Monday, May 22, 2017

May 21, 2017 - Luther and the Lord's Prayer - Part 5 - Forgive Us Our Sins...

This petition in Luther’s Small Catechism marks a shift from turning toward God to examining ourselves.  We’ve asked God to provide enough bread for the day.  We have prayed that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done.  And in all of Luther’s explanations he has talked in terms of aligning ourselves to what God is doing.  God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done and daily bread comes with or without our prayer, because that is the nature of God.  God is God of grace who acts first in our relationship and acts first in the universe.

                But when we ask for our sins to be forgiven, we enter into the law part of law and gospel, the part that nobody likes and everybody needs to hear.  A basic component to a Lutheran understanding of Christianity is law and gospel in balance.  Without the gospel,  the good news of love and life in Christ,  the law is a burden and source of guilt and shame.  Without the law, the gospel is a cotton candy vision, pretty to look at, but basically empty, nice but not necessary.

                Let me unpack that a little bit.  When Martin Luther looked at scripture, he saw it broken into two essential ideas: law and gospel.  This is not as simple as a division as Old Testament and New Testament.  Law and gospel are found throughout the whole collection of texts that make up the Bible.  The law is found primarily in commandments:  Do this; don’t do that.  Anyplace where you are instructed as to how you should be going about in the world, relating to others both inside the community and outside the community, you are talking about law.  We can find a good bit of law in the Hebrew scriptures, like the 10 Commandments, but we can also find a good bit a law and in some ways more challenging ideas about law coming from Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.  Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who curse you.”  That’s a law.  “If anyone strikes on the right cheek, offer the other also.”  That’s a law, establishing a way that Christians should carry themselves in the world.

                Legalism, a focus on law, what you do and what you don’t do, has always been an attractive way to establish a tradition.  Most religious traditions have legalistic strains or legalistic periods, where faithfulness is measured by what people do or don’t do.  Many people are turned off from religion by legalism because it almost always becomes harsh, judgmental, and hypocritical, pointing out the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the logs in our own eyes.  Many people are attracted to legalistic traditions because they don’t have to think much about it.  “Do this and you make God happy” or the more prosperous “Do this and God will reward you,” makes sense in a cause and effect kind of way.

                We do need law.  What happens when people gather together?  They make structures; they make rules; they makes laws so things are organized.   And one use of the law is as a guide for our lives, a way of measuring how we are walking along the way.  Even if we want to boil down the law as Jesus does into love God and love your neighbor, we need to consider what does that mean for day to day life.  If I love God, what does that mean about how I treat the body God has given me or the planet which God made or the stranger I meet?

                But Christianity is not fundamentally a legalistic tradition.  Christianity over the years has lost itself when it has become overly legalistic and rule-based, only giving people rules but forgetting the reason that we might inspired to follow them.  More importantly from a Lutheran perspective, if our relationship with God is based on following rules, we will always fall short.  As Paul writes to the Romans, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  Luther discovered that if he deeply examined himself and his attitudes, no matter how often he went to confession, there was always more to confess.  Within Lutheran Christianity, the primary purpose of the law is not as a guide, but as a force that pushes us toward the gospel.  The law says, “Do this and you make God happy.”  I examine myself and realize that I don’t always do this, so I don’t always make God happy.  Jesus comes in and says, “Good news!  God is already happy with you.  You are already acceptable to God because of God’s actions.  Look at my life.  Look at the cross.  Look at the empty tomb.  You are already acceptable.”

                Today, Logan is going to be baptized.  The font is another place where we say God is active, reconciling us to God’s self.  God steps in and says, “You are mine.  You are my child.  And even though you will make mistakes in life; even though you will break the rules, you are and will always be my child.”  And we can look to this moment of baptism and remind ourselves that we are acceptable to God.

                But as I said before, if you have no sense of law; if you have no sense of your own brokenness; if you have no sense of your own sinfulness.  If you cannot admit that sometimes you get it wrong, then the gospel will be nice news but it will never be necessary news.  Over the past few weeks as we have heard the story of the early church in the book of Acts, heard stories of community and growth and sacrifice, it is important to note that these things did not happen because the church had something nice, the best music or the best chocolate chip cookies always served warm or the friendliest faces greeting you at the door.  The church had necessary and good news to share.  You can be imperfect and you can be broken and you can be exactly who you are and still be loved by God.

                And this good news transforms our relationship to the law.  The law becomes what it is intended to be.  In Hebrew, the word Torah is often translated as law.  Yet my Hebrew instructor would often say that this is wrong translation.  It is not law but instruction.  It not a collection of rules, but a book of advice; a way that works.  Some of those instructions we may look on and say that they worked in a very different context, rules about the place of women, rules about what is clean and unclean.  Some of them are timeless, especially those that challenge the way we look at the world, instructions about love, instructions about caring for those in need.

                They are instructions about how to live a life shaped by love and hope and peace and joy.  They are not meant to be a weapon with which to beat the unrighteous or a measure for us to determine the good and the bad where we always end up being on the side of good.  Instruction that sometimes we will get and sometimes we will wrestle with and sometimes we will fail.  If you have experienced the good news of Jesus, it is all right to fail.  We are saint and sinner at the same time. 

                Some will say, if it is just advice, why bother?  If the law is just instruction, why follow it?  If you have experienced the love of God through the gospel, why wouldn’t you?  Why wouldn’t you seek to follow the one who shows you the way?  If God is love, why wouldn’t you seek to be more loving?  It is not longer about what we have to do but what we get to do for the glory of God.  Again, for Lutherans we run into the logic that if the faith is there, the works will follow.  If the works don’t follow, it’s time to look at the faith.

                So as we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass us,” we are in fact praying for two things.  We are praying to experience the mercy of God and we are praying that the love of God would transform us to be merciful and forgiving people. 

                We pray for the grace of God and also pray that this grace would change who we are.  This is not a one time moment, but part of a larger journey.  We are always disciples; always have something to learn; are always on that journey.  So let us start Logan Aiden on that journey of the baptized life.

May 14, 2017 - Luther and the Lord's Prayer - Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

How much is enough?  That can be hard to define.  Most people have cravings for food of one sort or another.  Most days I drive by the donut shop without stopping, without noticing.  I drive by multiple times since there are donut shops every few yards.  But donuts were a big part of my childhood in Michigan.  Donuts were an enticement to get us to go to church.  Donuts were what the youth group sold to pay for confirmation camp.  Donuts were what powered us through drama club rehearsals in the late afternoon.

Sweetwater Donuts in Kalamazoo has this black forest donut that is my definitive filled donut.  It has chocolate crumble on the outside and cherry filling on the inside.  So a couple of years ago I was back in Kalamazoo and I went to Sweetwater Donuts and ordered my black forest donut.  It had been a good 20 years since I had had one, since they are local to Michigan.  I brought it to the table I took a bite.  Delicious.  But I’ve been doing this mindfulness work, really trying to pay attention to the moment and I decided that this pastry-powered reunion was a moment I wanted to notice.  So bite one, delicious.  Bite two, still good.  Bite three, okay.  Bite four, this an awfully big donut, I probably have had enough.  I would like to say that I exerted great self-control and wrapped up the rest for later, but donuts don’t keep and I hadn’t been back for 20 years.  I ate the whole thing even though I only really enjoyed the first few bites

Yet as I reflect back it seems that I often have a tendency to keep going when I have had enough.  It may be because I tend to be goal-oriented, trying to finish things.  I get a little burst of dopamine when I cross something off a to-do list.  That is DONE!  But there are movies that I have sat through that I didn’t need to because they were bad from the beginning.  There are books that I could have put away after reading a few pages, but even though I had had enough, I had to keep going and see it through.

When I read the 4th petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” I am often confronted with this question.  What is enough?  Luther broadens the description from bread to simply everything necessary and gives the list that includes food, drink, clothing, shoes, upright rulers, good government, good weather.  So in his interpretation it is more than just food but I think the important word is “Necessity.”  We aren’t praying for more; we are praying for enough.  Daily bread is supposed to remind us of Israel depending on God in the wilderness, collecting manna each morning, just enough for the day.  God does not promise them a blessing greater than they need.  God promises to bless them with enough.

Now there are a lot of voices within Christianity today that will debate this concept, that will even quote scripture and say that God wants us to have more stuff.  God wants us to be wealthy and successful because success is attractive and will lead people to Christ.  The God that Jesus proclaims wants us to have enough, and to recognize that we have enough because there is great freedom in knowing when you have enough.  When I had had enough and kept going, the black forest donut  began to have control over me.  Generosity starts with the contentment that comes in knowing you have enough, because when you have enough, you can let go of the things you don’t need.  You recognize that having more than enough means having something to share.

Last week I talked about how the measure of success for the church needs to change, that as a community faith success is not measured by the number of people who come in the doors but what sort of people go out into the world.  Within our lives of faith, success also needs to be redefined.  What we would like is that following Jesus as the way, the truth and the life would lead us to some worldly success and security.  It has been interesting over the past couple decades to see how popular Christianity went from the excesses of televangelists of the 1980s (which we now we look back on and say, “that was ridiculous”) to promoting an upper, middle class lifestyle as a normal byproduct of faithful life. 

But Jesus doesn’t promise his followers more than enough.  He also doesn’t promise them safety and security.  When we read the story of the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts, it’s not a story of a disciple who failed.  It is the story of a disciple who got it right.  Why was the crowd angry?  Stephen had been chosen by the disciples to serve as one of the first deacons.  As you may recall from last week, one of the hallmarks of the early church as described in Acts was sharing.  People would bring extra money and extra food to the disciples who would then distribute to those in need.  The disciples found that this work of receiving and distributing was distracting them from their task of teaching, so they appointed seven deacons to do that practical work.

In the process of carrying out this work, Stephen ends up debating with the Jewish leadership about Jesus.  At this point, before Christianity has really left Jerusalem, the question is whether Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s story for Israel or whether he was an imposter leading people astray.  Stephen is finally arrested and stands before the council, lectures the council on Israelite history and accuses them of focusing on the Temple while neglecting the righteous one who was with them. 

This doesn’t sit well with council and that is where the reading picked up today.  Stephen is stoned to death and his death is an echo of Jesus at the crucifixion.  Jesus says, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Stephen says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Jesus says, “Father forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”  Stephen says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  This is story of someone who got the Jesus thing right.  If some you recall in our discussion of mission how Luther claimed that one of the marks of the true church would be the possession of the cross, this is what he was talking about.  Stephen did everything right and pays for it with his life.

Now again I give the disclaimer that I give whenever somebody dies in the text.  I do not expect you nor do I want you to go out and intentionally find a way to suffer and die for the faith  But I do want you to understand that following Jesus as the way, the truth and the life is not a path that necessarily leads to safety, security, wealth, comfort or success as those things are defined by the rest of world.  Following Jesus as the way is not a means to avoid the storms of life, the insecurities, the frustrations, the tragedies, pitfalls, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  Following Jesus is finding contentment and peace in the midst of them because you have enough.

So how much is enough?  It can be hard determine whether we are talking about donuts or money or possessions or time.  Jesus does not promise to give you more of those things, but he does promise to be your enough.  When our hearts our grounded in Christ, we have enough, because God has an abundance of love and life and is not afraid share it.  Enough is already here.  In Christ we have enough.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

May 7, 2017 - Luther and the Lord's Prayer - Part 3 - Your Will Be Done

There is a scene in the movie, The Break-Up where Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston are arguing after a dinner party.  She wants him to help do the dishes.  He wants to put off doing them and relax awhile.  Finally, he stands up grumpily and says, “Fine.  I’ll do the dishes.”  She says, “Never mind about the dishes.”  “You don’t want me to do the dishes?”  She says, “I don’t want you to do the dishes; I want you to want to do dishes.”  To which he replies, “Why on earth would I want to do the dishes?”

                After our discussion last week on mission, I thought quite a bit about the reason for the church.  We discussed a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The church is only the church when it exists for others.”  However, as someone countered, there are organizations that are better equipped than we will ever be to serve others.  There are nonprofits whose only task is to feed hungry people or provide shelter or address various needs.  So maybe the calling of the church is not to do the dishes, but rather produce people who want to do the dishes, who will find the people who are out doing the dishes of the world and work with them.  This is why I said last week that it doesn’t really matter who we partner with but rather that we are inspired to do the work.  So for instance, at last year’s New England synod assembly, we held a joint food packaging event with Lutherans and members of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts.  We may not agree on a number of fundamental issues faith-wise, but we do agree that serving others is God’s work. 

                That may resonate with some of you but to others ts may feel like we are ignoring a larger problem, the decline in participation that we are experiencing as a congregation and as a church body.   Are we looking to partner with others because we don’t have the people to do the work anymore?  What this raises for me is the nature of success when we are talking about the church.  The easy thing and the common thing and the practical thing is to measure the success of a church based on numbers.  More people and more dollars means a successful church and pastor.  We might look at the church in Acts and talk about how day after day the numbers increased, but the numbers increased because the church was existing for others, sharing their food with one another, their time with one another, their possessions with one another.

                I would argue that you can have a church that is huge but failing.  Now, this is not a slam on big churches because there are big churches that are quite faithful but a slam on the assumption that bigger is always better.  If we all we do is get together and love Jesus and feel good about loving Jesus but never get out and love the neighbor, the church has failed even though its bank accounts may be flush.   That church has failed to be the church whether it has 100 or 200 or 1000 people.  I say this because I have read the gospels and Jesus never talks about being impressed by big crowds or big bank accounts.  After the resurrection he doesn’t instruct anybody to build buildings or even to worship him.  He tells them to teach and continue this movement, as Brian McLaren describes it, this uprising, out in the world.

                In a similar way, when Martin Luther talked about “Your will be done” in the Lord’s prayer, we aren’t so much praying that the will of God will happen in the world (because God’s will  will happen in the world.  That’s the nature of God).  We are praying that it will happen among us, that we will be part of it, in step with it.  We are praying that we will become the kind of people who want to do God’s dishes. 
                So the success of a congregation as an organization can be based on numbers, but the success of the church as a community of faith has to be based on something else.   Rather than asking how many people are walking in on Sunday morning, we need to ask what sort of people are walking out into Sunday afternoon.  Are they leaving here and going out to do God’s dishes not because they have to or have been guilted into it, but because they want to do God’s dishes?

                And why would anyone want to do the dishes?  The Lutheran answer is like the old children’s sermon joke.  A pastor gathers kids around for a children’s sermon and begins by asking, “What has brown fur, a bushy tail and eats nuts?”  A wise child says, “It sounds like squirrel but I know answer is Jesus.”  Why would anyone want to do the dishes?  Because Jesus.

                What does that mean?  Jesus says in the gospel,  “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”   That is what the gospel proclaims.  It is what we point to in a number of ways as we gather for worship.  Why do we gather together as a community rather than just saying prayers alone?   Because community, relationship has always been part of the vision of abundant life.  Why do we have this healing rite now and then?  Because in Christ, God wants us to be whole and complete.   It is a visible symbol of abundant life.  Why do we come to the table together?  Because we proclaim that we are fed with the real presence of Christ.   This whole gathering is about sitting in that abundance, reminding ourselves that it is real, giving thanks that God has brought us here and that the abundance of God’s love and God’s life have touched us through Jesus.  This is a fundamentally Lutheran take on the Christian life.  If we have encountered the gospel, if we have encountered Jesus, if we have truly been drowned and raised in that love, the works of love will follow.  We will become the people who want to do God’s dishes.

                Because abundant life is the cup overflowing of Psalm 23.  Abundant life isn’t just having more than you need, but is life and love that bubble over becoming plenty to share.  And if we don’t feel like we have enough to share, if we don’t feel a desire to share that love, then maybe we aren’t as connected to it as we thought.  Maybe we are connected to a building or a group of people or a tradition but have lost sight of the one who is the reason for the building and the group of people and the tradition.  I would suggest the challenge that we have in preserving the buildings and groups of people and the tradition is a consequence of the fact we have a weak connection to the one who is the reason for them.  This is why it is important for us to talk about mission because without seriously looking at it we seem to follow a mission of self-preservation, a mission you cannot find coming from the lips of Jesus.

                How do we deepen the connection?  Here is the good news.  It’s not that hard.   Just listen.  In the gospel lesson, as Jesus offers the image of the good shepherd he says,  “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”    Listen, because the shepherd is calling you and is going to keep calling you.  Listen.  He calls you from the font.  He calls you from the scriptures.  He calls you from the sermon.  He calls you to the table.  He calls you from the voices of one another as we share peace and fellowship. 

                But then he also calls you out.  And here is one the things I find interesting about the whole good shepherd, gatekeeper section.  As much as we talk about being fed and nourished in this image, the church is really the sheepfold for us, the safe place where we can rest, catch our breath.  But the sheep in this image are only fed if they listen to the voice of the shepherd and follow the shepherd out of the sheepfold and into the world because  that is where the pasture is.  The church can only have abundant life if it gets out of the church, out of the building and into the world.

                So listen, because part of the promise of abundant life is in here, where we gather in safety from the dangers and stresses of the world.  But part of the promise of abundant life is out there, spreading life and love, sharing it with the world.  The good news is that Jesus the good shepherd is in both places, always calling you by name.  Listen.

April 30, 2017 - Luther and the Lord's Prayer, Part 2 - Your Kingdom Come

Early on the gospels, Jesus told them how the story would progress.  “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  But they don’t believe it, or don’t understand it, or want to dismiss it.  His disciples think he is the king; he is the one.  Where other rebellions failed, Jesus was going to lift them up; Israel would be the country it was meant to be, that it hadn’t been since the time of King David or King Solomon.  The kingdom of God was among them and there was no way that it could fail.

                Yet on Saturday and Sunday after the crucifixion, it felt like a failure.  It felt like it was time to go home or at least get out of Jerusalem.  It was time to get on the road, back to Nazareth, back to the fishing boats.  For a couple of his followers, it was time to head back on the road to Emmaus.  And they meet this strange man on the road, someone who can talk about the scriptures; someone who can explain some of these terrible things that have happened.  They meet him on the road.  They invite him in the house.  They invite him to have a meal.  And as he breaks the bread, in that moment, there is Jesus.  The kingdom of God has not disappeared; the kingdom of God is still among them.

               A couple of years ago on the television show, The Big Bang Theory, one of the characters, Amy Farrah Fowler, ruined the classic movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, for the other characters when, after watching it for the first time, she pointed out that the movie would have had the exact same ending with or without Indiana Jones.  He just made it take a little longer.  The Nazis would have found the Ark of the Covenant in Egypt a little faster, they would have taken it to the deserted island a little sooner, but they still would have opened it and been destroyed by the wrath of God.  Indiana Jones had little effect on the narrative itself, he just made it more interesting.
              That is sort of the role that the disciples have in the gospel story.  They are there, but mostly as an audience for Jesus’ teaching.  Sometimes they give us an example of what not to do and help us define who Jesus is not.  James and John ask for places of honor and are rebuked because Jesus isn’t about that kind of honor and power.  Thomas expresses strong doubt at the resurrection and is both amazed and embarrassed.  But you could swap out different disciples and the narrative would be much the same.  The story would progress with Jesus headed to Jerusalem, headed to the cross, headed for death and rising from the dead.  Even in our gospel lesson today, the disciples are unnamed.  We don’t know who these two people are because, in the narrative, the one who matters is the one who reveals himself in the breaking of the bread.
             And again we are talking about the nature of grace.  God’s plans will happen whether or not we get on board.  We are dependent on God but God is not dependent on us.  The Jesus story happens because God wants it to happen.  God wants to show us what the kingdom of God looks like.  God wants to attract us.  This is also what Martin Luther was pointing to in his discussion of “Your kingdom come.”  “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer.”  If God is whom we proclaim God to be, then there is nothing we can do to help or hinder God’s work.  It will happen because that is the nature of God.  This is also the overall message of the Book of Revelation.  In spite of all the cryptic imagery, the general message is that, although things look crazy right now (and maybe that’s an appropriate message for our time) God is in control.  Eventually, weeping and crying and pain will be no more in spite of humanity’s efforts to create more weeping and crying and pain, because that is the nature of God.

             So if we can’t really influence what is happening, what is the role of a Christian and what is the role of the Church?  There have been several answers over the years.  Some groups will say that it is our job to get out of the way and let God do God’s thing in the world.  The best thing for the church is to escape the corrupting influence of the world and retreat to a compound somewhere and disappear. 

Other groups will say that the church’s job is to recruit as many people as possible onto God’s team, often creating two very distinct sides in conflict, God’s team against the world.  Some variations of this view that are common in the United States will put the Christian nation of America over and against those secular humanists in Europe and Muslims in the Middle East.  These are also groups that use Christian as an adjectival seal of approval.  There are books and then there are Christian books.  There is music and then there is Christian music.  There is counseling but then there is Christian counseling.  There are plumbers but then there are Christian plumbers.  The point of view creates a sharp divide between Christians and the rest of the world.

The Lutheran impulse has been a bit different.  Obviously, we haven’t been that great in the recruitment department.  But part of that is because we have been much more likely to take the view that our job as Christians and as the church is to find where God is at work and get busy.  And it doesn’t matter whether it is Muslims doing God’s work or atheists doing God’s work.  Point out where God is at work and sign up.  A non-Christian feeding hungry people is doing the work of God and we should be working right beside that person and his or her belief system is secondary to God’s work getting done.  If you look at the way our mission and hunger relief efforts have developed you will see that idea modeled.  We also tend to see the way to honor God to be less about saying special prayers or putting cross or fish-logos on things, but simply honoring God through both our character and effort.  Plumbers, be the best plumbers you can be and charge fairly.  Scientists, be the best scientists you can be and report your findings honestly.  People, be the best people you can be.  That’s how you honor the God who makes plumbers and scientists and people.  Be the best you can be but also be humble.  Be honest about your shortcomings.  This is also how you honor God.

It’s not our job to make the kingdom of God happen.  God is already handling that part.  We get together and celebrate every week that the Jesus story has already happened, that the kingdom of God is already among us.  Our job is to live it, to live as though we believe that we are already living in the kingdom of God.  That means, even when the news of the world is disturbing, we are still called to go out and love other people and care for other people because that is the nature of the kingdom of God.  We are still called to seek justice and strive toward peace because that is the nature of the kingdom of God.  We are still called to feed hungry people and welcome those who are different and those who are foreign and those who challenge our sensibilities because that is the nature of the kingdom of God.

As Luther put it, when we pray “Your kingdom come,” we are not praying that we would initiate God’s work but that it might come to us, that we might be part of means for God to do that work.  In preparation for today’s discussion on our mission statement, I remembered a quotation from the Lutheran theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  In a letter written  while a prisoner of the Nazi Reich he wrote, “The church is only the church when it exists for others…The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.  It must tell people of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others…It must not underestimate the importance of human example; it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives the church’s message emphasis and power.” 

We don’t need to make the kingdom happen, but we are called to participate in what is already happening.  We do not need to make God’s work happen, but we need to look at the places where it is happening and go there; be part of it, even if it is in places where we don’t expect God’s work to be done; even if it’s done by people that we are not sure should be doing it.  Because like the nameless disciples sitting with the stranger in Emmaus, sometimes our hearts will be burning; sometimes our eyes will be opened and suddenly it will turn out that we have been with Christ all along.

              The kingdom of God is among us.  May we live as though we truly believe it is here.