division in the divine-human relationship had been healed.  Each person could talk directly to God, had full access to God.
                The Roman-Catholic church of Luther’s time believed that priests were closer to God than other people.  They had an extra measure of grace received in ordination that made them worthy to approach God in ways that common people could not.  Only the ordained could stand in the place of Christ at the communion table.  Only the ordained could forgive sins.  Only the ordained had that authority.  Luther couldn’t find that idea in scripture.  While it was true that a consecrated priesthood was part of Israel, Christ made that kind of priestly organization unnecessary.
                For Luther we have ordained ministers, but primarily for the sake of good order.  Technically, anyone who is baptized can preach and can stand at the communion table and consecrate the sacrament, but communities are responsible for designating someone to carry out that role.  As a pastor, I have been called by this community to carry out the role of Minister of Word and Sacrament.  As your pastor, you have given me a measure of authority.  I don’t get to claim it on my own, because it is an authority that we all share.
                I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when I was talking about adiaphora (the things neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture) that for Lutherans, the measure of the true church and the measure of true worship is that the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered.  That is what you have called me to do, those essential functions of the church.  Unfortunately what I see happening too frequently is that someone is called as a minister of Word and Sacrament but what the congregation really wants is a CEO, someone who will organize us and make sure the budget is balanced.  Many congregations want a magic pastor, someone who is good with children and older adults, who will grow the congregation so we never have to worry again.  I have heard the attitude that a good pastor will fix things; a good pastor will save us.  A good pastor is going to tell you that you are already saved because that is the nature of the gospel.
Now I could easily take this to a whiny place where I complain about how the church has expanded the role, or added things to it, somehow getting to the point where trimming the bushes is related to Word and Sacrament (after all, they are the bushes outside the place where the word is proclaimed and the sacraments administered.)  I do fear that the more pastors get wrapped up in administration, the more we are distracted by what we are truly called here to do (but that is another discussion).
                In actuality, this idea of the priesthood of all believers has less to do with what happens in the church building as what happens outside the church building.  In Luther’s time, the priest served as an intermediary between laypeople and God.  Luther said that no such go-between was needed; that all of us can access God because of Christ. 
                This idea both changes our relationship to God and the meaning of being a priest.  Whereas before the holy was inside the building, curated by the priest.  Now the holy is among the people and your job as priests is to spread and extend the holy in the world.  “You are the salt of the earth!,” says Jesus.  “You are the light of the world,” says Jesus.  Not just a few of you who wear funny clothes but all of you.  God’s priests are to be out in the world; forgiveness, pardon and peace are found wherever Christians walk. 
                It also means that all that you do can be done as an act of holy service. You might think of special things like feeding the hungry or saying grace or helping little, old ladies across the street, but because of your priesthood, everything you do has the potential to be a holy action.   Luther talked about even common jobs, cleaning the house, raking the leaves or buying the groceries can be holy work when done in the attitude of service to the neighbor.  A few years ago I had a conversation with a colleague who talked about a member of his congregation who worked in a pet food factory.  He said that sometimes what got him through the day was imagining the companionship between pet and owner that his cans of cat food would help sustain.  It was loud work, cans clanging on conveyer belts.  It was not pleasant work.  But when focused on the neighbor, it was holy work.  He was a priest in the pet food factory.
                The contemplative part of me sees this also as a matter of attitude and attention.  When I sit in silent prayer each morning or gather with others on Saturday afternoon, the goal and purpose is to turn toward my attention toward God.  I’m not trying to make God act.  I trust that God knows my joys and concerns and the prayer list deep in my heart better than I do.  I am trying to pay attention to God and God’s love, a love that was opened to me by Jesus, a love that bathed me in baptism, a love that is the constant background of my life and a love I can extend in the world around me.
                And when I take that time each day, I am more aware of that constant background later in the day when things are hectic and children need shuttling and the impatient person ahead of me in the checkout line is making me impatient as well (or perhaps it is the other way around.)   I think that when I bring that awareness of the holy into daily life, I am better able to live that belief to others, to be the priest who shares the holy, the good, the loving with the world around me.  I can be the calm one when others are impatient.  I can be the servant when others need help.  I can be the love of God in places where there is anger and hurt.
                And that has nothing to do with a seminary education or a call of a community or a robe and stole.  It is who I am in baptism.  It is Christ continuing to work through me as he is at work throughout the church.  You, all of you, are the light of the world.
                We live in a time of division.  And worse than simple disagreement (which should be part of the order of things) is the loss of the ability to listen to each other; to disagree and still hold one another in love and respect.  In the midst of that division, the world needs priests walking among it.  It needs priests who may disagree with one other.  It needs priests in government offices and priests in protests with picket signs and priests defending the nation and priests welcoming refugees and immigrants.  It needs priests who can talk to one other from a place of love. 

                When Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” that is more than a pretty image.  It is a challenge of which we need to keep reminding ourselves.  You are the ones who bring the light of Christ into every room you enter, every relationship you have and every action and reaction you take.  You are the priests; you are the holy ones who share Christ with the world.  So I close with the words of Jesus, words that are spoken at every baptism, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

January 29, 2017 - A Tradition of Service to the Neighbor

The Sermon began with a prayer provided for Refugee Sunday by the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service.

                Some of you may hear that prayer and think it is an appropriate prayer for this day and age (that’s part of the reason LIRS sent it out last week).  Some of you may read it and think it is inappropriate to pray something that is so clearly political.  Some of you may read it and think that immigrants and refugees don’t belong in our country and maybe don’t belong in our prayer.
                But I wanted to start here because both the fact that this comes from a specifically Lutheran organization and the words of the Beatitudes in the gospel point to a specific part of Lutheran heritage.  Historically, Lutherans have shared the gospel primarily through service to our neighbor.  This is another consequence of Martin Luther’s both/and view of the gospel.  Through the gospel we are completely free from the power of sin; we are free from the woulds and the shoulds and the musts of legalistic forms of religion and  we are completely bound to serve our neighbor.
                From this single idea I am going to make a leap and explain how we got to where we are in a number of things.  Some people suggest that after the dust clears from the changes that are happening on the Christian front, as the church the we knew begins to fade, the lasting imprint of that church will not be shuttered Lutheran churches but rather the service organizations and ministries that those churches founded, funded and developed.  I’ve given the list before of all the many ways that Lutherans are serving other people, people of many faiths and many nationalities.  The immigrants and refugees that are assisted by the LIRS are not all Lutheran, in fact many are not Christian.  They probably will not be the next generation to fill our pews.  Instead we look and say God’s children are in need and we are bound by the gospel to help them, not convert them, but help them.
                The same goes for World Hunger Appeal and Lutheran Disaster Relief: we simply aid where there is need.  Much of the work of our missionaries is the same.  Lutheran missionaries are often doctors and nurses; there are some engineers and agriculturalists and teachers; there are even a few pastors in the mix.  But they go in service to the gospel, offering healing, helping people support themselves, and, when they are asked why they do what they do, then they talk about Jesus and God’s love, but that is not where they start.  They start by helping, especially those who are the most in need, those whom Jesus names as blessed: the poor, the hungry, the grieving and suffering.
                But how does that explain how we got here, to our difficult financial place, as congregations?  It starts back in the Lutheran homeland of Northern Europe, Germany and Scandinavia.  The churches of many of our ancestors were supported by the state.  You paid taxes and those taxes paid for basic things like a pastor’s pay and parsonage and the maintenance of a building.  But an offering was still taken and that offering was designated to care for those in need.  One of Luther’s major contributions to German civic life was the establishment of a community chest in towns so that local communities could care for the needy.  When an individual gave, they gave knowing that the money would care for someone in need. 
                But then Lutherans came to the United States.  For a little while, congregations were treated as mission outposts supported by European congregations, but soon the congregations were independent.  The ancestor bodies that would become the Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America were formed.  Congregations had to pay for their own clergy and their own upkeep.  So when Lutheran immigrants looked at giving their solution was based on the communal understanding of the church.  The question was, “How do we make maintaining the church as unburdensome as possible?”  They came up with a communal solution of dues.  Everyone pays their fair share, we share the burden equally.  (You can see why the Scandinavian countries have a socialist bent)  It was not unusual for there be a box for dues and an separate offering taken during the worship (or a second box) to care for those in need.
                This made a lot of sense in the context of where and when these churches were founded.  Take a place like Lowell, Massachusetts where a group of Swedish immigrants came to work in the textile mills.  When everybody’s income is roughly the same, then it makes sense to have the burden be the same.  You can make a similar case for farming communities in the Midwest.  The dues are sort of like a personal tax that you pay to keep the church running.  But you divide it up equally as a way of caring for one another.  And then the offerings and profits from fundraisers went to mission work and helping others.
                After a couple of generations, that system fell apart for several reasons.  First, that fair share from membership dues didn’t keep up with inflation.  In the 1960s, when churches started to transition from dues to freewill offering, many congregations had $5 a week dues, but they had been $5 a week for a couple of decades.  In one of my calls I had a woman who, in talking about giving said, “$5 a week was good enough for my grandparents, and good enough for my parents, and it is good enough for me.”  So congregations were trying to spend less and less or were starting to use those ministry offerings to support parts of the congregation.  Today if we were to go back to a fair share kind of model, the fair share would be between $25-30 a week per person for most congregations.
                The other thing that affected this was Lutherans started to diversify their education and jobs and incomes.  So $5 a week might be a real sacrifice for an hourly worker in the 60s, but small potatoes for someone with a professional degree.  What does fair share mean when incomes aren’t equal?  So then we went to the freewill offering model where we ask everyone to prayerfully consider what you can afford to give, hoping that those who have more will give more.  This is kind tithing light, we hope that some sort of proportional giving will grow out of it.  And I think it is a better model for thinking about discipleship but we are restrained because in our churchy DNA we have this idea of a fair share.  What is my fair share?  I shouldn’t have to give more than my fair share.
                And what that ends up doing is limiting our ability to do the stuff that matters most in the Lutheran tradition.  I was recently asked by someone about passion and what are people passionate about.  And I thought about worship because a lot of people talk about worship among Lutherans, but I don’t see great passion for worship.  It’s good and it’s important, but I don’t see people getting really excited about worship unless it is being taken away (or sometimes changed)
                If you want to experience passion, talk to Marilyn W. about Belonging to Each Other.  Talk to Kerin D. about feeding hungry people.  The most passion I have seen at a synod assembly was not around a big group of Lutherans singing in 4-part harmony (It did bring some people to a rapturous state); it was presentation given by an assistant director of the World Hunger Appeal.   People got excited about how our church is helping people around the world.  In the midst of a synod with a large number of congregations that are struggling to do the basics, here was someone talking about something that mattered; that made a difference.  Here was our church living out its call to spread the gospel not with speeches and pamphlets and altar calls but with seeds, fresh water wells, and livestock.
                Sixty years ago the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed this up very well in a letter he wrote while being held in jail by the Nazi government.  “The church is only the church when it exists for others.”  So we should be involved with immigrants and refugees not because we want to make a political statement but because they are God’s children in need.  We should be involved in and supportive of hunger programs and literacy programs and veteran’s programs and anti-poverty programs and anti-racism programs. 
                That’s part of our heritage and I also think it is part of the unique voice that our tradition can bring into the Christian discussion, that evangelism isn’t just bringing people to Christ but also bringing Christ to people through loving words and actions; that Christianity doesn’t need to be a judgmental group that defines the good and the bad but rather a group that shares and gives and loves without distinction, because that is the nature of our God. 

                Our ancestors in the faith thought it was important both to care for one another and care for the communities and world around them.  When we lose that focus, we forget who we are and what Jesus has called us to be.  The church is only the church when it exists for others.

January 22, 2017 - Adiaphora


                On Christmas Eve, the star that hangs from rafter, the model of the great sign of the wise men, symbol of Jesus the light of world, the star hung by Ken H. at his own peril, was not lit.  I have to admit that I did not notice, but then I spend most of my time on the wrong side to see it.  Several people asked me afterwards if there was a reason attached, a new policy or deep symbolic justification.  Nope.  It was forgotten, an unfortunate oversight, just not plugged in in the rush to have things in order on Christmas Eve.

                One of the most common questions I have received as a pastor is “Why do we do this or not do this?”  Why is there one pink candle on the Advent wreath?  Why don’t we say “Alleluia” in Lent?  Most of these questions are matters of local tradition.  Most churches that use an Advent wreath still carry out the pink candle tradition which goes back to an older lectionary which had the four Sundays of Advent given themes of Faith, Hope, Joy and Love.  Gaudete!  The pink candle was the symbol of Gaudete Sunday.  Even though our current lectionary isn’t geared with the same themes, most Advent candle sets still come with the pink candle.  But you can order sets with four blue candles if you want and I know of churches that use them.

                We don’t say “Alleluia” during Lent as a voluntary fast from that ancient word of praise, a way of acknowledging the reflective and introspective nature of the season.  But there are several Lutheran churches called Alleluia Lutheran Church and I doubt they change their names during the Lenten season.

                Some of these questions I can answer, but some can only be answered with a shrug of the shoulders and, “It’s what we do.”

                In Lutheran theology, the fancy word for what I am talking about is “adiaphora.”  These are traditions, rites and rituals that are neither commanded nor forbidden by scripture, things that have developed over time in the life of the church and in individual congregations.  For Lutherans, the essence of worship, the definition of what constitutes faithful observance is the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  This is why my official title is not pastor but minister of word and sacrament.  I am here to make sure that those essential pieces of worship are carried out in a faithful way.

                In my career as a minister of word and sacrament, I have found that it is rare that people complain too much about the essentials.  Sure I have heard that pastor so-and-so is boring and preaches too long and I know that when we started working toward weekly communion it was a challenge for some.  But most of the complaints I hear are around adiaphora: robes, flowers, music, bulletins, decorations, shoe wear of the acolytes.  I have colleagues that get really excited about such things and can tell you the proper way they should be done in the liturgical tradition.  I generally do not get that excited about them because I hope to put more emphasis on those essentials.

                This doesn’t mean that the non-essential stuff is bad or unimportant.  In many ways they expand on the essentials.  A good song, well-played, can act as a witness to the word.  A piece of artwork, although not necessary, can deliver the word at a different level.  I find that a homemade loaf of bread conveys a deeper symbolic value than a slice of Wonder Bread, even though the type of bread is an adiaphoron and either kind would provide a valid sacrament.

                When you are talking about adiaphora sometimes you are in the place of tradition, saying “We have always done it that way,” and sometimes you are in the place of preference where you are saying “I like organ music more than piano music because it feels more sacred,” or “I like 17th century hymnody more than 21st century praise choruses because it makes me think.,” or “I like uncomfortable pews that squeak more than cushy chairs because it reminds me to be humble.”  In other words, it is not so much about the gospel as what makes you feel good and religious.

                So this concept of adiophora becomes both a blessing and a challenge.  Let me talk about the challenge first.  Most of what you have grown up with and experienced in the life of the church, that you assumed was necessary because it was always done a certain way, is not necessary.  The altar clothes, liturgical calendar, lectionary order of readings, the robes, the choirs, the special building, the coffee hours, the committees, none of these are necessary to the faith.  In fact for Luther, the moment you start thinking that something unnecessary is necessary is the moment that you are almost compelled by the gospel to lay it aside, because what you are doing is creating a distraction and barrier from the things that matter.  The moment the people start saying it isn’t church if we don’t have flowers is the moment that you take out every flower.  But you have to be careful because the moment that you say, “Now we can never have flowers” is the moment that you should fill place with flowers, because having flowers or not having flowers is not of the essence.  Maybe they are beautiful; maybe you are allergic; but they have little to do with Christ crucified and raised.  We may have given them a symbolic value over time or we just like them, but they are not of the essence.  You can say this about pretty much anything that qualifies as an adiaphoron.  We may like them, but they are not necessary.  And this is the challenge if you are person who likes to have church be a certain way or have a certain look and feel.  The measure of the nonessential is similar to something that we will encounter when we look at Lutherans and scripture.  The question to ask is not, “Do we like it or not?” but “Does it push Christ forward?”

                The blessing of adiaphora is that, ideally, it means we start from the essence and as long as the Gospel is expressed in Word and Sacrament, there can be a good deal of variety and adaptability.  The music of any culture and time period is available for worship.  There are Lutherans carrying on the tradition of Bach and four-part hymnody, congregations that worship with praise bands and contemporary Christian music, congregations that worship with Taize chant, congregations that incorporate contemporary secular music.  Any space can become sacred, a recent article in the Living Lutheran examined congregations that were worshiping with land but no building in Texas, another in a former chicken coop in Oklahoma.  You can find stories of other communities that gather in homes, in theaters, in bars.  What is sacred is not the place itself but the gospel we encounter there.

Somewhere in the 1970s, as the green, Lutheran Book of Worship was being assembled, the ideal was that all Lutheran worship would look the same.  We would be like a franchise and Lutheran worship in California would look like the Lutheran worship on Cape Cod.  I think that may have created an unnecessary restriction of creativity and gave the appearance that the way we worship was as essential as the content.  It is not liturgy that unifies the Lutheran tradition but the same gospel that Paul proclaimed to a divided Corinthian church, the gospel that is cross-shaped foolishness, that is life-giving good news.

In all those worshiping communities in houses, bars, theaters, open spaces and chicken coops, you will find the Word proclaimed and the sacraments administered.  You will hear scripture and sermon or drama or listen to testimonies;  you will see Christians gather around baptismal water and a communion table.  And in those essential elements, you will find the anchoring point of the good news, an anchoring point that gathers us and sends us, that holds us steady in a changing world, that gives unity in the midst of diversity, an anchoring point that is deeper than buildings and budgets, structures and squabbles.  That anchoring point is the gospel of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.

As the church we keep trying to find other anchors, places to ground ourselves.  We tried to be anchored by cultural heritage, but with each generation it became less important.  We tried being anchored by worship style and found ourselves losing touch with the culture around us.  We tried being anchored by pastors whom we loved, but they moved or retired or passed away.  We tried being anchored by buildings and their roofs started to leak.  We even tried dropping an anchor into the power of positive thinking and although it helped us think happy thoughts it just wasn’t the gospel. 

And here we can have another moment of faithful paradox, because the true gospel that anchors and grounds us Is the same gospel that sets us free from all the other anchors that would try to hold us in place.  It is the message we hear when Jesus says, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  It is the message we hear in the call to repentance, of seeing the world in a new way.  It is message that led disciples to drop their nets and follow.  So today, together, we are setting that anchor again, so that as you leave and go out into a world that changes unexpectedly and world that will not always love you back,  you can be held and steadied in the love of Christ that truly matters.