Monday, December 18, 2017

December 17. 2017 - 3rd Sunday in Advent - Many Paths to Wonder

Over my 20 years of ministry I have approached the idea of discipleship a number of times.  I have done formal studies put out by the larger church that usually focus on traditional individual practices.  I have encouraged people to the simple actions of prayer and scripture-reading, hoping that those basic actions of discipleship would be transforming.

                What I have found in that time is that the idea of discipline is not that popular.  Sometimes people will try an experiment like contemplative prayer or reading a chapter of scripture each day, and, like many personal improvement programs, they will stumble.  They miss a day and then miss a week and soon a discipline becomes something they used to do or intend to do or will get back to down the line.

                Some traditions add a smidge of guilt to this process.  If you really love God, you will pray every day.  If you really love God you will read the scriptures.  The days when you miss the disciplines are days when you forget to love God.  Others will offer a carrot on a stick, saying that God rewards faithful people and faithful people read the Bible and pray every day.   Although such traditions see themselves in the Protestant heritage, much of what they are preaching is a rediscovery of the joy of legalism, the sigh of relief one has when you know you are doing the right thing because someone, a handpicked line of scripture, a preacher, or a church body, told you what to do.  But that sigh of relief is inevitably followed by the gasp of judgment upon those who do not carry out the disciplines, who fail to meet the standards, who don’t live a proper Christian life.

                I have come to believe that there is not a single Christian life, but there are Christian lives, shaped by the love of God in Christ, yet gifted in different ways, expressing that love in different ways.  For some people prayer is a gift and for others it is a struggle.  Some folks will quickly go deep into Bible study, others are satisfied by the Greatest Hits, a little Psalm 23, a little John 3:16 and I’ll trust more passionate people to work out the rest.  Now there is a danger here, because if you don’t have a deeper knowledge of the story it is easy to be led astray, told a story of separation and judgment, a story of self-righteousness and rejection.  As an example, I once briefly convinced an adult class that, “The lemon tree is pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the bitter fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat,” was a wise saying of Jesus rather than a Peter, Paul and Mary song.  In addition, many Christians believe that the Roman saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a scriptural saying that reflects Christian teaching.

                This diversity of Christian life is part of the reason that this year, when talking about discipleship, I am going to focus more on what I see as virtues of discipleship, the feelings and attitudes which practices of discipleship encourage, because not everyone is going to have the same reaction to every practice.  The virtue of awe and wonder is a great one for this because there are a variety of ways that different people experience awe, and what is a trigger for some will not be a trigger for others.  Last week we talked about rocks and everyone in worship got a souvenir rock to take home.  Some of you may have been impressed with talk of magma and massive amounts of geologic pressure and millions and millions of years in your hand.  You may have had a moment that pulled you outside of yourself and into the great immensity of things.  Others may have said, “Nice rock.”

                For me, I have often had people tell me how amazing an experience of worship has been.  They have been moved, touched, brought outside of themselves.  This has never been my personal experience of worship and I have worshiped in many different settings.  It can be awkward at big synod meetings or worship services where you can tell a lot of time and effort have been put into the worship and where I am looking around the room and can see that many people are experiencing something that I am not.  It’s just not how I respond to worship.  I would love to have that response, but it just doesn’t happen.  I am the kid who checked off the order of service as we worked through the bulletin every Sunday, waiting for the blessed words of  dismissal.  I think part of the reason God called me to preach is because God didn’t want another guy checking his watch through another pastor’s sermon because that is totally who I would be.  But when I am honored to stand before each one of you and place Christ’s body in your hand, as I see a community that greets the sacrament with joy and tears, I am aware of the presence of God in this place.  When I sit in silent prayer, letting things slow down, basking in the presence of God, I am drawn into the wonder that is the living God.   When I learn new things about the world, that there are species of octopus that will run on the sea floor on two of their tentacles (look up running octopus!), I find that fascinating, all these lives around us adapting changing, figuring out how to survive, amazing.

                It is important that each of us experiences this awe, this awareness of that there is something larger than ourselves.  In the Advent season, as we remember the ministry of John the Baptist, this seems to be what he was about, pointing people beyond himself to the one who is to come.  But if you have no sense that there is something beyond yourself, larger than yourself, if your world is so small you won’t know where to point.

                And our worlds have become much smaller.  Somehow with all the information at our disposal all the connections we are supposed have through social media, we are trapped by the technology that was supposed to free us.  How often do you check a phone or device, waiting for that self-gratifying chime or whistle telling that you that you are important and necessary?   And it turns out that many of our windows to a larger world operate with algorithms that tell us what we already wanted to hear and show us what we already wanted to find.  We don’t want to be surprised or challenged.  We want to be affirmed and comforted in what we already believe.

                But God will not and cannot be contained in our little worlds.  He is willing to enter them.  That’s the point of the Jesus story.  God was willing to enter our world, to walk among us as one of us.  But he walked among us with a powerful and challenging message, “Wake up and keep awake.  Wake up and pay attention.  Wake up and change direction, change the focus of your attention.  Wake up to the greatness of God.  Wake up to the presence of your neighbor.  Wake up to what is happening all around you.”  But this message is also why the Jesus story heads to the cross.  The cross represents an ultimate wake-up call; Jesus looks upon us and says, “Wake up to where the paths of selfishness lead, the paths of hatred lead, the paths of separation and superiority lead.”  And in the resurrection he calls to the faithful saying, “Wake up to where the paths of love lead; the paths of life lead; the paths of humility and kindness lead.”

                The virtue of awe and wonder is a virtue of waking up, drawn out of your day to day existence with its chimes and chirps and shiny objects, drawn toward a God whose love is much larger.  The challenge for the church today is to be the John the Baptists, to be the ones who point beyond ourselves toward that something larger, that immense love of God.  The temptation for the church is to get wrapped in the small world that happens in these walls.  We need to experience awe and wonder in our lives.  We need to wake up to the love, hope and joy that is all around us.  We need to wake up so that the world can be awake.  Wake up.  Pay attention.

December 10, 2017 - 2nd Sunday in Advent - Awe and Wonder

During Advent I am going to be reflecting on the virtue of awe and wonder, and inviting you to take part in different ways.  This is a piece of my work on our lives as disciples of Jesus, students of Jesus.  With that in mind, I encourage you to read the articles I have been posting on the capecodlutheran blog which will be supplementary material throughout the year.  As an introduction, let me say that I see the life of a disciple as one that develops certain virtues and attitudes that deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with our neighbors.  We don’t give an offering to make God happy or because God says so, we give to practice generosity and learn contentment.  We don’t pray because the Bible tells us so, we pray to grow in love and peace and compassion.  We don’t read scripture because that’s what real Christians do, but to grow in wisdom and wonder.

                So today I am going to start talking about awe and wonder, an idea that is spoken of in a number of ways: holy reverence, the fear of Lord.  It’s an idea that makes our culture uncomfortable because we often talk about the love of God.  We talk about God with us, in us.  I have met many people for whom prayer is a conversation with a best friend.  Yet again and again in the stories of scripture, people meet God or divine messengers and their first reaction is not joy but fear.  In a couple of weeks when we hear the Nativity story, we will remember how shepherds in the field encounter the glory of God and are terrified; how the first words of the divine message to them are, “Do not be afraid.” 

                The virtue of awe and wonder is realizing that while God is very near to you, God is not you and you are not God.  The apostle Peter pointed to this in our second reading when he wrote, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”  God is not on the same timeline as us.  Wonder is recognizing that this God we proclaim is beyond comprehension.  We may see aspects of God; as Luther put it, we may see masks of God, but the true God is beyond us and we only catch glimpses of the immensity, the power, the glory that is God.  The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing saw prayer as a practice of turning toward God who is hidden so that, every once in a while, you might catch a glimpse of the divine.

                So how do we cultivate this virtue?  Sometimes things happen outside that draw us out of ourselves.  We are surprised by awe and wonder.  You might get swept up in a beautiful piece of music.  You might marvel at the mountains, so large that you have to stop to take them in.  More recently we have figured out how to stimulate feelings of awe.  Musical theater does this.  Rock concerts do this.  Contemporary worship does this, a mixture of sight and sound that engulfs the senses. 

                Those are powerful moments.  Sometimes I think they can be a bit manipulative, but powerful nonetheless.  I want to suggest that we would do well to cultivate a sense of wonder in our daily lives; that wonder and awe don’t need to be reserved for special occasions or special settings.  Wonder and awe can be part of our common experience.  Much of it has to do with slowing down and paying attention.  I know that this is a hard sell, that we live in a culture that is all about, “Go, Go, Go” and “Do, Do, Do.”  I’ve heard you all talking about how things are crazy in December.  Who has time to get lost in the night sky?  Really this is perfect time to get lost in the night sky because we see a little too much of it starting at 4:00 p.m.  Who has time to pay close attention?  On the edge of our labyrinth there is a little garden bench.  Go and sit very still (dress warm).  Watch and listen and be amazed by all this life that is going on around you.  I know many of you have birdfeeders to attract songbirds.  Take 15 minutes and just look at what is happening.  God’s work of life and creation is going on around you.  It’s not on a screen.  It’s happening in real time!

                And here is why I think wonder and awe are a critical virtue for the church today.  It is very easy to take the gospel story for granted.  We are so used to hearing it and assuming everyone knows it.  The story can become a minor detail as we do the “important things” of the church:  the story is great but how is the building doing?  The story is nice but who’s going to serve on council this year?   I already know the story, I’m concerned about the flowers, or the windows, or the coffee, or the music, or the budget. 

But the story is wonderful.  The story is awesome, the story of how the eternal God who is and was and is to come came to dwell among us, not to mess around like some Roman deity, but to deepen who we are with God and who God is with us.  Jesus walked among us to show us the meaning of eternal life, died and rose to show us the reality of eternal life, still gathers us together as we walk the path that is eternal life.
                Each December, as we enter Advent we have the opportunity to marvel at that story.  We have the opportunity to stand with John at the River Jordan and prepare ourselves to receive and experience this story, this Jesus, this Word made flesh once again.  And at the same we as a culture have decided that this time is all about being busy and stressed and distracted.  The greatest gift that you can bring to the manger in this season is your undivided attention.  Take 10 minutes and offer them to God, read the Christmas story (Luke 2), a few times in the season, but don’t skim through it because you think you know it.  Pay attention to the words and the details, the furious search for shelter, the frightened shepherds, the glory of God filling the sky.  Savor it like the work of art that it is.  Close your eyes and imagine and let the wonder of it all overwhelm you.

                Awe and wonder keep us mindful of God, allow us to see the holy in our midst.  Awe and wonder slow us down, stop us in our tracks, get us to pay attention.  And the amazing thing is that the moment when you slow down and pay attention, when you truly pay attention to the wondrous nature of the love of God, that is the moment when you realize how much God has always been paying attention to you.

November 26, 2017 - Christ the King Sunday

The first reading and the gospel reading today may make us uncomfortable.  I have been talking for the past few weeks about how Jesus has a much more  prophetic voice in Matthew than in the other gospels, and this passage about the separation of the sheep and the goats continues that line of thought.  Again, Matthew’s Jesus is not the nice Jesus who loves you no matter what; he is the prophet who warns you to change your ways.  This reading is the culmination of a section about getting ready including the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents that we heard last week.  The Parable of the Bridesmaids ends with the foolish bridesmaids locked out of the wedding party.  The Parable of the Talents ends with the slave who buried his silver cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And then Jesus shares this image of the Son of Man on his throne, judging all the people, separating them as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, the sheep heading to the kingdom of God and the goats headed toward eternal fire.

                First of all, the whole concept of Jesus as judge makes the “Jesus loves me, this I know” part of us edgy.  We sing all these songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Just As I Am”  that reflect an unconditional love and here we have Jesus making conditions.  A few weeks ago we heard Paul write in Romans about how “neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation could separate from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”  And here we have Jesus saying, “I can separate you.  It’s my job.”  Luther would say that this is a passage that drives us to realize our need for Christ, because if I am measured by all the ways that I have helped or neglected others, loved or ignored others, I will fall short.  I will be a goat and can only be a sheep if Jesus chooses it.  I hear the passage and pray, “Lord, make me sheep in spite of my goatful ways.”

                And the standard that Jesus uses to make this separation should also make American Christians very uncomfortable.  I say American Christians because, especially since the rise of Billy Graham and the Evangelical movement since the 1950s, we have been shaped by style of faith that emphasizes personal piety and personal devotions.  Many Christians see Christianity primarily about a personal journey of faith shaped by personal practices such as worship, prayer and study along with the avoidance of various vices.  To be clear, I am not knocking these kinds of practices and, in fact, as my discussion of discipleship goes deeper, I am going to challenge you to rediscover or expand on some of those practices.  But note, the Son of Man on his throne says nothing about how many Sundays you went to church.  He says nothing about smoking, drinking or gambling.  He says nothing about prayer times or Bible readings or fellowship dinners.  How did you care for the hungry, the thirsty and the one in poverty?  How did you care for the sick and the imprisoned?

                There is a pendulum in just about all religions between personal devotion and the love of neighbor.  Is the good news primarily about leading people to a personal relationship with Jesus or is the good news primarily about spreading the kingdom of God through acts of kindness and compassion?  Ideally, there should a both/and answer to that question.  Personal acts of devotion will hopefully feed and support outward acts of devotion.  But historically, we human beings have a hard time sitting in the middle ground of things.  We tend to get pushed off-center by those holding more extreme views.  So the church goes through these periods where we focus on one side, the more inward sense of faith and on the other side the more outward sense of faith.  And both sides can find scripture texts and stories of Jesus that bolster their position.  Several times Jesus wanders off to be alone and pray.  In the Sermon on the Mount when he instructs people to pray he says, “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”  On the other hand we have many stories of Jesus carrying out actions of kindness and compassion, embracing the stranger, the sick and the excluded and saying, “Go and do likewise.”

                When Jesus speaks as a prophet, and when the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures were speaking, they were often speaking about and criticizing a religion that was overly focused on personal piety to the exclusion of outward acts of faith.   The Hebrew prophets critiqued a vision that says the way to God’s heart is through worship, religious sacrifices and personal righteousness and cleanliness.  The prophets  responded that the way to God’s heart is through acts of justice and caring for those in need. 

                When Jesus offers his image of the Son of Man separating the sheep from the goats, I believe that he was making a similar critique especially toward the popular religion of the Pharisees that often became overly focused on personal devotion and keeping one’s self clean.  The Pharisees, especially as they are portrayed in the New Testament, saw hunger and poverty as signs of poor choices and consequences of sin.  The Pharisees saw sick people and poor people as people to be avoided as unclean or unfaithful.  Jesus sees hunger, illness and poverty as the opportunity to share the love of God, the opportunity to encounter the living God in those in need.

                This passage from Matthew should make us think about what Christian faith means and what we as the church might be doing in the world.  It also might challenge us as we look for meaning as the church.  As congregations have tried to figure out how to redefine themselves in the current era, one that in the United States has been shaped by decline, the most common fix has been to throw worship at the problem.  If we can just get our worship more engaging, doubling down on traditional or contemporary, then we can turn things around.  Part of this is that we still measure the life of the church by the numbers in worship.  Christ the King on his throne, separating the sheep from the goats, doesn’t seem to be making the same calculation.  The measurement here is very different from the measurement of donations and average worship attendance to which we are accustomed; those numbers don’t even enter the discussion.

                The image of the Son of Man on his throne is the crowning image in a series of parables.  As such, it is a metaphor not intended as a literal discussion of final judgment.  It is intended to make you uncomfortable as it would have made Jesus’ original audience uncomfortable.  They would not have heard this and said, “Yeah! I’m a sheep.”  They would have heard this and said, “I might be a goat in this story.”    The point of the story is to remind you that the priorities of the kingdom of God are radically different than the priorities of humanity, 2000 years ago and today.   The point of the story is that if you want to find God, stop looking in church buildings and ancient texts and start looking in the world, especially in the eyes of those in need.

                I want to end with my Lutheran theological disclaimer.   This could easily turn into a story that affirms that ultimately good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  Yet we stand on the promise of grace, the promise that we sing about in those favorite hymns, the promise Paul pointed to when he said nothing could separate us.  The good news is that in Christ we have been declared sheep in spite of looking a lot like goats.  And because we have declared sheep, we are free to try to act like sheep, spreading the love of God in the world, caring for all in need.   We are free to do it in spite of our history as goats and in spite of the fact that we will act like goats periodically.  Saint, although sinner.  Sheep, although goat.  That is who we are in Christ.