Monday, November 20, 2017

November 19, 2017 - Parable of the Talents

The parable of the talents that Jesus tells today is not a story primarily about money.  I want to start with that disclaimer because in a season when many congregations are reflecting on financial stewardship, this parable is little bit on the nose.  You could hear a preacher break this story down into “This is how God wants us to deal with money.”  One of the challenges with a parable that involves money in the story is that we deal with money on a daily basis.  When Jesus tells stories about mustard seeds or weeds and wheat; when he tells stories about ancient wedding practices or ancient farming practices, we as moderns can say, “He’s not really talking about mustard seeds or weeds and wheat; he is talking about something larger.”  But we deal with money every day and we also have a cultural restriction that says we shouldn’t talk about money, that it is a sensitive subject.  So when we hear a parable like this, there is a part of our brains that says, defensively, “Jesus wants my money.”  (Now as we go on, I’m going to say that theologically, Jesus already owns your money, but we will get there in a minute).  Right now, I want to say that if this is a parable about money we really should be paying attention to how the servants are getting 100% returns on their investments because that’s pretty good.

                It also points to the fact that we are in the realm of metaphor and story.  The amounts which are entrusted to each servant are inflated.  If you were talking about modern money, each servant is entrusted with millions of dollars worth of silver.  The return is inflated.  You gave me 5 million dollars and here are 10 million dollars.  If your financial advisor were to suggest, “I know a way to double your money,” you might think it was a little sketchy.  And the punishment is inflated with Matthew’s refrain of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

                This is not a story about money.  Like most of the parables, this is a story about life and about that ever-popular theme in Matthew of being prepared, being ready.  It is also a story about God’s hopes for us.  Life is a gift from God.  Everything about life is a gift from God.  We proclaim that life is such a gracious and beautiful gift that God was willing to experience death so that we might have even deeper lives.  So every moment; every breath is a gracious gift from God.  When I say that to the children, everyone thinks it’s very cute, and we think about the possibilities; the exciting things they have yet to learn.  We envy about how their bodies still work, how they can stand up from the children’s time without a grunt or finding a handhold for a little boost, reflecting on our own lives and our own bodies.  How true were the words of Indiana Jones, “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage?”

                Yet even now, every moment is a gift.  We may have moments that we look back upon and say, “That time, that broken relationship, that illness, that pain was not a gift.”  I don’t have any easy answers for that, but there are many traditions that look at difficulties as moments for growth, moments that deepen our lives in God, moments that drive us to depend on Christ, and as such, in retrospect, they also can become gifts in the way that they have shaped who we are now.  The theologian John of the Cross describes the idea of going through the dark night of the soul in order to find union with God, and that dark night is a gift because it leads to God.

                I like using gift language, because it can inspire a sense of gratitude toward the giver, but the Christian vision is a bit more complicated.  If I give you a gift, I lose control of the object.  If I give you a painting, I can’t control whether you will hang it in an important place in your home, or whether it will go into your attic or closet, or whether you will regift it to someone else.  In Christianity the goal of discipleship is to move from simple gratitude for the gift to stewardship of the gift.  God’s hope for us is that we will use the gifts of our lives to grow deeper as individuals, to grow deeper in our love for God and to grow deeper in our love for all other human beings and all of creation.
                So you are not just the recipient of God’s grace but are also a steward of God’s grace.  God’s hope for us is that the gifts that we have received, all of those moments, those breaths, might be used to deepen our lives, our love for God, and our love for others.  Now it’s funny that I can talk about each second as a gift or each breath as a gift and it sounds kind of groovy, maybe gives you a warm feeling inside, maybe inspires you to think about how you use your time.  But if I say each dollar is a gracious gift, the shields go up.  I earned those dollars.  Stop talking about it.  That’s private.  Were you holding your breath when you earned them?  Were you using those gifts of time?  Each dollar is also a gift to be used to deepen our lives, our love for God, and our love for others.

                It’s all right to make a living, to clothe yourselves and feed yourselves.  It’s all right to save for your retirement or go on vacation now and then.  I’m going to be talking about the virtues of simplicity and contentment as we talk about discipleship, because they might also impact our stewardship.  The truth is, you can do some amazing things with those dollars that spread the good news and share the kingdom of God.  You can invest them in ways that don’t simply accumulate more dollars.  You can invest in the congregation.  The reality is, the more we have financially, the more we can do as a community: the better we can reach out, the more creative we can be in worship, the less we have to talk about money in terms of budget instead of talking about money in terms of stewardship.  You can invest in the work of the larger church, when our congregation gives to the New England synod (which then also gives to the work of the ELCA), we are supporting the ministries of Camp Calumet, World Hunger Appeal, new church startups, mission work around the world.  You can invest in the many organizations that are doing God’s work (whether or not they do it in the name of God): feeding hungry people, teaching literacy, housing the homeless, providing health care for veterans, providing companionship to senior citizens.   Those are investments that you can make with those dollars that are the gifts of a gracious God. 

                Now here is a secret, a connection that we have a hard time making.  God doesn’t want your money; God doesn’t need your money.  God is doing just fine.  God hopes that you will become generous people, not so that you can keep the lights on in a church.   Eventually, those lights will go out.  Like all things, they will pass.  God wants you to be generous people because generosity is part of the nature of the kingdom of God.  This gospel of grace we proclaim is a gospel of generosity.   God generously gives us life.  God gives us Jesus.  God gives us the Spirit.  If this is the gospel we proclaim, generosity should be a hallmark of God’s people. 

                The reason that our weekly ritual includes an offering is to train us in generosity.  It is to train us to let go.  You put it in the plate and it is not yours anymore.  We practice it a little bit here so that you can go out into the world and practice it out there.  So the world can see that there is joy in generosity, that the reign of God is a place of generosity, a place of sharing, a place of infinite grace.  We are the stewards of that grace, whether we are talk about time, or dollars, or food, or breaths.

                And I want to close with another disclaimer, because anytime we talk about giving, anytime we talk about acts of discipleship, it is tempting to turn the discussion into an if/then discussion of reward and punishment.  If you give, you will make God happy.  The prosperity gospel says, if you give, you will get more in return.  If you don’t give, then closing the church is your fault.  We don’t do these things to change how God feels about us.  God is already deeply in love with you and you cannot change it.  It’s a constant.  We do these things to change who we are in relationship to God.  We do them to change the world so the world is a little more like heaven.  We are the stewards of God’s grace, empowered to use what God has given us to change the world, and that in itself is also a gift of a loving God.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

November 12, 2017 - Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids

As we get into November, and then start a new church year in Advent.  We hear a number of messages about being ready, being prepared or being awake.  In the story of the 10 bridesmaids, Jesus uses language that hearkens back to wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs, the split between the wise and the foolish.  The author of Proverbs wrote:

                The crown of the wise is their wisdom, but folly is the garland of fools.
                Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.

                In Jesus’ story, the 5 wise bridesmaids are prepared for the groom.  The 5 foolish bridesmaids are not prepared when he is delayed.  Now some will poke holes at this story, noticing a kind of “mean girls” vibe.  What do you mean there is not enough oil to light the lamps for the groom to pass by?  How much luck do you think they will have knocking on the door of the oil merchant at midnight?  And who is this groomzilla who denies even knowing the women who spoiled his perfect procession?

                As I have said before, Matthew provides a Jesus who can make a bit uneasy because he is not the kind and gentle Jesus we like but the prophetic Jesus who challenges us.  He is not the Jesus who lovingly tells us that he doesn’t care about the oil in our lamps or the magic Jesus who makes more oil appear.  He is the Jesus who lovingly tells us to be prepared ahead of time.  He is the Jesus who lovingly tells us to examine ourselves.  A couple of years ago I used a phrase by a Buddhist teacher, Suzuki Roshi as a model for Christian life.  He told his students, “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.”  More than the other gospels, Matthew’s Jesus is the one who tells us we could use some improvement and inspires some discomfort by pointing out the places where we should look, the places in our lives we often would like to ignore.

                That being said, all of the gospels have this theme of uncertainty.  Be ready.  Get ready because you don’t know what life will bring.  I think more than any other time in my life, this feels like an era of uncertainty.  There is a palpable sense of anxiety that manifests itself in so many ways.  There is the unpredictability of terrorist attacks, innocents killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There is the unpredictability of white guys with semi-automatic weapons who settle their scores with mass shootings.  There is the undercurrent of violence against women, where men in positions of power use that power to objectify, to dominate, to fortify their egos by tearing down and taking advantage of others.

                So how is it that we as people of faith should prepare ourselves for the unpredictable?  How shall we respond to troubling stories that inspire fear?  A natural response would be to hide in our sanctuaries, though events In Texas remind us that even these walls are not impermeable.  A traditional response is to throw worship at it, have a vigil; light some candles; find some strength in gathered community.  It’s not a bad impulse, lighting a candle to spite the darkness, creating a space for people to encounter their immediate emotions, but it is an impulse that works best with one-time tragedies and unusual moments of pain.

                At some point we have to admit that we are no longer dealing with occasional tragedies and transgressions but rather with cultural issues.  The sexual harassment scandals that have been coming to light point to a culture of harassment rather than a few bad apples.  The increasing frequency of mass shootings point to a culture shaped by anger and violence and frustration rather than simply a couple of troubled individuals acting out.  Responding to an individual is fairly easy.  We could all condemn Harvey Weinstein and hope he faces the consequences of his actions.  Changing a culture where harassment is a norm, where disrespect is a norm, where acting out sexually or violently becomes a norm, is something different. 

The contemplative theologian Richard Rohr suggests that, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”  I suggest that this is where the church comes in; this is where the life of discipleship comes in.  You are going to be hearing me talk quite a bit about being disciples, students of Jesus, in the coming year because I think this is where the church can find meaningful renewal.  Because we have been set free in Christ to love and serve our neighbor; because we know we are supported by the love of God which is unwavering, we can show a culture that is quickly becoming more and more disrespectful and more and more hateful and more and more anxious, that there is a different way to live in this world.

                We can show the world what it means to disagree on some very serious issues and still be respectful, to listen to others without being dismissive, to take the risk of caring for others who are not like us.  We can show that there is true joy in serving, that there is hope in loving, that there is peace in kindness. 

                And for those of you who have the very natural response, a response that I share, of saying, “How will kindness help us when hate walks in carrying an AR-15?”  As I have said before, I do not believe that faith will protect us from the unexpected.  I am also not a big proponent of the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy, which I think is neither very scriptural nor helpful in tragedy.  There are many things that are simply out of our control, whether it is the actions of a violent and troubled person or the power of a hurricane.  The love of God in Christ is the solid place to stand in the midst of the unpredictable.  As Martin Luther wrote in “A Mighty Fortress is our God,  “though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.  The kingdom’s ours forever.”

                So when Jesus talks about being prepared and awake, I don’t think he means some kind of escapism, ready so that we can avoid trouble and tragedy.   I think we prepare ourselves as Christians by walking the path of discipleship, by regularly reminding ourselves that we are standing on a solid place in the midst of uncertainty and then living as though we were standing on a solid place in the midst of uncertainty.  It has long been said that the opposite of peace is not war, but fear.  We live in a society that is afraid and when people are afraid they are not in control; they become foolish, self-centered and impulsive.  We can be a community with a different message and a different vision, standing on the solidity of God’s love, sharing a message of good news through words and acts of kindness, love and peace; God’s wisdom for the world.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November 5, 2017 - All Saints' Sunday

Let me start by stating the obvious.  You are going to die.  Hopefully not in the next few minutes because that would awkward and a bit disruptive, but someday you are going to die.  You might say to me, “But pastor, we believe in eternal life.  Why would you talk about death?”  I also believe in eternal life, but it is life after death.  I checked it out, even if you go to church, tithe 10% of your income and do a good deed every day, you cannot stop the natural process of aging that leads to death.  You, yes, even you are going to die.

                I say this not to bum you out, but as an introduction to a sermon on All Saints’ Sunday, a day on which we celebrate and remember those who have died in faith, who are still a part of the body of Christ but no longer here in this life.  But first, I want to talk a little bit more about death and the reason I do has to do with a presentation I went to this past Tuesday.  I attended a meeting for clergy sponsored by the Conversation Project, which is a group that is simply trying to get people to talk about death with their families and anyone who will have a responsibility in caring for them.

                What struck me were a few statistics.  First, as some of you may remember, my father died suddenly about a year ago.  I didn’t realize how unusual that was.  It is estimated that, in the United States, only about 10% of population will experience a sudden death in the coming years.  The vast majority of people will succumb to some kind of chronic illness: cancer, heart disease, complications from diabetes.  The vast majority of people will go through a process of dying. 

The other statistic that struck me is that, while 90% of people think it is important to share your wishes about medical interventions and what constitutes quality of life for you, only about 17% of people surveyed had actually had that conversation with their loved ones.   It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have with your spouse or you children, but far better than leaving people to guess about what you might want when you are unable to communicate.  And this isn’t just planning your memorial service as some of you may have done, something that happens after you have died.  This is a conversation about what happens as you approach death.  So tell the people you love what constitutes a good death in your eyes.  Maybe you want family around you.  Maybe you want no one around you.  Maybe you want the calming strains of Chopin piano etudes.  Maybe you want the Rolling Stones rocking you to the great beyond.  No one will know this if you don’t tell them and then you will be stuck listening to the Easy Listening station that they play in my dentist’s office, which is supposed to be calming but is actually a little irritating.  Even worse, you might be stuck listening to the music that your grandkids think is calming which could be Justin Bieber.  (What a way to go!)

Especially as Christians, we should be able to have this kind of conversation because one of our fundamental beliefs is that death has been defeated.  Yes, you are going to die, but through Christ, death has become the gateway into eternity.  As Paul wrote, quoting Hebrew prophets, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  O death where is your victory? O death where is your sting?”  The process of dying may be frightening or troubling, but we proclaim that death is not the end.

The other benefit to having this kind of conversation where we acknowledge our mortality is that it also can make us reflective about how we live.  Those whom the church remembers as saints are remembered primarily for how they lived, how they lived the gospel, how they witnessed to God’s love and God’s good news through their words and actions.  You may have personal saints, people you remember who shared the faith and showed you the meaning of love.  Each new day becomes an opportunity to share that love, to let eternal life start now.

This is a path that could lead to some works righteous, if/then kind of thinking, “If you are good, God will bless you” , kind of thinking.  Traditionally, the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew are read on this Sunday as a model of the saintly life, the good life.  Lutheran thought about this is a bit more complicated because we have this idea of being saint and sinner at the same time.  We are saints because of God’s actions in Jesus and not because of great stuff that we have done and in spite of the not so great stuff we have done.

And yet Jesus offers us the words of the beatitudes as a gift, something to aspire toward.  When we think of saints with names like Francis and Mary and Teresa and Martin and Dietrich we think of people who often, not always, but often exemplified these words: the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the meek, the hungry for righteousness.  In these days of boastful politicians telling us of winners and losers, taking cheap shots at one another, these words suggest that there is a different and better way.

Again, it is tempting to get into if/then kind of thinking, reading each beatitude as a conditional statement.  If you are meek, then you will be blessed.  I prefer to think of them as a direct statements.  To be meek is to live a blessed and happy life.  To be a peacemaker is to be God’s blessing in the world.  To mourn, to have compassion for others, is to be a blessing in the world.  I imagine Jesus offering these words saying, “You’ve tried the rat race.  You’ve tried the life of winners and losers.  You’ve tried the life of acquisition of honor and money and stuff.  You may have found that it doesn’t work so well.  Short term gains, moments of pleasure as you get that new toy, but kind of empty in the long run.  Here is something else for you to try.  Here is another way.  Here is what it means to be blessed and a blessing.  Blessed are the poor in Spirit…”

So, you are going to die.  Sorry to bring it up again, but it’s important.  You are going to die, but right now you have this moment, this day, this life that is a gracious gift.   It’s not merely a prelude to what comes next, but a gift in and of itself.  You have the opportunity to be a blessing to this world.  You are already holy.  God took care of that in Jesus, now you can walk a holy walk.  Be compassionate.  Be merciful.  Be meek.  Be humble.  Be a peacemaker.  Hunger for righteousness.  Hunger for justice and do not fear those who will take potshots and cheap shots at your character for it. 

In our tradition we don’t ask the saints to intercede for us in heaven, rather we celebrate how those saints made this a life a little more like heaven .  You are God’s saints here and now.  Go and live like God’s saints here and now.

Monday, November 13, 2017

October 29, 2017 - 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Today, the Sunday closest to October 31, the church celebrates Reformation Day because according to tradition it was on the 31st that Luther posted his 95 Theses which began the debate that led to the Reformation movement.  This year is especially significant because it marks the 500th anniversary of that event.  But we can ask ourselves, as Luther does in the Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” 

                A couple of weeks ago I was invited to present at the United Methodist Soup for the Soul event and I talked about the Reformation.  My message to them is part of what I will share today, that we need to realize that the Reformation was more about ideas of God than practice, heritage or culture.  Now many of our practices grew out of those ideas of God, but removed from those ideas, they are just practices.  Being Lutheran is far more defined about how we think about God than the things we do in the name of Lutheranism.

                And if the measure of Lutheranism is how we think about God, there is likely a good portion of the congregation that will fail, and I will guess that 100% of the congregation will fail at some point this year.  Because when you ask many Lutherans about the nature of our relationship with God, they will still answer with some kind of conditional statement.  Although we officially proclaim that we are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ, many Lutherans when asked about faith, will respond a variation of, “If you do good works, you will go to heaven,” or, more recently, the popular evangelical, “If you live faithfully, God will reward you.”

                This makes sense, because conditional thinking is how most of our lives work.  If I do this, then there is a consequence, cause and effect.  Many common health issues are consequences of how we have lived in the past.  We can look back on our lives and say, “If I had made a different decision then, my life would look different now.”   It should not be surprising that when we think about God, we come to the same kinds of conclusions.  If I am good, God will reward me.  If I am bad, God will punish me.  And to make matters more complicated, we have voices in scripture who talk about life in this way.  This kind of thinking is very much what the Pharisees were teaching in Jesus’ time.  God rewards the righteous so let’s figure out how to be righteous.

                The concept of justification by grace through faith is in part a reflection of what happens when a cause and effect universe doesn’t work, when if/then conditionals have failed.  Jesus questions the idea that failure is a sign of God’s disfavor.  Paul writes at a time when faithful Christians are being punished specifically for being faithful.  Martin Luther writes at time when the cause and effect version of faith was being abused, with Johann Tetzel coming to Wittenberg to sell papal indulgences to rebuild Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome.  If you pay the church, God will reward you or at least punish you and your loved ones a little less.  For Luther the if/then statement of the church became impossible.  If you are good, if you are cleansed from sin by doing enough good works, then God will reward you, forgive you and save you.  Luther realized that he could never attain the “if” part of that statement, never do enough good works to make up for his sins/mistakes.  In reading Paul, he came to believe that only God, out of God’s pure goodness as witnessed in Jesus, could forgive, could make us righteous.

                The good news of grace is that the relationship between God and you has been taken care of.  It is solid.  You cannot break it.  You cannot turn God away or turn the love of God off.  This is good news and good news that the world needs.  It is good news for every person here today and good news for everyone in the community.

                Now 500 years later, while hopefully we all agree that it is good news, why do we seem to have such a hard time sharing it and why do people seem to have such a hard time hearing it?  First, we need to understand that this good news is a hard sell.  It is hard to sell something that cannot be sold.  As you look through Christian history, the popular forms of religion almost always become “If/then” kinds of religion.  If you do church, your life will be better.  If you are faithful, God will reward you.  If/then statements are a strong hook.  They make sense and, as I said before, 100% of this congregation will fail at holding a pure, grace-centered theology this year at some point because those kinds of statements make a lot more sense than what we proclaim.

                Instead, Lutheran thinking represents a paradigm-shift in religion.  At its heart, Lutheran faith is not about if/then kinds of doing or thinking.  It’s about an invitation to see the world, faith and God in a different way, with the vision of abundance, love and hope that Jesus shared.  We are more like conspiracy theorists, announcing that the world that God has made and intends is far different from world that you have been taught to believe in.  It is what happens when you realize that the relationship between you and God is solid and will not melt away.  It will always sustain you.

                The challenge with why we have such a hard time sharing the gospel I believe has to do with the aspects of that vision that we have emphasized.  My experience over the past couple of decades is that we focus on comfort.  The good news is comforting.  I have had the experience and I have had a number colleagues share the experience after a funeral being told by someone, “That was the best funeral I have ever been to.”  I believe that the reason people have that kind of reaction is most Lutheran preachers focus more on God’s relationship of love to the person than trying to say what a wonderful person he or she was.  Because of course we know that every person is a mixed bag (this is also a very Lutheran statement: saints and sinners at the same time).  But we proclaim with certainty that God loves that person, whether or not anyone else in the room does.  

                I think this is an important message but I also want to note over those decades many of the discussions I have heard within the church, within various committees, when we talk about worship or fellowship or other issues, we end up making decisions that keep us comforted and comfortable.  When we say, “I wish we sang the old hymns,” we are asking to be made comfortable, looking for comfort.   When we try to preserve old traditions and old dynamics simply because they are familiar, we are seeking comfort.  We are seeking stability but not in the gospel, rather in the organized church itself.  So again I say, we, good Lutherans, struggle to believe this good news that the relationship is solid.

                I suggest that we need consistently to remind ourselves of another aspect of the gospel, what Jesus mentioned today in the gospel lesson.  The good news is a message of freedom.  The good news sets us free.  When you realize that this relationship is solid, that the love of God does not disappear, it’s a liberating experience, every time you realize it (because we often forget).  When I was a teenager I once did a high ropes course with a camp group.  A high ropes course is basically an obstacle course that is 40 feet in the air.  You are connected to cables by mountaineering harnesses.   The obstacles are challenging:  walk across a wobbly ladder rung by rung, jump from one platform to the next, walk across a telephone pole, like a fat tightrope. 

Most of us were pretty timid until we fell for the first time.  Even though you have been given the safety talk, the first time you fall, your brain tells you that you are going to die, half a second of intense panic and fear, and then the cables and harness stop you and you take a deep breath and pull yourself back on the obstacle to try again.  Once you realize that the cables work and the harness works, you are able to try things that you would never attempt: leap, run, and swing on ropes 40 feet in the air.  I’ll give you that it helps to be thirteen and stupid, but the point is, when you feel secure, its sets you free to move in new directions.

When you know that the love of God is solid, what the rest of the world thinks of you ceases to matter.   You don’t have to prove yourself anymore.  The world ceases to be a competition of winners and losers.  You can stop trying to win because God has already won.  In Lutheran thought, we have been set free, so that we can be loving, so that we can be free to be living witnesses of the solid love of God in Christ.

As I said, we are conspiracy theorists, announcing that the world has been lying to everybody, that the real world is one of love, hope and joy.  And we can keep saying that until we are tired out and just want to come back and get comfortable.  The only way we prove our great theory is by living into it.  As we baptize Calvin this morning, we are living into the good news, because he is a baby and has no idea what we are doing or why an oddly dressed person will pour water on his head, but the love of God is solid, touching him, working through him even before he has any idea of how or why.  We live into the gospel,  living as though the world is one of love, hope and joy.  And not just for an hour once a week but every day and every moment we are living in that open secret world, living in a world where every person you encounter is loved intensely by God, living in a world where material things are just things, living in a world where every moment is a precious gift of love.

500 years ago Martin Luther didn’t wanted to divide the church.  He wanted it to rediscover itself, rediscover a gospel message that had been there from the beginning.   We are always in need of reform because that gospel message of grace is so easy to forget, so easy to doubt, so easy to ignore in favor of a simple if/then exchange.   But the love of God is not conditional, it is a constant reality that sets us free.

Now I was going to the sermon by hitting the last line of the gospel reading, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” and I realized that it is an if/then conditional statement.  But pay attention.  In popular if/then brands of religion, the “if” clause is dependent on you.  If you are good or live faithfully or do penance.   Jesus’ “if” clause is dependent on him.   If the Son makes you free.  We proclaim that he has already done it, this conditional is already 100% satisfied, which means that the “then” clause is also already true.  You are now and already free indeed.