Monday, October 23, 2017

October 22, 2017 - Memorial Service

When we considered this service, Sunday worship including a memorial service, I realized that there were some challenges.  Some might attend the service who aren’t strongly connected to a church or faith tradition, but knew Debbie well.  Some might be visiting, looking for a place to worship on Sunday morning with no strong connection to Debbie or her family.  And there are those in the Christ Lutheran community who are here for both.

                And as I considered this in terms of preaching, I realized that my task is the same for all three groups, to proclaim good news, to proclaim the promise.  So how might we do that today?  First, we can acknowledge that we are here on Sunday morning and we are here on Sunday morning because somewhere 2000 years ago the church decided that it was fitting for Christians to worship on the day of resurrection, that every Sunday is an Easter Sunday.  The church gathered on Sunday morning to be reminded of an essential idea of faith, that through the cross of Christ, death is no longer an ending to be feared, but a gateway to new life, a gateway to a new existence where mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  And to this idea those of you who knew Debbie know that she would give a grand “Woo-hoo!”

                We can also hear the gospel in the words of scripture.  Now at first hearing the gospel lesson for today may seem like its about paying taxes and has something to do with money, and those of you who may not have a strong church affiliation may be wondering if I am going to ask you for money.  In fact, many of my members may suspect that I would talk about money.  This is not a text about money, but rather it is a story about images.  Jesus tells the people to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar based on the fact that the coin is stamped with the image of Caesar.  Way back in Genesis 1, in the story of creation, the author also talked about images, saying that the human beings were made in the image of God.  It is this image that Jesus refers to when he says “Give to God what belongs to God.”  Give to God the things that are stamped with the image of God.  Offer yourself back to God in love and caring, offer yourself back to God in joy and hope.  Offer yourself back to God by offering yourself to those around you, by treating those around you with kindness and love and care.  And here again we can reflect on Debbie’s life among us.  I remember one of the last days that I was able to have a real conversation with Debbie was shortly after she had found out that her cancer had spread and there was a tumor growing on her leg.  We talked about her disappointment and, at the time, possibilities for treatment.  I gave her communion and as I left she said, very quietly in her Southern lilt, “Love you, Carl.”  Not some romantic declaration, but the simple love that Christians are supposed to have for one another.  It is rare that we speak it, perhaps because it is so connected to romance and that can lead to confusion.  Yet it was an honest and beautiful moment, a reflection of the person who Debbie was and is.

                We can also see the gospel in the community this morning.  When we worship together in our tradition we do not sit still through the service.  Yes, as you listen to readings and preaching, you can be a group of individuals, each of you listening and interpreting, the Holy Spirit at work, using my words to create a message that makes sense to you.  But in a few moments you will be invited to stand and share God’s peace with people you know and people you don’t, shake hands or hug or nod or bow, look a stranger in the eye and say, “Peace be with you.”  And in that moment you are the good news to one another.  You are a message of peace, a gift of grace.  That is God working through you, the promise that began on the cross 2000 years ago reaching to this moment, this community.  The peace which, the apostle Paul wrote, “passes all understanding” the peace that goes by many names, “Shalom, wholeness, security, wellness,” the peace which Debbie experiences right now, be with you.

                And finally, we can receive the gospel at the communion table.  For those who are visiting, I will announce at that time that we have an open table, which means, whatever your tradition, you are welcome to receive the sacrament at our table.  Our table is open because it is an encounter with the gospel and the gospel is for all; Jesus is for all.  As you come forward this morning, as you receive bread and wine, we proclaim that you are receiving Jesus, internalizing the promise, which is simply a beautiful idea.  But there is another aspect of the communion table that I would like to highlight, an idea that we refer to as the “mystical communion.”  It is the idea that when we celebrate communion, in some mysterious way we are connected to the whole body of Christ, all Christians in all times and places in some way celebrating with us.  Jesus gathers us all together at the meal.  When we gather at the table, Debbie will be with us celebrating along with all those that we have lost over time.

                Think of it as one of the implications of Paul’s message from Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death nor life, neither things present nor things to come nor anything else in all creation.  There is no diagnosis; there is no cancer; there is no final breath that can separate us.  There is no mistake; there is no harsh word; there is no regret that can separate us.  There is no time; there is no place; there is no ending that can separate us.  This is the good news that we celebrate every Sunday in some way or form, but especially today as we remember one who is no longer with us in body, but remains connected to us in the body of Christ.

                It is never easy to lose someone you love, but we take comfort in the good news that Debbie is held in the hands of God.  Though her loss may leave us with sadness, this is where she belongs today, in the hands and promise of a loving God.

Monday, October 16, 2017

October 15, 2017 - Parable of the Great Banquet

Each gospel author presents a character of Jesus, much the way an artist might paint a picture of Jesus, an image of how the artist imagines Jesus might look without having seen him.   The character in the gospel text is not Jesus, but a reflection of how the author has experienced or learned about Jesus.  So you will hear me talk about Matthew’s Jesus or John’s Jesus.  Although the characters are similar, they are presented in different ways.  These differences are part of the reason the early church felt it necessary to include multiple gospels to tell the story.

                Part of the character of Matthew’s Jesus is Jesus as prophet.  Matthew’s Jesus tells stories that are meant to disturb and upset, the prophet poking at our conscience, challenging our self-understanding as good and faithful.  When Luke tells the parable of the great banquet, the story is much more palatable.  The people are invited; they reject the invitation; the host gets angry and invites everybody else and it ends with a really nice party.  Matthew tells the story and the first invitees not only blow off the invitation but also kill the servants that brought it.  The host, a king, is upset so he sends soldiers to kill them and burns down their city.  Then there is a nice party except for the one person who show up unprepared who ends up in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

                Jesus the prophet is not the Jesus we like to listen to nor is he the Jesus we want to meet.  We want the nice Jesus in the portrait in the narthex; the handsome man with unkempt hair and piercing eyes who is just on the verge of saying, “You are awesome.”  That Jesus is trying to make us feel good about ourselves.  The prophetic Jesus is trying to get us to pay attention.  He is trying to get us question the idea that everything about our relationship with God is good.  He is trying to get us to question the very foundations of our faithfulness.  He is trying to get us to question ourselves when we feel we have faith figured out.  And I will say that I have met many Christians who think they have faith figured out, whether it a glib line about “Just doing what the Bible says,” or a checklist of discipleship actions (so many chapters of the Bible a day, so many sessions of prayer a day, a 10% tithe and gratitude journal) or a proper understanding of Reformation theology and a fascination with (fetishizing of?) liturgy and four-part harmony.  The prophetic Jesus says, “If you think you understand God, you are way off;  if you think you are doing faith right, you are probably doing it wrong.”

                The Lutheran perspective would say that this is exactly the kind of story we need to hear.  We often come to church looking to hear words of comfort and words of love.  We come to hear the invitation God gives, to live in a world that is shaped by hope and peace.  We sing songs that console our hearts and are invited to the table to be fed.  And yet we also need to be reminded of the number of times that we have heard God’s invitation and turned away to our important business that could not wait.  God has invited us to imagine a world of wholeness in the cries of those in need.  God has invited us into a world of hope in the voices of those who cry for justice and equality.  God has invited us into a world of peace, waiting for our response to those who call for war.  But that God-imbued vision of a world is a challenge, a world that calls us to turn away from self-centeredness, a vision that calls us to be different, less focused on the love of things, more focused on the love of others, no longer defined by what others think of us and expect from us and more defined by who we are as children of God.

                All of us, every day, spurn that invitation, ignore the voice of God speaking, ignore the messengers among us, dismissing them as troublemakers or unpatriotic or simply too extreme.  We ignore the implications of the good news, that the love of God we have received in Christ is meant to multiply and expand, not be held close like a sacred totem.  Like sunlight shining on a solar panel, God’s love is meant to be absorbed by us and converted into loving action.  When we fail to let it out, we ignore the invitation to the party, because in this lifetime, loving action for our neighbor is the party.  Now some of you may say that this time in worship is the party because after all we sing here and we are fed here.  No this is where you prepare yourselves for the party, the staging area for the celebration.  This is where you find the wedding robe and make the 7-layer dip you are going to bring.

                We need to hear this story because as much we are troubled by the message, troubled by the wrath of the king, it is a message that might remind us to repent because we don’t have everything worked out.  And remember, one of the foundational discoveries of Luther in the Reformation was that repentance was not about completing a church-mandated penance, but was about changing our hearts and changing our minds.  Repentance is about walking in a new direction.  Another very strong Lutheran theological idea is that repentance is not only something God calls us to, but something God leads us to.  The Holy Spirit works on us, sometimes in subtle ways that develop over time, sometimes in powerful, life-changing moments, sometimes in periods where we can only look back in retrospect and say, “God was at work.”

                Such is the nature of the prophet and the prophetic voice.  The prophet intends to cause you discomfort.  The prophet intends to make you squirm and question yourself.  The prophetic voice does not do this because he or she doesn’t like you, but because the prophet has been given a vision of what you could be.  The Israelite prophets spoke harsh words to the people of Israel and it wasn’t because they didn’t love Israel or love the people.  It was because they had been given a vision of what God intended and hoped for Israel and were despondent about how Israel had fallen short of its calling to care for the poor and needy; to care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger.  And they cried out with words of warning and words of frustration and sorrow.

                When we hear Jesus’ difficult parables it is not Jesus speaking out of hate, but Jesus speaking strongly out of sorrow, frustration and finally out of love, sorrow for what humans are intended to be and how we fall short, sorrow for the self-serving paths we often walk and their inevitable destinations of pain and loss, sorrow for the joy we sacrifice in order to walk those paths that we think are so wonderful and so secure, but also love, love for simply who we are as God’s good creation and love for what we could be and love for the joyful love we experience in loving the neighbor.

                So listen for that invitation, because God is calling you out of here and into the great party of humanity.    Listen because there is warning to the story.  Now I do believe in a loving God and not a God who is waiting to wipe us out.  The wrath of the king is a strong image but I suggest that it is in line with other Israelite prophets who offered similar warnings, that a world that fails to listen to God’s invitation to love is doomed to destruction, and not because God will throw lightning bolts at it, but because it will simply collapse under the weight of its own greed and anger.  As the Church, we are invited to follow Christ and show the world that there is a different way, a way that leads to celebration and life.  Let’s sing and pray and share the peace.  Let’s be fed at the table and sent into the world.  May the love we experience in this place send us out with love to God’s great party.

Monday, October 9, 2017

October 8, 2017 - Parable of the Wicked Tenants

After church last Sunday, I was asked about the passage from Ezekiel, a passage that ends with what seems like a death threat from God “O Israel, are my ways unfair?  Is it not your ways that are unfair?  Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God.  Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin…Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have not pleasure in the death of anyone…Turn then and live.”  And then we had the lessons for this morning that involve harsh words from Isaiah, the beautiful vineyard turned into wasteland, and Jesus’ parable that calls back to it, the violence of the tenants resolved by the violence of the landowner.  We are in the realm of language where Jesus doesn’t sound like Jesus.  Matthew’s Jesus uses harsh language more frequently than the other gospels.  There is more weeping and gnashing of teeth.

                But it is a kind of language that can be confusing in a tradition that talks about the grace of God and a culture that is far more attuned to messages of the love of God than the wrath of God.  It is the language of the prophet and I would like to talk about the role of the prophet and prophetic literature in the Bible.  It is important that, for the most part, prophets in the Israelite tradition were not predictors of the future, rather they were sharp critics of the present.  They pointed out the path that the people were on, especially paths of injustice and pointed ahead saying that this road leads toward death and pain, that a path where the rich take advantage of the poor or the justice system works in favor of those in elevated positions would lead to the destruction of Israel.  And always the prophets called the people to repent, to change the heart, to change the direction, to walk a new path, one that leads back to wholeness, to shalom.

                Last week in conversation I used the example of a doctor talking to a patient who smokes.  The doctor will say, “If you keep smoking, there will be severe consequences to your health and eventually it can kill you.”  Emphysema and lung cancer are not punishments that the doctor gives you for smoking, nor are they punishments that God gives you for smoking, they are possible consequences built into the habit.  And in a medical way, the doctor will tell you to repent.  Stop smoking.  Use a patch.  Change your ways.

                So when Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and the leaders of the Temple he challenges one of their assumptions, that the path they are on leads to righteousness and closeness to God.  Instead, in their desire for personal righteousness, they have become exclusive in a way the destroys the faith of others, judging those who are less observant than them to be less in the eyes of God.  The parable challenges them in a number of ways.  First, it puts the leaders in the role of tenants of the faith and not owners of the faith, which is something religious leaders often forget.  We have been trained how to do faith the right way and forget that it is God’s faith given to us and not a faith we own.  Jesus’ story also says that this is not the first time that the leaders of the faith have needed a reminder, represented by the slaves that come before the son of the landowner, that the caution of former prophets still needs to be heard by the current generation.  No one likes to be told that they are on the wrong side of faith; that their view of the nature of God is off, and so Jesus’ story leads to anger which leads to what becomes the greatest prophetic action of Christian faith, Christ’s death on the cross, the moment when all creation pauses to look at the dying Son of God showing where the paths of hate and jealousy and judgmentalism lead.

                Yet we never quite learn the lesson.  We keep rediscovering hatred as a way of motivating people; we keep rediscovering judgmentalism as a balm for our fragile egos; we keep rediscovering scapegoating as means of overlooking our own shortcomings.  And then we are surprised and shocked when hatred and anger show up in the news out of control, when racism slithers out from beneath its rock wearing a “Free Speech” costume, when bottled anger bursts out as random bullets shooting into a crowd because yet another person was fed up, or ticked off, or couldn’t take it anymore, when opioid addictions take our young people because they feel they have nothing to lose.  Every cross that someone wears as fashion statement or faith statement or posts as decoration should be a reminder of where the paths of hatred lead.  Every cross should be a moment to change direction, to repent, to go a different way.

                At the same time, all those crosses can serve as reminders that there is a better way, that there is a way that leads to resurrection, a way that leads to hope and life.  There is a way that is a gift to those who walk it and a gift to those who see it being walked.  It is the way of love; the way of Jesus.  To be clear, it is not an easy way or a touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy, kind of way.  Otherwise our gospel story could just be Jesus showing up and giving everyone big hug.  The path of love in the face of hatred, jealousy and judgementalism leads Jesus to the cross.  The good news is that while it leads to the cross (confrontation with the powers of hate) it does not end at the cross.  Love is popular when it is safe.  It is safe to love your family.  It is safe to love your country.  It is safe to love people like you.  It is dangerous to love your enemies.  It is dangerous to love those with whom you disagree.  It is dangerous to love beyond the socially acceptable boundaries.  Yet that is who Jesus is and what he did and path to which he calls us.

                And this world, this angry, frustrated world needs to see people walking that walk, needs to see you walking that walk.  One of the most important ideas that came from Martin Luther was his understanding of the priesthood of all believers.  By virtue of your baptism, every one of you has been ordained a priest, bringing the love of God into the world.  In fact, if there is a virtue that we Lutherans need to rediscover in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is that priesthood, that calling to serve.  And an important part of the priesthood of all believers that we need to rediscover is that the calling to be a priest has little to do with the church building and organization.  Luther didn’t imagine the church as priests serving in their special buildings.  He imagined the church as priests in the community, priests bringing healing and hope and love in their day to day lives.  He imagined a few people, called by communities to serve as pastors, but most of the church serving as priests as they made their living, as they raised their families, as they did the normal things that people do from day to day outside of church buildings.  He imagined all of us seeing our lives as a constant call to holy work, wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

                When Jesus uses the vineyard image, the hope of the landowner is the same as the hope from the image of Isaiah, that the vineyard will bear good fruit, that the tenants will offer their portion of the harvest.  It is God’s hope that our lives will bear fruit.  And, as I said before, if the world needs anything right now it needs the fruits of discipleship, the fruits of the life of Christ, the fruits of love and peace and hope.  And we are called to share those fruits, having experienced them in the grace of God, having touched them in this place, we are called to share them with the world.

                The voice of the prophet calls out a warning, “Keep walking this way and you walk toward destruction.”  The voice of Jesus calls out, “Follow me and walk toward life.”  The path of Jesus is a gift that brings hope to the world.  Let us walk this path together.


Monday, October 2, 2017

October 1, 2017 - Parable of the Two Sons

The parable that Jesus tells has sometimes been interpreted in an anti-Semitic way.  There have been many interpretations that boil down to, “The Jews are the first son, who says “Yes” but doesn’t go.  The Christians are the second who said “No” to the initial invitation but went and worked anyway.”  And the basic problem with that interpretation is that Jesus is telling this story within a Jewish context.  While he has encountered and ministered to a few non-Jewish people in the story, the bulk of the characters are Jewish.  The story had to have meaning to a Jewish audience.  So to say that this is a story that boils down to Jews are bad and Christians are good misses the mark and is lazy interpretation. 

                I think that this is a story about the way we deal with religion and faith and represents strains of thinking that you can find in any religion.  Within any religious tradition, you have people who think they have it figured out, who approach religion without any sense of humility, who look at other religions or differing ideas in their own religion and say, “I have it figured out so I have nothing to learn from that person, that tradition, that idea.”  These are people who may come to have important places within the religious body because they seem to know what they are talking about; they have strong convictions; they can tell you unequivocally what is right and what is wrong.  And sometimes in life it can be helpful to have someone who seems to know what he or she is talking about.  But that kind of conviction can lead to a very non-gospel-centered pride, because if I know unequivocally what is right, then people who are different or disagree have to be wrong.

                I think this is the attitude that Jesus criticizes and, as I said, this is an attitude that develops in any form of religion, a religion without humility, a religion without kindness, a religion that loves itself and forgets to love others (and it turns out that  the primary work for those who are called to God’s vineyard is loving others.)  There are Christians who hold this attitude.  Dare I say it, there are Lutheran Christians who hold this attitude.  It is the kind of attitude that hears this parable and always comes back, “Thank goodness I am the good guy in this story.”  Often it will think boastfully, “In fact, I am better than either son because I said ‘Yes’ and I went to the vineyard.”

                As I have been reading the past few parables, I keep thinking of variations on the theme of Jesus’ stories.  So I want suggest that there was a third brother in the story, a brother that will be familiar to anyone 40 and older.  There is brother who said, “Yes” and didn’t go.  There is the brother who said, “No,” and went anyway.  I think there is a brother who went to the vineyard, looked around, and forgot why he was there.  Somewhere on the path, some pressing idea or some distraction knocked plan out of his head and he forgot what he was supposed to do in the vineyard.  I know I am supposed to be here, but what am I supposed to be doing here again (and did I leave my keys here)?
                I believe that this is the situation that the church finds itself in today.  We know we are supposed to be doing something but we have kind of forgotten what it was.  So our answer has been to go to the vineyard and sing songs.  There is a long tradition of people singing songs while they work.  We just kind of minimize the work part and focus on the song part because songs make us feel warm inside.

                What I mean is, we have bought into the idea that the primary purpose of the church is to worship.  We measure our success by bodies in the pews and dollars in the collection plate because these are tangible things we can evaluate.  Now worship is important.  In fact, I think that worship gives us a mini-seminar on what salvation looks like and what life in Christ can look like every week.  Think about what we have in worship.  We confess and hear words of forgiveness; we listen to words of scripture and words of instruction; we sing songs of praise to God and, in our tradition, songs that are meant to teach us about faith; we share peace and are reconciled to one another; we offer gifts to God as an act of stewardship; we come to the table together and are fed by Jesus.  This time is a microcosm of salvation.  Salvation is the freedom of forgiveness and reconciliation; it is the joy of generosity; it is being fed and nourished together with all the saints;  it is the gift of listening and learning and deepening; it is having someone look you in the and offer you peace; it is the wonder and mystery of the love of God that leads us to praise.

                But worship is a little like our children going off to school.  Good education prepares them for what happens when the school day is over, after they cross the graduation stage.  And we want them to have good schools and we want education to be enjoyable but also meaningful and we want them to get beyond it.  Good education creates a desire for learning beyond the school room.  Good worship creates a desire to grow beyond Sunday morning, to let the love of God that we encounter here be part of our every day reality; to let the love of God be part of who we are, the decisions we make, the way we treat others; to let the love of God move beyond us, beyond these walls, this parcel of land and into the world.

                This space is not the vineyard that Jesus is talking about.  This worship is not the work that Jesus is calling us to do in the vineyard.  Jesus talks very little about worship.  He establishes some of our practices, but you can’t say that worship is a major theme of the gospel story, rather worship develops for the church as a way of supporting the work in the vineyard.  We sing the songs because they help us do the work, the work of love to be done in the vineyard that is out there.

                We come here to be reminded of the work that God has been doing in our own lives.  We come here to be reminded and celebrate that God has set us free from our mistakes, that we are already reconciled with the God who loves us deeply.  We come here to be reminded that salvation has already come to us; that abundant life is already in the midst of our day to day reality; that we are already complete and whole in the eyes of God.  We come here to be reminded that although we may look at ourselves and say, “This is part of me is not good and this part of me is embarrassing and this part of me is ugly,” God looks at us and says, “Beautiful.  If you want work on the weak spots, go ahead, but realize that you are beautiful and then go make something beautiful.”

                And reminded of all of those wonderful promises of faith, we go out to the vineyard.  And sometimes we have the best of intentions but never quite get there.  Sometimes we have no intention and the work of vineyard finds us.  And sometimes we get to the vineyard and forget what we are supposed to be doing.  And God continues to send us out even though we are not perfect even sometimes irresponsible, because working in the vineyard is part of the gift of salvation.  We have been declared beautiful so we can make something beautiful with this life.  We have been declared loveable so that we can be loving in the world.  The work of the vineyard is part of the gift, part of the way of salvation.  The work of the vineyard is our work as the church, the work of peace, the work of hope, the work that is good news.