Monday, June 12, 2017

June 11, 2017 - Trinity Sunday - Serving Through Faith

Trinity Sunday is a celebration of the mystery of God.  We proclaim that God is three in one and one in three, which is great until someone asks us what that means and then we talk about three-leaf clovers and apples (skin, fruit and seed) and the three states of matter.  Then very smart people will say, “But it’s not exactly like a clover or an apple or water.”  And then they will tell you what kind of heretic you are.  We can try to define the Trinity but at some point we have to step back and say, “We don’t understand. “  As soon as you try to define it, make it something concrete, it ceases to be the Trinity.  Most often you will put too great a focus on the One or too great a focus on each of the Three.

                We are not a society that cares for mystery these days.  We want simple categories, true or false, real news or fake news, the mainstream media or a healthy helping of “covfefe.”  We want religion to have the same certainty that science seems to hold.  We want our faith to be the product of rational thought that leads to rational conclusions.  And the Father, Son and Holy Spirit stand in our midst and outside of our midst and deep at center of who we are and say, “Catch us/me if you can (which you can’t).”

                Trying to define God, catch God, label God is something that human beings have done from the beginning of time, perhaps with the idea that to define the deity is to own it.  One of the ideas that has come out of  our study of other religions is that the religions that have survived over the centuries seem to be those whose deities refuse to be defined:  the endless and contradictory avatars of Lord Shiva in Hinduism; the 99 names of God in Islam that include Allah, the Loving One and Allah, the Distresser and Allah, the Bringer of Life and Allah, the Bringer of Death; the interconnectivity of all things in Buddhism; the God who is named “I will be who I will be” in Judaism; the God who is three in one and one in three of Christianity.

                There was a time in the early church when there were great debates about the Trinity and the nature of God.  The three creeds that we say represent the true faith (Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian) are the product of these discussions.  They were the church trying to reach consensus so they could move on from the debate.  Today it is very rare to hear anyone discuss the Trinity beyond a clover or apple-type explanation.  Again, we have one Sunday where we say, “Here it is” and then we lay deep reflection aside and are content to use Trinitarian blessings or recite the Creed.

                I don’t think this is a bad thing.  I think it is a reflection of the changing nature of faith.  Within Christianity, for much of its history, the concern has been about right belief.  Do you believe the right things about God and about Jesus?  Most of the conflict of the Reformation had to do with believing the right things about the nature of Jesus and the Church.  Most of the conflicts that then led to the growth of other Protestant denominations had to do with believing the right things about the Sacraments.  Today the division seems most often to be about believing the right things about the Bible especially on social issues like sexuality.  There are litmus questions to see what camp you are in.  One of my professors in seminary, Ralph Klein, was part of the Concordia Seminary shake up in the 1970s when the
Missouri Synod clampdown on non-literalist professors led to the formation of Seminex (or the Seminary in Exile).  The running joke was that they brought you into a room and asked you a question like, “If you could go back in time, could you take a picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?”  The joke answer, “Yes, but you can’t get it developed anywhere.”  (I recognize that joke is totally irrelevant in our current context of digital pictures, but I still like the story.)

                But over time, as we have focused on believing the right things or figuring out which church is the right church, we have missed the fact that people are no longer asking that question.  Because in general fewer people are participating in religious communities, when people look at religion, they are much more concerned with what kind of life the belief system produces.  This is exactly how most Americans are judging Islam these days.  No one is really asking about the tenants of Islam, but what sort of lives does Islam produce.  And we are much more focused on Muslims who do violence than Muslims who do charity work  or social work or medical work or scientific work or are disciplined athletes and creative artists, because we hear much more about Muslims who do violence.

                I think that people are looking at Christianity in the same way.  Who cares what you believe about the Trinity if that belief doesn’t inspire the love that is supposed to shape Christians?  Who cares what you believe about the Bible if that belief seems to inspire judgmental and hateful attitudes?  Who cares what you believe about  the resurrection of the body or the real presence of Christ in the sacrament if you are kind of a jerk or if doesn’t make any difference how you go about in the world?

                It is great to talk about theology, but for the church, for theology to be meaningful it has to lead to mission.  A number of you have participated in our mission statement discussions over the past few months.  We have looked at scripture.  We have looked at our Lutheran heritage.  We looked at our own unique context in Falmouth.  Last Sunday we crafted a new statement together and it goes like this:  Serving through Faith, Centered in Christ, Guided by the Word.

                This will need to be formally adopted by the congregation because the council and congregation will use it a tool for determining our priorities, but I wanted to talk today a little bit about how we got here especially why “Serving through faith” is the first line.  One of the things about our congregation that goes unrecognized is the number of people who volunteer and serve in our community.  We’ve talked a good deal about the things we do or have done through the church: the pillow ministry, the stress kit ministry, overnights for hospitality.  I also know that sometimes I wish we had more people volunteering to help with things on Sunday morning (and I’m going to put another plug in for Communion bread), but I also know that many of you are out serving in the community.  We have a good number of people who volunteer regularly at the Falmouth Service Center; people volunteering at the hospital (even a volunteer of the month).  We’ve  had volunteers at the Children’s Museum and in the school system.  We have had folks volunteering in different capacities to support people at the military base.  We have a family that at this moment is out walking to support Boston Children’s Hospital.  We have volunteers to support the road race, elections and other community events.  Belonging to Each Other, No Place for Hate, and probably a number organizations that I don’t know have someone from Christ Lutheran involved.

                And that doesn’t even begin to look at how you simply care for one another, especially our folks who can’t be in worship or who need help getting around.  How many conversations have I had where someone says, “I was taking Polly to the doctor…” or “Pastor, have you been by Joyce’s apartment because I was over there and…”  This doesn’t happen in every church. 

                And we may not always acknowledge that this is our faith at work.  This is the life that our faith inspires, maybe because we don’t talk about faith while we are serving.  Every Wednesday I go to Teaticket Elementary School and mentor a third-grade boy for about 45 minutes.  We hang out, play games, talk when he is in a chatty mood.  We’ve been reading through a kids’ version of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I can’t say too much about him but he is a young person who needs some extra support (and there are a lot of kids like him, so I would recommend it you if you like working with kids).  And even though I may not be there to preach or praise God, it is my faith that has brought me into that interaction and so God is there.  I am witnessing to the good news even in a place where I may not publicly preach the good news.  As you go out, and feed the hungry or comfort the sick or accompany the lonely, you all are doing the same.  I think our challenge, and this may be something we work on together, is seeing how we make the connection that these are acts of discipleship.  I also think that we need to consider our answer when someone asks, “Why are you doing this?” so that we don’t just give a humble, Lutheran answer like, “Because it’s nice.”  We need to be prepared to say that, “I serve because Jesus loves me and I want to share that love.” Or “I serve in response to God’s gift of life.” Or simply, “I serve as part of the my faith.”

                The Trinity is what draws us together and, in the Lutheran tradition, is what brings us to faith.  God the Father who creates us to be in relationship and God the Son who reminds us and renews us in that relationship and God the Holy Spirit who stirs that relationship that is faith within us.  But none of it matters if it only about the talk of faith or the feeling of faith and never about the walk of faith.  From the beginning of the story of the church, the talk is always partnered with the walk.  We may share our faith through our words and our worship, but we live the Trinity out in the world through lovingkindness and loving action.  I encourage you to go and keep sharing this good news.


Monday, June 5, 2017

June 4, 2017 - Day of Pentecost

Every Christian tradition has a different focus, the primary  means in which we encounter the gospel.  For the Catholic Church, the Church itself is the primary vehicle of the good news.   For Episcopalians, the act of worship seems to be the primary means.  For Bible-centered churches, the Bible as Word of God is the primary source.  For Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit is the center of things.  For Lutherans, we talk about being grace-centered and Christ-centered.  So the Bible has value as a witness to Christ.  Worship has value as an encounter with Christ (another reason we try to have Communion every week).

                Each focus has strengths and weaknesses.  Catholics end up with a strong sense of tradition but haven’t been good about criticizing that tradition, especially when it veers away from the gospel.  Bible-centered churches often have a much richer scriptural vocabulary, but aren’t always able to handle it when scripture contradicts itself or when new knowledge challenges biblical beliefs.  Pentecostals can get so wrapped up in a personal journey with the Spirit that they lose Christ’s call to care for others.  Lutherans don’t often know what to do with the Holy Spirit.  We have this day, Pentecost Sunday, where we celebrate the coming of Spirit, and next Sunday, Trinity Sunday, where we celebrate the Spirit as part of the Trinity.  Otherwise, the Spirit is typically just named when we do Trinitarian blessings in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

                Yet especially in Luke and Acts, the two books by the same author, the Spirit is a major player.  By following the work of the Spirit in Luke, we can see why the Pentecost scene in Acts is such an important moment for the church.  The Holy Spirit shows up early in Luke’s gospel.  In the other gospels, the Spirit shows up at Jesus’ baptism, but in Luke, the Spirit plays a role in Jesus’ conception.  The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she will have a child.  Mary asks how this is going to happen and Gabriel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you therefore the child to be born will be holy.” 

                I should probably take a moment to talk about that word, “holy.”  It is kind of a churchy word that we use without strongly defining it.  Things of God are holy.  Things against God are unholy.  Holy is hard to define but I can think of examples where people have labeled something holy.  It used to be that when you were given a Bible it was leather-bound and  fancy, made to last.  Now Bibles can be cheaply produced and are meant for greater use.  But what do you do when they start to fall apart?  There is something that feels wrong about throwing a Bible, even a cheaply made Bible, in the trash with the banana peels.  Churches often face this when they update hymnals.  What do we do with all these old hymnals?  We can’t just throw them away.  They have become holy and sacred by their use by and in the church.  So even though they may never be used again, they still have to sit in a closet or storage space basking in their own holiness.

                In the ancient world, something that was holy was either something that was seen as having divine power or divine origin, think about Holy Grail, the cup that had been used by Christ which had healing properties (or for Monty Python fans the Holy Hand grenade that was used in the quest for the Holy Grail).  Also, something that was holy was something that might give access to the divine.  Most ancient religions had the sense that to see the face of God or come in direct contact with the divine was to be destroyed.  You cannot look on the face of God and live.  You will be swallowed up in the glory.  But there are exceptions, so in the Jerusalem Temple the high priest dressed in holy robes can enter the Holy of Holies, the place on earth where God is most deeply connected, once a year on the Day of Atonement.  But this is an important point, when something is holy, it can safely and directly encounter the divine.

                So now we have Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, who can directly encounter the divine.  This is then confirmed at has baptism so everyone else can see that this is a holy person.  After his baptism the text says, “Jesus, filled with power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, where he begins healing, casting out the demonic and teaching with authority.  This is what happens when the Spirit is at work.

                Also in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus calls Peter as a disciple, rather than simply saying that he was fishing (as Matthew and Mark do), Luke remembers it as a moment of a miraculous catch of fish when Jesus tells Peter to put his nets in the deep water.  Peter falls to his knees and says, “Get away from my Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  He realizes he has encountered the holy and it is not safe.

                After this, the Spirit doesn’t get much attention.  Luke has established that everything Jesus is doing is the Spirit at work.  But then, on the cross, Jesus proclaims as he dies, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  And breathes his last.  Now the Spirit is gone, and for Friday and for Saturday, everything seems hopeless.  That Holy Spirit that had given them access to the divine is gone.

                But then they see Jesus again, alive!  He tells them to go into Jerusalem and wait until they have been clothed with power from on high.  And that is where we begin today.  The Spirit comes upon the disciples.  The Spirit through whom Jesus was conceived for his time on earth.  The Spirit through whom the power of God healed the sick, cast out demons, fed the multitudes, raised the dead, taught with authority, that Spirit is now within the disciples and it will spread like a holy contagion.

                It is important to recognize that the Spirit is not just this force making people talk in other languages but is rather the mission of God embodied in the church.  The moment when the disciples speak in other languages it is so they can share the story with the people.  Later when Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit in the church, the Spirit works to build up the entire community so it can live out the mission of sharing God’s freedom and forgiveness, God’s love and loyalty.

                So as we gather as a community to talk about mission we are not gathering to talk about the survival of the congregation, but rather how the Holy Spirit is pushing us to live that mission as a congregation.  And certainly it used to be that the mission of Lutheran churches could be stated as, “The Spirit is calling us to be a Lutheran presence in our community and a place of worship and learning for Lutherans.”   Lutheran did great ministry with that kind of mission.  This congregation was founded with that kind of mission.  We were a mission site for all the Lutherans who would be coming through Otis Air Base.  They closed the base over 40 years ago, so how is the Spirit calling us now?  What is our mission now?

                I don’t ask this knowing the answer, because it is a process  of discernment that belongs to the whole community of faith.  But I do know that where the Spirit calls us will involve living the gospel as a community, and where the gospel is, that is where life is, that is where hope is, that is where freedom is, that is where forgiveness is, that is where joy is, that is where peace is.  The Spirit of God is in this place, the Spirit that blew over the waters of creation, the Spirit that brought Christ into the world, the Spirit that blew through the disciples in the Upper Room, the Spirit that lives in God’s Church.   That Spirit is with us today, empowering us, stirring us and sending us with good news.  When we take the time to follow the Spirit through the gospel story, we discover that story of the good news continues in this place with this people.

May 28, 2017 - Deliver us from Evil

“Deliver us from evil.”  This is a prayer that seems to be more and more appropriate.  We hear the voices of screaming people, screaming children at a concert in Manchester, England and pray, “Deliver them and deliver us from evil.”  We hear the stories of soldiers and sailors and pilots in every war and pray, “Deliver them and us from evil.”  We hear about racial tension.  We hear stories of political deceit.  We hear of a political candidate attacking a reporter and being called a hero by some.  We hear about the growth of hate crimes.  Deliver us from evil.

                Some say that the point of any religion is to help deal with the problem of evil.  Even more than acts of nature, why do people get to do evil to others?  How can evil action be justified?  We look back at countless stories throughout history and wonder, “How could that, that holocaust, that genocide, that slave trade, that lynching, that serial killer, happen?”

                In our Tuesday group we have explored two major religious traditions in the world, Hinduism and Buddhism.  For the Hindu tradition, it all comes down to karma.  Bad actions in a previous life lead to bad things in this life.  The question becomes “How will you respond?”  Will you seek to create good or will you continue on the path of suffering?  For many Buddhists, evil is what we should expect because all is suffering.  Can we seek to end the suffering of others, to break the cycle of suffering?  We have also looked a little bit Chinese philosophy, yin and yang, good and bad in balance.  Evil happens when we allow things to get out of balance.  How do you balance evil?  By doing good.

                How do Christians deal with the problem of evil?  It depends a little bit who you ask.  Some Christians, drawing from the book of Revelation, see the world locked in a cosmic battle of good versus evil.  When I was in college, I remember being surprised by how many of my friends from conservative Christian backgrounds, Baptists and Charismatics, talked about demons and how they needed to be cast out.  Sometimes this seemed like a bit of a “Devil made me do it” excuse, how a young man from a dry home could wake up after a Saturday night party with unexpected company in his bed.  Yet there was a strong sense that evil was not random, that it was a force in the world, competing for our attention.  For this group of Christians, especially those who had made a decision for Christ, they would be good were it not for this outward temptation. 

                Luther also believed in evil as a force in the world.  He talked quite literally about the devil and his empty promises.  It is also important to remember that Luther is a product of the 16th century who believed that witches had given him the evil eye and hobgoblins lived in the forest attacking travelers.  At the same time, Lutherans don’t seem to talk about the devil or the demonic in the same way as other traditions, maybe in the case of extreme evil action, where it seems impossible to explain that normal people could do something so heinous.  Yet often it happens that what grows into the extreme begins with a collection of smaller acts of hate.  A candidate for congress assaults a reporter and not only is he elected but some voters describe his action as heroic, putting that reporter in his place.  That’s a slippery slope.

                The Lutheran tradition is much more apt to say that this is just the way we are.  We don’t need the devil’s help to do evil, maybe a nudge but no possession necessary.  It is that sense that we are turned in ourselves, turned away from our neighbor.  It is the sense that most of our decisions are shaped in some way by selfishness.  This is why we need the gospel.  This is why we need Jesus.  Because we cannot turn out of ourselves on our own.  We need God to intervene and change who we are not just one time but on a daily basis.  We need God to keep pointing us in the direction of life because, all too easily, we fall back on the ways of death.

                This is why when I look at terrorists, probably one of the few places where I agree with President Trump is in labeling them as losers rather than monsters, though I doubt we would agree on the interpretation.  Monsters makes them non-human, forces of evil, agents of the devil.  But these are often very human losers who have been duped by empty promises offered by a corrupted and perverted form of Islam.  Now I am not saying that we should pity them or coddle them or stop preventing them from doing harm.  I am certainly not saying that the governments of the world should not seek to silence those who are offering these empty promises and corrupted visions.

                But the real question here is not why is there evil, but how do we as Christians respond to evil?  And this is where it gets tricky, especially on Memorial Day weekend when I know a number of our members have served in the military and we, as a country, remember those who died in that service often fighting against evil.  We hear about what happened in Manchester and there is a very natural part of us that says, “We need to get these guys.”  In fact Luther’s understanding was that this was sometimes the role of the state.  Remember, he is part of the 16th century so a lot has transpired between our time and Luther’s time, but in his understanding, God had ordained the state to “Get those guys” when necessary.

                But here is the part that some of you will not like.  God had ordained the state to do this because the church, true Christians, could not in good conscience “Get those guys.”  The church was centered in the love of Christ, seeking reconciliation over division, forgiveness over revenge.  You cannot read the words of Jesus and find a part where you could justify the stance of, “I’m going to get those guys.”  You can find the part where Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who curse you.”  You can find the part where Jesus, after being arrested and beaten and crucified says, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  War and conflict in the Christian tradition, even when justified, even when done for the right reasons, are a sign of our failure to live up to Jesus’ model.

                So I do not have an easy answer nor do I have popular answer as to how we respond to evil, because the only answer I have is the one that Jesus gives us as a gift and challenge: love.  Now some of you, and I know who you are, are saying to yourselves, “Love will not defeat ISIS.”  You’re probably right about that.  But it is not my job to tell you how to defeat your enemies or tell you that it is okay to defeat your enemies.  It’s my job to remind you of the Christian way, the way that Jesus gave to us and lived for us, the path which we are called to walk which includes a call to love your enemies as difficult as that may sound and as difficult as that may be.

                And I do believe that this is how we are called as Christians to respond to evil.  When evil action is great, our loving action should be greater.  When evil rejects, our welcome should be greater in love .  When evil divides, our unity should be greater in love.  When evil harms, our healing should be greater in love. 

                At the same time, I will warn you that love is the ultimate security risk.  You will not find a message in the words of Jesus that will say, “Keep the refugees out.  Keep the borders strong.  Keep yourself safe.”  Love is not safe.  When Christians point to the ultimate example of love, we point to an innocent man dying on the cross at the hands of the state. 

                But importantly, when we point to the power of love, we point to an empty tomb, death turned to life and harm turned to healing.   While military power may keep evil at bay or even defeat it for a time and sometimes that may be necessary, the Christian vision has always been of a world transformed by love.  It is not hate defeated by love, but hate transformed to love; not division defeated by love, but division transformed into unity by love, not death defeated by love, but death transformed into resurrection by love.  It is neither an easy answer nor a popular answer, but it is the life-saving answer that Jesus have given to us.  Love.  When we walk in the way of Jesus, we walk in the way of love.