Monday, July 31, 2017

July 30, 2017 - Faith and Belief, Wisdom and Knowledge

Solomon could have had anything.  He is offered a blank check by God.  He could have asked for money or peace or satisfaction.  Instead he asks for wisdom, and God likes the answer so much that he blesses him also with wealth and long life.  Wisdom in an important virtue in the scriptures.  In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a whole section known as wisdom literature, texts like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and Job.  These are the books that don’t deal with faith in the same way as the rest of the scriptural library.  Wisdom literature asks deep questions about unjust suffering and the pursuit of happiness and the nature of God.  While much of the rest of Hebrew scripture involves praising God or celebrating virtue or challenging unrighteousness, the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the whole enchilada and says, “It’s vanity and chasing after wind.”  This is not to say that Psalmists who sing God’s praises are wrong.  Rather, the community of faith accepted that this alternative literature has something important to offer, challenging voices that question some of the foundations of faith.  It is as though the early Judeo-Christian communities said, “We need a block of voices that allow us to doubt and to question.  This too is part of real faith.”  And they labeled it, “wisdom.”
                Wisdom is different than knowledge similar to the way that faith is different from belief.  I frequently get questions about belief, but not so many about faith.  We say the creed as a rendering of beliefs of the church, a set of ideas that unite us, even though we may not believe them in exactly the same way.  I am going to guess that when we announce a belief in the “Resurrection of body” we may not think about in the same way that the early Christians who established the Apostles’ Creed did.  I am also going to guess that if we went around the room and asked people, “What do you believe about who God is?” or “What do you believe happens during Communion?” we would probably get a variety of answers, probably related but not all the same. 
                Beliefs are one of the ways were wrestle with faith.  We make these statements to see who is on the same page with us.  They are Venn diagrams that we can use to see where we intersect.  When our church has talked about full-communion relationships with the Episcopalians and the Methodists, what we are really doing is seeing how many intersections there are and how much they overlap.  When our synod had a food-packaging event with the Islamic society of Springfield during a synod assembly three years ago, we could acknowledge that there were not many places where our traditions intersect, but caring for those in need is a place where both Islam and Christianity are supposed to hold overlapping beliefs.
                Faith is something broader.  Faith is the divine-human relationship that inspires those beliefs.  It is the canvas on which religion or personal belief is painted.  Our tradition says faith is God’s gift to us.  God gives us the canvas and then we start to paint on it affected by our heritage, our experiences, our education and our interest.  And there may be times in our lives when we touch it up or paint over what we started.  The paintings of God we had as children may no longer satisfy us.  The painting may look radically different, but the canvas is the same.
                And I would say that there is similar relationship between wisdom and knowledge.  Knowledge is pretty easy to find these days.  We used to give great value to the cab driver who had an expansive knowledge of a city, who knew the fastest routes and the ebb and flow of traffic.  Now anyone with a smartphone can be that cab driver, get from one place to another, and find the alternative routes.  We have more access to knowledge than we have ever had in human history, but that does not mean we have wisdom.  With all of our knowledge, people are still taken in by Nigerian Prince schemes.  We still are tempted to click that one weird trick to a thin waistline or the top 5 ways to meet your soulmate (You won’t believe number 3!).  Probably more to the point is that we are not willing to listen to knowledge that conflicts with what we already want to believe or think we know.  Liberals tend to listen to other liberals and conservatives tend to listen to other conservatives and both think the other is foolish.
                Wisdom is being able to stand back and, like the author of Ecclesiastes, not give so much value to any given piece of knowledge, but look at the pile of amassed knowledge and say, “This is chasing after wind.”  Wisdom is being able to stand out, like the author of Job, and question fundamental concepts like, “Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.”  Wisdom is what Jesus shows by teaching in parables.  He doesn’t give knowledge of the Kingdom of God; he gives us something to pursue, something to mull over.  The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or treasure in a field or a precious pearl.  And 2000 years later I can’t tell you exactly what he meant but I can invite you to think and pursue and question and discuss with me, which is probably more important than knowing exactly what he meant.
                Knowledge is often a statement, like knowing that Force equals mass times acceleration.  Wisdom is how you apply that knowledge, taking a formula and turning it into a new form of transportation.  Knowledge is accumulated, stored and memorized.  Wisdom is cultivated over time, through experience, through trial and error. 
                There is a difference between simply quoting a passage like the one from Romans 8 – “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” We might hear the passage, come to know it and say, “This means Jesus loves me and its nice.”  But seeing it through the eyes of wisdom, imagine if you took that passage and sat with it, letting it speak and inform your decisions and point of view.  Imagine how it might change things if you walked around with the idea that nothing could separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Imagine how you might approach people differently, with less fear since nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Imagine how generous you could be when nothing can separate you.  Imagine how much you could endure, how you might approach illness or setbacks when nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Imagine how honest you could be; imagine how content you could be when nothing can separate you.  That is the power of wisdom at work.

                We have a path toward wisdom in the church, it’s part of the painting on the canvas of faith.  We have had this path for centuries, started by Jesus and continued through many ways by many different voices.  We call it discipleship.  Discipleship is the life-growing work we get to do because of the life-giving work that Jesus has done for us.  Worship is part of that path (though my experience with many Lutherans is they will say that worship is the path, but it’s not) it is part along with prayer, giving, studying and serving, fasting and sharing and comforting and advocating.  All of these actions help us nurture wisdom; help us go to the deeper places of faith.    Jesus has given you the path toward wisdom and now he invites you to walk with him.  And what is my job, I’m here as someone to help you on that path, not just to tell stuff that I know, but to help you cultivate wisdom.  Let us walk together, serving through faith, centered in Christ and guided by the word.    

July 23, 2017 - Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat

As I thought about the parable of the weeds among the wheat, it made me think about what seems to be a common impulse.  Over my years as a minister I have been told several times that I am not a real Christian and the ELCA is not a real church.  Sometimes it is about biblical interpretation, especially around social issues like homosexuality.  Sometimes it is about the sacraments, especially around baptism, that my baptism 46 years ago at Emmaus Lutheran in Racine, Wisconsin doesn’t count.  I have also heard people within congregations label others as weeds among the wheat.  If she were really a Christian she wouldn’t do this or do that.  I’ve also seen good Christian people who claim they want a church with young children glare at those tiny weeds when they act like children.  Get these weeds out of here.  Put them in the basement so I can be nourished and grow.

                But this kind of labeling and dividing has gone on for centuries.  Everyone wants to imagine that they are the real Christians and belong to the real church.  In the quiet, contemplative tradition, the issue was contemplatives versus actives.  The contemplatives were often going off by themselves in prayer for long stretches.  The actives were going out and doing ministry in the community.  The actives would say that the contemplatives weren’t doing anything.  The contemplatives would say, “Chill out.  We are doing the one thing that matters and you should do the same.”  Finally figures like Francis of Assisi came along and Teresa of Avila later on who advocate a both/and solution.  Go and find union with God so that you can go out and do ministry in the world.

                Today the split I see in the church also is the vision of Christian life.  Some people will describe Christian life as a series of personal disciplines:  prayer life, tithing, scripture reading and a whole lot of learning to refrain from overindulgence in terms of things like food, sex, drinking.  This understanding of church has helped many people turn their lives around.  I used to do this, but then I found Jesus, and now I am a new person.  And you can find this call to repentance and personal discipline in both scripture and tradition.  We heard it implied in the letter to the Romans, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”  Part of the Christian life is getting our impulses under control.  We may want to revisit some of Paul’s teaching in light of a growing understanding of the connections between mind and body.  Thanks to Paul’s language, the church has grown up with a negative view of the physical body, sex as a gross necessity rather than a gift of mutuality in relationship, the body as a burden to be tamed rather than a gift to be cared for with good stewardship.  And I would suggest that calls to self-control and self-care should be seen as more about stewardship of God’s gift of the body rather than controlling this filthy, physical cage for the soul.

                So we have one version of Christian life that is primarily about personal growth and personal faith.  Then we have a vision of Christian life that is shaped more by the prophetic critiques that show up again and again in the Hebrew prophets, in the life of Jesus and in Christian leaders like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr.  This is the voice that says that all of those personal acts of devotion are great but they mean nothing if they don’t lead to a radical love of neighbor.    God speaks through Amos and says, “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” 

                Jesus goes on a tirade about the scribes and Pharisees saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

                This is the line of thinking that has inspired a tradition of service and caring for those in need.   In Wittenberg, Germany in 1522 Martin Luther established the idea of a common chest in local towns.  In a recent article in “Living Lutheran” about this history it stated, “The local “Community Chest,” which received money from individual contributions and other sources, provided welfare for the poor, zero-interest loans to get impoverished artisans back on their feet, and funds for teachers, church workers and even a physician to care for those unable to afford medical care.”  This thinking in the church has been responsible for hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, food banks, immigration and refugee settlement.  It has also been responsible for church bodies such as our own pushing the envelope of welcome and inclusion.  I’m not going to say we have been great about it or quick about it.  We are still not a particularly diverse church body (actually, by some reports the least diverse church body in the United States).  We were not the first to ordain women nor were we the first to acknowledge same-sex relationships but we got there (and I know not everyone is comfortable with it) but we got there.

                And in some ways you can see the traditional conservative/liberal split in these descriptions.  Traditionally, conservatives have been much more focused on personal choice and personal accountability.  Liberals have been much more focused on social needs and social responsibility.  I think the blind spot for conservatives is the fact that there are social forces like racism and classism that will hold people down and hold them back, that limit the number and quality of choices that they get to make.  I think the blind spot for liberals is not giving enough emphasis to the idea that our personal choices do affect us, that how we spend our money and how we spend our time and what we do with our bodies does have consequences.

                I don’t want to go too far because that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but my point is that both images of Christian life are embraced by our scripture and our tradition.  I think that conservative churches need to hear a voice saying, “It’s great you have a personal prayer time and worship makes you feel awesome, but what are you doing for your neighbor?”  Liberal churches need to be reminded that while service is important, it is also important to be connected to the God whom we serve.  God wants to feed and nourish us so that we have the strength to share God’s love in word and action.  We need to be able to articulate the reason that we are serving rather than just being nice people.

                But stepping back into the parable, this is also why I think it is important that the farmer in the story commands his servants to refrain from pulling the weeds among the wheat.  To us, weeds and wheat are matters of perspective.  If you look at Christian history, we go through phases where one style and understanding of church dominates and usually the dominant tradition looks at other traditions as less than real church.  And all of those names I mentioned before, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, were seen as weeds by some people in their day.  And certainly with Martin Luther there are parts of his life and his writings that we might look at and say, “That is not wheat.  I don’t want to call him a weed, but that is not wheat.”

                The good news is that it is not our job to figure it out.  Our job in this parable is simply to grow and let Jesus handle the rest.  The good news is that we are not wheat on the basis of the things we accomplish, the number hours in prayer or meals supplied.  We are wheat because of who Jesus is and what he has done.  It is all too easy to look at our neighbor and try make a call, weed or wheat.  It is much more challenging to look deep within ourselves and admit we have room for growth, but that is our job here on earth, to grow, deeper in love for God and deeper in love for our neighbor.  Jesus has planted us and watered us and nourished us.  Let us grow.

July 16, 2017 - Parable of the Sower

For much of the history of Christianity, we have debated the place of the will in faith.  Do we choose Jesus or does Jesus choose us?  What control do we have over the relationship?  What you believe about that question has a lot to do with how you understand the work of the church.  If your expression of the church believes that faith is a matter of choice, that you invite faith into your life, then the Christian life and the church’s calling might be more about persuasion.  Why would someone build a life-size ark or spend millions on a creation museum?  To persuade people about the accuracy of the Bible which in their minds will then make the Jesus story more persuasive and less subject to question.  You will think a lot more about what is attractive, worship and preach in a way that brings people to a critical decision point.  My Dad was not a religious person, but when he was 13 his family was part of a congregational church in California (mostly because it was a way for my grandfather to sell insurance, which is part of the reason he never felt religious).  Their Confirmation instruction involved going to a Christian camp for a week.  Now it happened that the camp was run by a Baptist family and they insisted on running the closing worship campfire.  And the camp director launched into a fire and brimstone sermon about sin and repentance and how you weren’t a real Christian if you didn’t invite Jesus into your life.  My Dad remembered watching some of his friends come forward weeping during the altar call when they gave their lives to Christ.  And my father watched this wondering, “What was that about?” and his friends, some of whom had walked up weeping came home as if it had never happened, returning to the traditional tepidness (neither too hot nor too cold) that defines much of the mainline tradition.

                Many of the denominations that come out of the Reformation have grown up shaped by a theology of radical grace, a theology that says evangelism is primarily God’s work; that faith itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit (an idea you can find stated expressly in the Small Catechism).  The church’s work is discipleship.  The church’s work is cultivation.  The seeds land on good soil and we help them grow by preaching and teaching, sacrament and service.  Our job is to be visible enough in the community that when the seed begins to germinate, it will make its way into our doors to be watered and nourished.  So have good preaching, a good Sunday school and good service projects and you will have a good church.  It also explains why many of our outreach efforts tend to be strategic efforts to get people near or in the church building.  The hope is that through an organ concert or in the midst of a yard sale, even though no one is talking about faith, people will dip their toes into the community and God will flip the faith switch.

                Having heard me preach enough, you probably know what I am going to say.  That sort of thing used to work, but it doesn’t now, not in the same way.  I could point out facts and figures.  I could point to an ELCA that has declined in number by almost a third since its founding 30 years ago.  I could point to trends in our church: the fact that Lutherans have smaller families than they used to which is a challenge to a community that has depended on generational growth, the fact that church attendance is less regular even for those who normally attend church.  I could point to cultural trends.  Let’s face it.  We live in an age where the emotional appeal dominates, where political battles are not won by the best argument but the loudest, where gut feelings persuade parents to avoid immunization (hello, measles) and even have a few people talking about a flat earth.

                So what shall we do as a church?  It’s easy to point out what doesn’t work; much harder to figure out what both works and keeps us in the Lutheran ballpark.  I find some direction in the parable of the sower.   This parable is important in understanding how faith is lived out and experienced.  God is the sower.  The seed is the Word.  Who are we?  We are the soil.  This is an image that goes all the way back to Genesis 2, where God forms the human being out the earth and then breathes the breath of life into it.  To be human is to be a pairing of physical earth and divine breath, the essence, the Spirit of God.  In the parable of the sower, to be faithful is to be the intersection of good soil and good news.  When those are together, the seed sprouts and grows and bears the fruit of loving service.

                I would suggest that, if we are honest, we are not always the same quality of soil.  Sometimes we are good soil and sometimes we grow weeds and sometimes we are rocky and shallow.  Sometimes the seed connects with us and sometimes it languishes and sometimes we don’t want to hear it.  I also suggest that God doesn’t just sow the seed one time, but rather is constantly spreading it, seeing how the soil has changed, watching plants grow and sprout, sometimes yielding seed, sometimes drying out, waiting to be planted again.  Like a good farmer, perhaps God knows that sometimes the ground needs a season to lie fallow so it can be nurtured to bear fruit again.

                And to me that is what the church is often like.  As someone who gets to know many people who are at different places in their walk of faith, I know that the soil is not always fertile.  I know that we all go through periods that are dry and rocky, where we feel like we have been stepped on, trampled over and there is nothing that can grow or that all that can grow is what we don’t want.

                In this case, I suggest that an image for the church is that of a compost heap.  Think about it.  If you have a compost pile (and you should if only to decrease the amount of waste going into landfills) a lot of it will be the stuff you can’t use:  eggshells, banana peels and watermelon rinds.   That organic material breaks down and eventually becomes a source of richness to make bad soil healthy for growth.  We come here with all our mistakes and embarrassments, we come here carrying the things we don’t like about ourselves and the things we would rather hide.  We come here with our hurts and our weaknesses.  We come here because we need forgiveness, acceptance and reconciliation.  And God does what God does, which is to take the worst of the world and turn it into good.  The cross leads to resurrection.  Sadness leads to joy.  The worst we have, brought before God, left to break down by God’s grace and mercy, becomes the source of good soil.

                In terms of our proposed mission statement, this is the “centered in Christ, guided by the Word” part that leads to us “serving through faith.”  The more we find our center in Christ, the more we encounter the eternal Word, the more that Word can grow in our lives and shape who we are.  Teresa of Avila (the 16th century mystic) once described prayer as staring lovingly at Christ and allowing him to stare lovingly back at you.  We gather at the table and receive Jesus at the deepest places within us.  We listen to preaching and read scripture and search for that Word within the words.  We gather in fellowship, remembering that where two or three are gathered Christ is present.  We serve those in need remembering that Christ is to be found in the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the sick.  We live the life of faith and in so doing we are transformed into good soil where the Word can grow and spread and bear fruit.

                Our bishop, Jim Hazelwood, has said that he is often asked by people, “What is the one thing that we can do to gain new members?”  We live in a quick fix, sound bite kind of culture and I have heard a number of one thing/quick fixes over the past 20 years.  Get rid of your evangelism committee (because evangelism is the work of the whole church).  Start a second service (so you can give people more options).  Combine your small services into one (so your building looks full and inviting).  And my all time favorite quick fix, smile (like Ricardo Montalban at the beginning of Fantasy Island, “Smiles, everyone, smiles.”.)  The problem with most quick fixes is that they are based on a place or two where they worked and usually they worked because of other things that were going on in the system.  Smiling, happy pastors and greeters and ushers who are smiling because they are authentically joyful because they are centered in the Word are very different from smiling pastors, greeters and ushers who are smiling because they have been told to smile.   Most quick fixes come from trying to copy the results of something deeper.  When we are centered in Christ and guided by the Word, interesting things will happen, but that is a process and not a quick fix.

                It takes time for the nutrients in the compost to transform the soil, and you can’t just throw down the compost and then rake it away and expect anything to happen.  It has to mix together, changing and transforming.  Quick fixes are the hopes of rocky soil, where there is no depth, where things sprout quickly but also die away quickly.

                If we hope to grow as a congregation then we have to want to grow as the people of God, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.  We have to be people who nurture this gift of faith that God has given us.  So that the Word can grow within us and bear fruit, and what is fruit but a sweet container for more seeds, that the Word dropped upon us by the sower might spread beyond us in loving service to the world around us. 

                Now we are going to sing a hymn about this kind of transformation, because we gather here to be changed, deepened and nurtured.  When our hearts are barren, may we become good soil.  When our hearts are rich, may we become fruitful and productive.  May the Word of God touch us, grow in us and spread through us.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

July 2, 2017 - Guided by the Word

I’ve been preaching on the mission statement work that we did as a congregation and which we will seek to approve at our next congregational meeting.  The proposed statement is:  Serving through faith, Centered in Christ, Guided by the Word.  I’ve preached on the first two segments of the statement and now I am going to talk about the idea of being “guided by the Word.”

                And to do that the first thing I need to do is say what I think the Word with a capital “W” is.  When I talk about the Word of God I am not talking specifically about the Bible.  If we wanted to say we were guided by the Bible, we would change the statement.  The Bible points to the Word.  In Lutheran theology, the primary value of the Bible is that it points beyond itself to the Word.  The Bible witnesses to the Word.  When I talk about the Word I talk about what John was talking about in his gospel when he said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Jesus is the Word of God, but that Word is greater than the person of Jesus, the story of his time on earth.  That Word is God’s resounding “Yes” to the universe.  It is God’s promise of life and freedom.  It is a deadly cross and an empty tomb.  It is the sound of a newborn cry and the whisper of a final breath.  That Word is peace.  That Word is love.  That Word is hope.  That Word cannot be contained in the pages of any book, no matter how holy.

                That being said, let me be clear that I am not anti-Bible.  We would be well-served to sit down with it every day because it is one of our basic witnesses to the Word.  As Christians we should be going deep into scripture and know more than John 3:16, Psalm 23 and that thing Paul says about love at weddings.  I am not anti-Bible, but I am strongly anti-biblicism, making the Bible the center of faith.  There are aspects of Christianity that easily turn into idolatry.  It can be tempting to idolize a building and make that the center of faith.  It can be tempting to idolize a person, like Martin Luther and make him overly central.  It is very easy to turn the Bible into an idol and end up as Christian Pharisees, losing Jesus in the process of finding holiness rules to follow.  But the buildings and the people and the book are not the center, rather they point us beyond themselves to the center.

                In our tradition, we are not so much Bible-centered as Christ-centered.  When we look at the Bible we look for Christ in the Bible.  The church existed for about 3 centuries without a Bible.  I should clarify that statement.  The church always had scriptures, but not everyone had the same scriptures.  It wasn’t until about the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 that we agreed on scripture for the whole church and even today there are variations within the broad scope of Christianity.  Concerning the New Testament, we find lists of scripture in the early church authors and they vary.  Not only do they list the books they personally accepted but also the ones they rejected (which means those were accepted by somebody else).  Some doubted whether the letters to Timothy were written by Paul, a scholarly debate that continues today.  Some were unsure of Jude and Revelation.  Some only had one gospel and others more than 4.  There are stories that when the Romans would demand churches publicly burn their scriptures one trick they had was to bring out books that they no longer considered important or less than true scripture and they could do it because the Romans didn’t have a list of scripture.  The point is, before there was a Bible, there was a community that gathered itself around the Word through preaching and teaching and sacrament.

                So how should we approach the Bible?  In some ways it is a lot easier just to declare the whole thing as without error and without question; historically and scientifically accurate.  There are Fundamentalist traditions that do that and end up having to deny a world of scientific thought and archaeology, working hard to prove that 2 of every animal could and did fit on Noah’s ark (and nobody ate anybody else).  That’s not our tradition.  Martin Luther found the heart of the gospel in the scriptures, especially Paul’s writings but he questioned some things about the scriptures as well.  He is part of the 16th century so most of his questioning is around matter of interpretation and not history.  But he sets up the possibility of questioning long held beliefs.  He labeled the book of James an Epistle of straw and questioned the placement of the book of Revelation in biblical canon.  In many ways he was part of a tradition that grew out of the Reformation but really was a rediscovery of what Jewish Rabbis had been doing for years which was arguing with the scriptures.

                Questioning things about scripture doesn’t make you unfaithful.  I have found that questioning the scripture is what takes me more deeply into it.  It was interesting at our last synod assembly as Bishop Hazelwood was talking about the future of the church he suggested that what might happen in New England is that the various progressive/mainline congregations that are struggling right now might begin to merge so in a given territory you might have a Catholic ministry, an Evangelical ministry and a traditional Protestant ministry.  He said whenever he talks like this people ask him, “What is something unique to Lutheranism that might be preserved in this?”  He suggested that it might be how Lutherans read the Bible.  When he goes to ecumenical Bible studies, folks from other traditions start free-associating, “This is what I think it means.”  But Lutherans ask different questions.  “What did it mean to its first century audience?  Is that meaning still relevant today?  Does our knowledge of biology or psychology or other sciences impact that meaning?”  And going through that kind of process we then ask, “How does it speak to us today?”  I think we look at the texts of the Bible as works of ancient literature, open to interpretation, criticism, debate and study while still acknowledging that the Word is there, in, with and under the text.  The words don’t make it holy.  The Word they point to, the Word that inspires the words, makes it holy.

                So how can we be guided by the Word if the Word is not just the holy instruction book?  First, you have to do the things that help you encounter the Word, including reading the instruction book.  I always worry that when I talk about the Bible this way people will say, “Oh good.  I don’t have to read it.”  I don’t just want you to read it; I want you to encounter it.  I want you to wrestle with it.  I want you to talk about it with one another.  I want you to email me, or call me or visit me and tell me that you think I’m wrong.  And I will write back, “I love you and you have a good point, but here is another.”  Because the Word is not just in, with and under the words of the text but it is also operating in, with and under the words of our discussion.
                I also like the image of discussion because if we are going to be guided by the Word it means we have to listen and we have to practice listening.  The greatest satisfaction for a preacher does not come when someone says, “Nice sermon, pastor” after the service.  It is those occasions where a few weeks later someone says, “You said something a few weeks ago and it struck me this week,” or “this happened this week and I remembered your sermon,” because it means you were listening and it means that through the work of God’s Word I managed to say something worth listening to.  The Word is there in the scripture.  The Word is there in preaching (even the times you disagree).  The Word is there in the community at song and at prayer.  The Word is there in the holy conversations we have with one another. 

                But we need to practice listening because the Word is speaking in other places as well.  The creative Word of God is calling from the winds atop high mountains and the currents in depths of the ocean.  The prophetic Word of God is speaking from those who call us to pay attention to the dying coral, the Great Pacific garbage patch and melting glaciers.   The hopeful Word of God was speaking in Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.  The just Word of God is speaking in the voices of those calling us to pay attention to the deaths of African-American men.  Philando Castile was stopped for minor traffic violations over 50 times before the stop that led to his death in Minnesota.  I am not going to get into the politics now, but there is something wrong there and the Word of God is speaking to us, calling for justice and calling for us to examine ourselves.  We need to listen.

                So let us be guided by the Word, which means let us seek that Word in study and prayer and let us listen for that Word in preaching and in sharing and in loving words of welcome and loving words of forgiveness and loving words of peace.  Let us listen for that Word and challenging calls to justice and painful calls to repentance.  Let us be guided by the Word that has been there from the beginning and still speaks to this day.

June 18, 2017 - Centered in Christ

As many of you are aware we went through a mission statement process over the past few months and the result of that effort was the following proposed statement (you can find it on the bulletin cover as well):  Serving through Faith, Centered in Christ, Guided by the Word.  Often it happens that congregational mission statements are just window dressing.  At some point we were told it was a good idea to have one and then at then it gets filed away, never really impacting the life of the congregation.
                It is my hope that we can do better than that and use ours as a measure and guide for us because I think the Holy Spirit is involved in the process, that as we gathered together discussing and parsing and wordsmithing, the Spirit of God was with us guiding us along the way.
                Last week I talked a little bit about the idea of “Serving through Faith” and how that is both a reflection of who we are as a congregation but also a task for us as a community.  Today I want to talk about being “Centered in Christ.”  And to talk about why I think this is important for us, I have to do some confessing.  There are some common faith statements that people make that I don’t believe; that I don’t think are a reflection of the good news.  “Everything happens for a reason.”  I know people take comfort in that idea.  Yet if you reflect on human history, it is very hard to say that there is a divine reason for all the bad things that happen.  I think the story of the cross and resurrection witnesses to the idea that God can transform the evil that we do to one another into good; death into life.  As a senator put it after the shooting in Virginia on Wednesday, “Out of one evil action, hundreds of good actions follow.”  But those good actions are not the reason or justification for the evil action.  It is God’s transformative power at work.
                “God has a plan for me.”  I give some space to this because in the scripture there are stories of people who are given a task or place to be, but I don’t think that there is a preordained path that every individual is supposed to follow.  I don’t think God has a major that a college student should take.  In general I don’t think God has a career path or a life path that is “the right path” for that person.  I think we each have gifts that it is simply good stewardship for us to use but that could be used in a number of ways.  On the other hand I might say that God has a plan, but that plan happened 2000 years ago, that plan is what gathers us here every Sunday, resurrection day.  God’s plan for us is Jesus.  God’s plan for us is reconciliation.  God’s plan for us is a rediscovery of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. 
                And as we discover that plan, as we are centered in Christ, what we will discover is that faith is not about the destination but the journey itself.  When Jesus sends his disciples out he orders them, “As you go, proclaim the good news, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  As you go, wherever you go, however you go, proclaim the good news.  As you go, to school, to work, to volunteer, to vacation, to the beach, to the gym, to the golf course, to whatever, proclaim the good news.  We have a faith that goes with us as we go.
                The other concern that I have when I hear people talk about God’s plan for me is that there is sometimes an underlying idea that if I can just follow God’s plan, then life will be smooth and easy.  This is not the good news.  It’s attractive, but it is not the good news.  No matter how great you are at walking on the path of righteousness, doing good deeds and loving other people, you are going to age and your body is going to break down.  Your vision and your hearing are going to get worse.  I was at the eye doctor last year and I said, “I’ve noticed that when I have to look at things close up I’m doing the old man thing with my glasses.”  He said, “Yes, you are 45.”  You are going to lose people whom you love.  You are going to have a doctor tell you that there is nothing more that they can do about a situation.  You are going to be disappointed by people.  You are going to be hurt by people.
                Paul talks about the place of suffering in the reading this morning.  He speaks about boasting in suffering because suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope.  The gospel does not set us free from suffering.  Rather, the gospel gives us a hope that can endure whatever life throws at us.  Sometimes when I hear people talk about Christianity, it’s like the gospel is dam that stops the river of life from touching us.  I say that the good news is a stable rock so that as the river of life flows around us, both good and bad, we need not be swept away but have a solid place to stand.
                That is the sort of image I think of when we talk about being centered in Christ.  And this is a time when the church needs to be centered in Christ because it is a time of change in the world, in our culture, in our church.  The river of life is flowing around us and sometimes it feels like we are going under.  I just read an article in the Christian Century that talked about the 450 pipe organs that have become available in the past years.  If you want a pipe organ, you can have it for free (you would have to pay to dismantle it, move it and reinstall it which would cost a good chunk of change).  The story pointed to two realities: the number of churches with pipe organs that have closed as well as the fact that new congregations being built simply don’t want them.  They aren’t installing organs of their own; they just don’t have them.  Think about that.  Several of you have told me the story of when this congregation chose between an electronic organ and a pipe organ some years ago; that it was a difficult and conflicted discussion.  I believe some people voted with their feet.  And now people are having trouble giving organs away.  This thing that was so important is now largely irrelevant.
When the river of life comes it is tempting to cling to buildings or traditions or sentimental memories.  And those things can sometimes keep you afloat, but they don’t give you a place to stand.  When we are centered in Christ we have a place to stand.  And note that when I talked about that river of life I talked about both good and bad passing by.  There was a time when our congregations were the hot ticket and were building education wings and gymnasiums and other bigger barns.  Things were growing and we got attached to the idea that things were always going to be great.  Centered in Christ, we can celebrate the good times without getting attached to them and we can live through the bad times without getting overwhelmed by them.

So I think it is very important that as part of our mission we see ourselves becoming centered in Christ, maybe spending a little more time on those things that do center us in Christ, the daily practices that reorient us toward that center; the deeper conversations that shape and support our faith; regular encounters with Christ in Word and Sacrament.  Things are going to happen, and not always for a good reason; life is going to happen and not always according to anyone’s plan, but when we are centered in Christ we develop a hope that, as Paul says, will not fail us.  When we are centered in Christ we are standing, stable and balanced, on the love of God.