Thursday, July 12, 2018

July 8 , 2018 - Compassion and Justice

I want to start by saying that, in general, I do not pick out the Bible texts  for Sunday mornings.  We, along with most Lutheran churches and several other denominations use the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings that covers large portions of the biblical text.  There are exceptions to the rule.  If there is a major event that happens nationally, a pastor is free to change the readings.  Many of us used alternative texts the Sunday after September 11, 2001.  If there is something unique going on in the life of the congregation, we might change the texts, as we have done when there have been funeral services on a Sunday morning.  The lectionary is a symbol of unity, the idea that many different congregations are hearing the same texts on Sunday morning.  The lectionary is a tool that we use, a convenient way of planning out the year, a tradition that challenges preachers to pay attention to more than the Bible’s greatest hits.

                On January 29, 2017, 9 days after President Trump was inaugurated, the text for that Sunday was a greatest hits passage.  It was the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.  Pastors everywhere read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for the will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  Now I have to admit here that I do not the sermons that followed this reading, but I did hear stories of pastors who were approached by angry congregants who said, “You picked that passage so you could criticize the president.”  In a good Lutheran understanding of preaching we punt and say, “That is the Holy Spirit at work.”  You hear the text.  You hear the preaching and you may walk away with a different message than I intended as I wrote it and that is what the Spirit does.  Somewhere between my mouth and your ear, the Holy Spirit swoops in.  So if you hear a criticism of idea you hold strongly, pay attention, because the Spirit may well be working on you. 

                I had a similar fear as I prepared for this morning, that people might hear Paul’s writing and find a political criticism of the president or might hear Jesus talking about welcome and think about immigration policy.  To be clear, I did not choose these passages; they were chosen about 25 years ago before I was even ordained.  I did plan to speak a bit about justice this month as it relates to compassion, but I also chose that a few months ago before the zero-tolerance policy and family separation issues.

                But it is very hard to say nothing when there is such a glaring contrast between ideas about power and leadership.  It would disingenuous for me to talk about power shaped by weakness when a good portion of the country, a portion that overwhelmingly defines itself as Christian, is celebrating a leader who in turn celebrates power through strength.  Just this past week there was a whole series of rallies where he talking about claiming the name, “Elite.”  “The elite! Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president, and they didn’t.”  Now I know this is rally language and he is working the crowd and it is supposed to be funny.  But then I have to sit in my office and read Paul saying, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecution, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  We have to hear his message from God saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  I am not going to belabor the idea but it points to the fact that as Christians, especially Christian Americans, there is a tension between the celebration of power in strength: strong military, strong borders, strong economy, and the Christian message of power in weakness that is central to the image of the cross.  Now let the Holy Spirit work on you as you think about that.

            Then we have the gospel text where Jesus is rejected at a place that should be home, a text where Jesus sends his disciples into the world dependent on others for welcome, where he tells them that as they depart from places that do not welcome them they should shake the dust off their feet as a testimony to them.  Again it would be disingenuous of me to talk about welcoming while ignoring the elephant of immigration looming in the background.  What does it mean to welcome people in Christian love while recognizing the need for immigration laws and control of our borders?  Those ideas don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

            But I am not a lawmaker and you did not come here for my bright ideas about policy.  What I have been trying to say this morning is that as we encounter our Bible texts and our ideas of faith, we should be making connections with what is happening in the world.  This is why so many Christians, congregations and church bodies get involved with advocacy.  Compassion, that virtue where we turn out from ourselves and start paying attention to others, is a Christian virtue that may push us toward standing with those who suffer harm.  It is a virtue that pushes us to stand for and with those who are weak.

            The outcry about the family separation policy came from many corners of the Christian world, from liberal denominations from which you would expect protest to conservative evangelicals that in general support the current administration.  We are groups that disagree about a number of policy issues.  We disagree on many church and state issues.  We are groups that often disagree on the meaning of Christian faith itself.  And while we might not agree on the laws, we can agree that the separation policy was not good.  From a Christian perspective of standing with those who are weak, what was happening to children could neither be justified nor supported.  Compassion moved many to advocacy and protest.

            The call to justice, to identify with those who are poor, to advocate for those who are weak, is not a minor theme in scripture.  Again and again in the Hebrew scriptures we find variations on the theme of care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger.  In Zechariah God speaks and says, “Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or the poor.”  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus challenges us to see him in those who are poor, hungry and thirsty.  In fact, some will argue that the church lost its way from the moment it entered a building.  Jesus wanted to make disciples who shared his love for the world with the world, especially those in need.  Instead we hunker in our churches, try to keep our own noses clean and call it faith.

            Certainly there can be a both/and attitude toward the Christian life, but we can get so wrapped up in worship as the center of what we do that we forget that it is not something Jesus asks for.  In our congregation’s mission statement we talk about part of our mission as being centered in Christ.  This is not supposed to be the center rather it is supposed to be a centering moment, one that grounds us in the good news, reminds us of the constant support of Jesus, the solid rock on which we stand, and then sends us out.  I have described Sunday morning as similar to a rest area.  We travel for the week and we have a moment to stretch our legs, find some nourishment, take a deep breath and head back out on the journey.

            That journey is a journey of compassion and a journey of justice.  That doesn’t mean you need to be a hippie or a superhero.  Instead it means seeing every person as a child of God.  It means being aware when people, precious children of God, are not being treated as people but as inconveniences or less than human.  It means fighting the urge to categorize people in dismissive ways.

            So I am going to give you another homework assignment or challenge.  A colleague of mine who works with people who are homeless in Northampton makes a concerted effort to avoid homeless as a title, as in “the homeless” but uses it as a description.  She will refer to people who are homeless or a person experiencing homelessness.  She wants to get us thinking about people who are experiencing a condition rather than creating a general category.  So listen to the number of times that grouping language is used.  Immigrants.  Homeless.  Addicts.  The more we take personhood away, the easier it becomes to treat a group as less than human, less deserving of care and justice.  There are people who are immigrating.  There are people who are homeless.  There are people who are addicted.  There are people who are Democrats.  There are people who are Republicans.  And every one of those people is precious and loved by God.  This is where compassion begins and this is where the journey takes us.

July 1, 2018 - Compassion and Healing

A couple of years ago, an author named Kate Bowler published a book called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.  The book is an offshoot of the research she did for her doctoral dissertation and represents 8 years of studying the Christian prosperity movement.  The essence of the movement can be followed back to the teaching of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.  Faithful people are blessed by God and unfaithful people are punished by God in this lifetime.  The hard prosperity churches teach that health and wealth go to the faithful.  What she terms light prosperity churches is more a message of general blessing and success for the faithful.  There is not the same kind of promise of material wealth, just a general sense that life will be better, smoother when you are faithful.

                One of the things that Bowler encountered, especially in those churches that are shaped by a hard prosperity idea, is that they struggled to deal with illness.  She interviewed a woman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor who simply disappeared from the church over time.  For all the prayers and promises, the tumor didn’t go away.  Her condition got worse and as it did the people in the church became more distant.  There were two possibilities, either she had done something  very wrong and so deserved this illness or the prosperity message that they were invested in wasn’t necessarily true.  Rather than deal with that possibility, they distanced themselves from her.

                It will be interesting to see how things develop in the next twenty years or so, because the prosperity gospel tends to appeal to younger people.  When you are in your 20s or 30s you expect to be healthier.  If health is related to faith then you probably feel pretty faithful.  Yet as we age, we know that things go wrong.  Certainly there are some conditions that are preventable, that are linked to physical habits more than moral behaviors.  But you don’t have bad knees because you are a bad person. 

                We sometimes forget that we are creatures, that we share traits with most every other animal.  Many dogs get arthritis when they get older.  I recently read that because we are taking better care of our animals, dogs are living to older ages where they are more susceptible to developing cancer.  In fact some veterinarians estimate that over half of dogs over ten years old will have some form of cancer.  We don’t say that the dog gets cancer or arthritis because at one point he chewed up a slipper, or attacked the garbage or drank from the big, porcelain water bowl.  We say that it is an old dog and these things happen to old dogs.  And we look with compassion at our aging friend.

                Much of Jesus’ healing ministry also worked to take the stigma of moral failings and uncleanliness away from illness.  He often declares a forgiveness of sins and then heals the person, separating guilt from the illness itself.  The woman who touched Jesus today had been “suffering hemorrhages” (menstruating) for 12 years.  She would have been considered unclean in that time because contact with blood made you unclean.  Women were supposed to take a ritual bath after their cycle and then be declared clean, but this woman would never have been able to be declared clean in her society because the bleeding didn’t stop.  She touches Jesus and can tell that she is healed.  When Jesus speaks to her he doesn’t send her to be declared clean nor does he make that pronouncement.  He simply tells her, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

                This is where those health and wealth traditions will say, “Pay attention.  He says her faith made her well.”  And in the story of Jairus’ daughter he says, “Do not fear, only believe.”  It’s the lack of doubt that heals; faithful people will be healed. 

                Now it may be that I simply have had a different experience of healing in the church.  I’ve been doing healing services now and then for about 15 years.  I have never had someone pass out like happens in the Pentecostal church.  I have never had someone jump out of a wheelchair and do a jig.  But I have always had people who come to me later saying that they felt healed.  They may still be sick, but they felt a sense of healing, the realization of God’s compassion for them in their illness.

                Faithful people will be healed.  We can debate  about what that means.  But we also need to have a faith that acknowledges that faithful people will get older; that faithful people will have the standard problems of aging;  that faithful people will die.  Aging, illness and mortality are not signs that you did something wrong.  They are signs that you are part of God’s creation where things change and grow; where generations rise and fall.

                And yet as we participate in the rite of healing, we are also reminding ourselves of the promise of eternity.  In a sense, because of Jesus, whatever our problems may be, we are already healed.  Whatever our flaws may be, we are already whole.  Whatever our mistakes may be, we are already at peace.  Now let us enter into the rite of healing and remind ourselves of the love and compassion of our God.

Monday, July 9, 2018

June 24, 2018 - Compassionate Disagreement

I am going to take risk and wade into the political realm this morning.  I have had conversations with many of you and have overheard conversations around the congregation and can tell you that as a community we are not in agreement on the political situation in the United States.  Nobody’s calling anyone names or throwing things at one another which is a good thing, but we are smart enough that we don’t breach the subject too strongly.  Let’s talk about tourists and traffic.  We can agree that the traffic in the summer is a pain.

                But as I was thinking about the images of God in the whirlwind in Job and Jesus calming the storms in the gospel, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the chaotic feeling of much of what is happening in the political world.  In Hebrew culture, wind and water were symbols of chaos and disorder.  We talk about the Genesis 1 creation story as a story of creation from nothing, but really it is a story of God creating order out of chaos.  Before God starts speaking in the story there is something there.  “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.”  Then God brings light from the darkness.  Then God takes control of the waters so dry land can appear.  Part of the symbolic value of Jesus calming the storm hearkens back to that story.  He is the one who can bring order from chaos.  He is the one who can calm the storms as only God can do.

                Back to politics, President Trump seems to thrive on chaos.  Now I don’t mean that like he is some kind of Bond villain.  His style is to keep people guessing, going with the gut no matter what the experts say.  He likes being able to stir the pot with a Tweet.  It feels like he wants people to feel out of control because that is when he feels in control.  And for those who are a little more left-leaning, there are all these lines that we thought were uncrossable, that he jumps across and seems to emerge unscathed.  I don’t know how his campaign survived the Access Hollywood tape and yet there he is in the Oval Office.  What I think I have come to understand is that he represents an intentional shake-up, a reaction to the idea that the way things were for the past couple decades hasn’t worked for everybody.  I have said before, far worse than being told that your story is wrong is being told that your story is no longer interesting or relevant.  A portion of America, especially white America, decided to make things interesting again and now we are in this stormy swirl in the political world.

                Now when I say I’m going to talk about the political world I am not going to talk much about policy.  I have opinions.  I think that trickle-down economics is bunk because it never trickles down far enough.  That’s just good Lutheran theology of the human condition.  I think the separation of children and parents at the Mexican border is morally wrong.  I think that our current handling of the crisis may well end up on the same page of embarrassing policies as Japanese-American Internment camps during World War 2, things we thought were really necessary at the time, but ended up betraying the values of the country.  I wrote a letter to Jeff Sessions saying as much which I am sure was read by an intern somewhere, but the executive action came within three days of that letter so draw your own conclusions.

                Now that this is off my chest, what I really want to talk about is our need to talk and listen to one another with, you guessed it, compassion.  We have turned ourselves into a society of winners and losers.  The Republicans feel like winners for the moment.  The Democrats are hoping that in November they can be winners again.  Just the way that we consume information continues that divide.  We listen to news that supports our side of the argument.  Not only do we listen to news that is slanted toward a particular point of view but also news that slams the opposing point of view.  Imagine if Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley were behaving this way in the 1970s, shouting down their interviewees, throwing jabs at each other during newscasts.

                But their job was different.  America looked to the evening news to have things presented in a calm way, serious information presented in a serious manner.   But it seems like the definition of seriousness has changed.  It used to be seriousness was marked by a calm and measured attitude and today seriousness means zealous and passionate.  Today we come to the news expecting to see people who are riled up and expecting to be made upset ourselves.  We want to feel that sense of anger and righteous indignation that comes with being a winner surrounded by losers.  We want to see pundits talk over one another with their important arguments.  That’s how you know they are serious about them. 

                We as a society are looking for the storm and the chaos.  We are looking for things to be out of control.  I have a Facebook account that I don’t really like, but it is an easy way to get in touch with colleagues and the bishop thinks social media is the new printing press.  Yet not only has it become a means for spreading false stories and hate, it is also a means for people to spread anger in general.  I have a couple of friends I had to block simply because it seems all they do is look for and share stories to make other people angry.  Sometimes they are stories of injustice that may well be worth telling, but all I can do is be angry about them.  And why do I want to take a break to get angry during the day? 

                This is not to say that anger and righteous indignation are always wrong.  There are times when we need to be angry about things.  The prophets were angry.  Jesus got angry.  When I heard about the separation of families I got angry, because it didn’t seem right.  I was really angry when Sessions tried to legitimize the action by proof-texting Romans 13 about obedience to the ruling authority.  That is bad biblical scholarship and laziest use of scripture (Sorry, I am what I am).

                Sometimes anger is appropriate.  Sometimes we have to step into the storms of life, sometimes the storms of life creep up on us and we have bear it, but anger shouldn’t be our baseline emotion and standard of interaction.  Especially for us in the body of Christ, we should be modeling a different way of being in the world, one that can handle disagreement with respect, one that takes the time to listen as well as speak.

                If there is a baseline place where we might start our political conversations as Christians, it probably has to begin with every person being precious to God, that includes presidents and immigrants; that includes Muslims and atheists; that includes queer people and straight people and everybody in between; all of them precious to God.  If we were going to continue those political conversations and get into policy, from a Christian perspective, we would have to acknowledge Christ’s ethic of love and God’s concern about justice for the orphan, the widow and the stranger.  You may disagree with me, but I would challenge you to go home and read the prophets (especially Amos) and the gospels, and then we could have a conversation about how God feels for those in need, those who are overlooked, those whom it is easy to walk by or dismiss. 

                And we still might disagree on what is best but that is all right.  So long as we are looking at one another as precious children of God, that is all right.  The eyes of compassion begin there, that this person whom I disagree with is precious to God.  Through the eyes of compassion there are no winners or losers, only beautiful children of God hopefully trying to make something beautiful.

                So here is your homework.  I want you to go home and intentionally listen to someone you disagree with.  It is easy to find.  Listen to someone from the other team, but rather than doing that thing of ignoring what they say, preparing your response, allowing yourself to get worked up, take a breath and keep listening.  More importantly look at that person on the screen and recognize that this too is a child of God.  You may think that this child of God has it all wrong, but recognize that identity nonetheless.  Intentionally try to look at people through the eyes of compassion, the eyes through which Christ looks at you, the vision that calms the storms and offers peace.

June 17, 2018 - Compassion and the Reign of God

In the history of the United States, there have been a series of what have been known as religious Great Awakenings.  The first was in the colonial period (about 1730).  The 2nd began shortly after the independence of the nation (in the 1780s).  The Third Great Awakening rose up in the wake of the Civil War.  Some argue for a 4th Great Awakening beginning in the 1960s and continuing with the growth of the Evangelical movement.  These Great Awakenings were periods of religious enthusiasm and intense personal piety.  Often when you hear of fire and brimstone preaching, it is preachers who follow the Great Awakening pattern of convicting the sinner of his or her need for conversion and repentance coupled with a personal acceptance of Jesus.  These movements offer a corrective moment when the traditional church gets too wrapped up in rule-following and proper ritual observance.  These enthusiastic traditions will say that there is no right way, only right belief, only a right relationship with Christ.

                Now when I read the Bible, I know that I read it with Lutheran blinders, grace-colored spectacles.  I am drawn to the passages that speak of God’s action and God’s promises.  I marvel at the one-sided covenants that God offers to Abraham and Israel.  I embrace the good news that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I look at the Bible through the lens of grace which I know can blind me to other ways of seeing the text.

                There are other spectacles that people are wearing when they look at the text.  Evangelicals often use the phrase, “Inviting Jesus into your heart” a phrase that never appears in the Bible, but expresses an idea of personal acceptance.  It is not enough to be part of a Christian community, raised Lutheran, there needs to be a moment of personal acceptance and personal affirmation.  As a Baptist friend once told me, “It is true that God sets a banquet before you, but at some point you have to put that food in your mouth.”  The Lutheran response might be to say, “I don’t know exactly when I started eating, I just know that it is an awesome meal.”

                I started thinking about these ideas when I read the gospel text for this morning, fairly familiar parables about the growth of the kingdom of God, like a large plant growing from small seed.  One of the themes that was part of all of the Great Awakening movements in the United States was the idea that the spread of the kingdom of God was mostly about everybody making personal commitments to Jesus.  One theme in the 3rd Great Awakening in the 1800s was that the 2nd coming would happen when everybody in America personally accepted Christ.

                In the institutional church, we have a different take on the growth of the kingdom of God, but it seems to relate to participating in the institution.  We know the kingdom of God is growing when we see people in the pews on Sunday morning.  We can measure the spread of the Kingdom of God based on the numbers that pastors submit to synods every year.  If the churches are getting bigger, the reign of God is getting bigger. 

                In addition to my grace-colored spectacles, I also have this voice that speaks quietly in the background as I study scripture; as I pray for direction; as I sit in silence.  Just to be clear, in good biblical tradition I’m speaking metaphorically.  It is a voice that simply pokes and prods, asking, “What if we’re wrong?”  That is, when I read the Bible, especially the words of Jesus there is not a moment when he says, “Personally accept me as your Lord and Savior” nor is there a moment when he says, “Go to church on Sunday morning.”  To be clear, both traditions, evangelical and mainline, can point to scripture that support their ideas, but Jesus never explicitly says them.  So I often wonder if we are coming forward with offerings that Jesus never really asked for.  He accepts them with a smile in the way that parents accept squiggles from small children saying enthusiastically, “How brilliant you are!”

                Jesus’ vision for the world, for the kingdom of God, seems much better explained by the prophet Micah than either the mainline or the evangelical vision, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?”  It is laid out by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, when he speaks to the blessed and says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  It is spoken in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “
  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

                Jesus doesn’t demand our praise.   He doesn’t ask for a tithe or offering.  Instead he asks for changed lives, lives that are shaped by kindness and compassion.  Let me suggest that it doesn’t matter if churches, whatever brand or label, are growing if there is not a matching growth in compassion.  It doesn’t matter if the church is mega, mid-sized or mini, if it is not producing people who are marked by compassion and lovingkindness.  In our tradition, if we can sing our hymns, if we can hear scripture and listen to a sermon; if we are fed at the table of grace and then walk out and ignore the neighbor in need, or dismiss the service worker as beneath us, or deny the immigrant his or her basic humanity, we have missed the kingdom of God, it is still hidden from us. 

                So let me further suggest that measurement of the successful church is not found in attendance numbers or bank statements; it is found in the accumulation of compassion.  Now let me add a note of graceful clarity.  Talk of compassion is not about earning favor or gaining blessing from God.  Rather compassion and lovingkindness flow from God through us.  The more we consider the meaning of the good news, the compassion that God showed us in Jesus, the more we might feel moved to reflect that compassion to the world.  Last month I talked about the call to stewardship as a call to make something beautiful.  Compassion is beautiful, a beautiful offering to offer to a compassionate God.

                I will close by suggesting and inviting you to a practice, a practice encouraged by Saint Ignatius known as the daily examen.  This practice can be done twice a day, at noon and at the close of the day, or simply at the end of the day:

                Sit still.

Pay attention to God.

Run a video of your day in your mind.  Pay attention to moments when you were kind and moments when you could have been kinder.  Pay attention to how you were treated by others and how that felt.  This is not about being right or wrong, whatever happened, happened.  But just notice the place of compassion in your day.

Then offer tomorrow, or the next time period, to God with a hope that you will embody God’s compassion in it.  I challenge you to do this for a week.  Take some time each day to think about your own compassion in light of God’s compassion.  And keep in mind this isn’t about perfection but growth.  Because of Jesus, we are already perfect in the eyes of God.  God has been compassionate to us so that we can grow in compassion for others.

Friday, July 6, 2018

June 10, 2018 - Compassion as a Virtue

The gospel story for today ends with what would have been a dramatic and upsetting phrase.  Jesus ignores his family of origin who are standing outside the house and calling in, declaring, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  This would have been somewhat shocking, especially in a family-centered culture.  For most people, it was your blood relations, your heritage that connected you to the promise of Israel.  Even today, Orthodox Jews automatically consider you Jewish if your mother is Jewish. 

                Instead Jesus says, my family, my people, are the people who do the will of God.  And that leads to a broader question, “What is the will of God?”  I say it is a broad question because it depends who you ask.  Most people will say it involves some level of obedience or discipleship.  We hear that Adam and Eve story, hearing about the consequences of disobedience in the ancient origin story.  But whom or what do you obey?  Recently, you may have heard about Lousiana preacher and televangelist, Jesse Duplantis, who is trying to get his flock to donate $54 million to a purchase a private jet for his ministry.  He is one of many modern preachers who proclaim a gospel that says, “If you obey, you will be blessed with material wealth.”  Faithfulness and material wealth go hand in hand so successful preachers should be associated with the trappings of wealth.  And we sit in our little congregation and think how ridiculous that sounds, but it is a popular message.  Do the right things and God will bless you.  This would be Duplantis’ fourth private jet, the other three being purchased through the offerings of the people.  I highlight this in part to point out that what is popular in religion is not always faithful.  He is proclaiming something for people to obey, a similar message to the Pharisee in Jesus’ time, but it is not the gospel as I hear Jesus proclaim it.

                Others will say, God’s will is following the rules in the Bible.  Now I am trying to dismiss the Bible as a resource for faith.  We should know it.  We should actively explore it.  But there is a two-fold problem with seeing it as a rulebook.  First, we are always obeying an interpretation of scripture, an interpretation affected by which part you are reading, by one’s religious heritage, by what that interpreter might be trying to prove.  Duplantis will say that his desire for a jet is biblical.  He can point to scripture that talks about material blessings for the faithful.  He has to ignore a whole bunch of other stuff about humility, simplicity and “Woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation,” says Jesus.  When you start with a statement you want to prove, you can usually find something to prove it, you just have to ignore a bunch of other voices to do so.

                This leads to the second problem with saying that God’s will is following the rules in the Bible: the Bible often critiques itself.  This is why folks who are outside the Christian tradition who read the Bible will point to how contradictory the text is.  That is the way it is designed.  Many voices were included because they didn’t all agree.  They describe the vision of faith from different lenses.  The voices of the prophets offer a critique of the nation-building stories of Israel.  Jesus offers a critique of the Messianic tradition and the nature of kingship for Israel.  The wisdom literature like Ecclesiastes critiques everything with its message that “All is vanity.”  But all of this is also a byproduct of this collection of writings from different times and places, some books written when Israel is strong, some when it has been conquered.  The New Testament texts reflect times when the church was under persecution as well as times when the early church was expanding.

                I have been suggesting that there are themes in the scriptures that flow through the text.  I have talked about some of those over the past year:  Awe and wonder, love and lovingkindness, contentment, generosity.  Today I want to start talking about another theme that runs through the text: compassion.

                Compassion has to do with how we see other people around us.  It involves looking at the world in a new way.  Literally, compassion means to suffer with someone or experience something with someone.  Compassion is a beautiful and dangerous force.  It is the power of God that inspires us to look the person experiencing homelessness in the eye rather than briskly walking by.  It is the power of the Holy Spirit stirring within us, challenging us to listen to the stories of individuals rather than dismissing whole groups of people as beneath us.  It is the power of God that Jesus was talking about when he said ridiculous things like, “Love your enemies.”  It was also the power of God that allowed Jesus to redefine and expand the meaning of family, of welcome, of clean and unclean.

                This is Christ’s challenge to the church.  We make a big deal about being nice and friendly.  Those are good traits that I am not discouraging.  But if we pay attention to the gospel story, Jesus is not calling the church to be nice or friendly.  He calls the church to be compassionate, merciful, doing to others as we would want them to do to us. 

                Compassion can cause problems.  We are still dealing, as many mainline church bodies are dealing, with the divisions around the acceptance of same-sex relationships within the church.  Some will say that this part of a liberal agenda that defines the modern church.  I would argue that this debate, division, is a consequence of compassionate listening.  As the church we began to listen to stories of people who were rejected by the church.  We started listening to stories of same-sex couples who had been in relationships for years and were growing old together.  We started listening to the stories of families who dealt with the downward-spiral and eventual suicide of children who could not find acceptance.  We started listening to the stories of LGBTQ people whom we had dismissed and ignored as unclean.

                And this is power of compassion, it gets us to second-guess ourselves; to review our assumptions about people.  How far does the ethic of loving acceptance that Jesus models extend?  We are in the midst of trying to figure it out.  And in the midst of these kinds of debates we also have to have compassion for one another, because our own views on sexuality are often tied to our own stories: personal histories, friends and family members.  It is one thing to talk about a group in general.  The conversation changes when you realize that you are talking about someone’s child or parent or friend.

                So I am going to change things up a little bit this morning and walk you through an exercise on compassion.  This is a guided mediation and you may have experienced something like it before.  Some branches of the Buddhist tradition encourage intentional meditation on compassion.  Christian saints like Ignatius and John of Avila and Teresa of Avila encouraged Christians to use their imaginations as tools for growing in virtue.  So we are going to try to grow a little bit right now.

Meditation on Compassion
Slow deep breathes, paying attention to the feeling of breathing.  Each second is holy.  Each cycle of breathing in and out is holy.  God is in this place.

Gently set aside any judgements about how or what you are doing.

Compassion involves paying attention to this moment, what is happening in you and what is happening around you.  Compassion is paying attention to how you feel when others feel.

As you breath, let God’s Holy Spirit stir a sense of compassionate awareness within you.

Now direct that compassionate awareness towards someone you love, who is extremely close to you.  As you think of this dear person, let your compassion surround and embrace them.

Now direct your compassionate awareness towards someone you know, with whom you interact regularly.  As you think of this person, let your compassion surround and embrace them.

Now direct your compassionate awareness towards someone with whom you disagree or perhaps feel has treated you unfairly, someone you might rather avoid.  As you think of this difficult person, let your compassion, God’s compassion surround and embrace them.  If you feel anger or frustration, acknowledge it, do not judge it, just turn attention back toward that person in compassionate awareness.

Now imagine compassion as a stream flowing from you and over those three: the person you love, the person you know, the difficult person.  You are not the source of that well, but God is.  The source is endless.  Imagine that compassion flowing from you and beyond those three, flowing into the community and flowing into the world.

To make a few moments to marvel at God’s endless compassion.

Now as a community flowing with God’s compassion, let us open our eyes and sing together.

May 27, 2018 - The Holy Trinity

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the idea that God is three-in-one and one-in-three, is a defining idea for Christianity.  We don’t talk about it that much anymore outside of proclaiming the creeds of the church, creeds that were written in response to ancient debates about the Trinity.  I don’t think I have ever had someone ask for a lesson specifically on the Trinity, instead it is an idea that undergirds much of the way that most pastors preach and teach.

                Yet the Trinity is a measure of Christianity.  Different traditions may focus on different persons of the Trinity.  Our tradition is very much centered on Jesus, the 2nd person.  In general, our way of approaching the Bible is to look for what Jesus said or did and interpret the rest of the text in light of that teaching.  Pentecostal churches focus on the Holy Spirit as their primary focus of the Trinity.  More recently, some churches have been putting greater focus on God the Father/Creator as a means for dialogue with other religious traditions.  Yet although there may a greater emphasis or focus on a person of the Trinity, these traditions would still be in the realm of orthodox Christianity because that focus is supported by the three-in-one, one-in-three understanding.

                If a group rejects or denies that teaching, they would no longer be considered orthodox Christians.   Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, while they might be nice people, are not orthodox Christians because both groups reject the Trinity as a doctrine.  Now both groups will say that they are the real Christians and we are mistaken, but that is a different story.  While they come to different conclusions about the nature of God, their essential reason for rejecting the Trinity is the same, it is not found in the Bible.  They have a point.  The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are found in the scriptures, but there is no place where you can find the word, “Trinity” in scripture.  The doctrine of the Trinity comes from several places.  The radical unity of God in the Hebrew scriptures.  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.”  The relational language of Jesus in John’s gospel is also part of this, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  The doctrine of the Trinity is the church’s agreed upon interpretation of scriptural images of God.

                That being said, the Trinity is a mystery.  Three-in-one and one-in-three doesn’t make sense.  And when we try to make sense of it, we usually end up with an image that is not exactly the Trinity.  We usually end with some form of what is called modalism, which is kind of like God as a Transformer, (sometimes it’s a car and sometimes it’s a robot).  There is one God, but sometimes God comes to us as creator, sometimes God comes to us as Jesus, sometimes God comes to us as the Spirit.  That makes sense, but I remind you of a quote from Saint Augustine, “If you think you understand, it’s not God you are talking about.”  If it makes sense, it is probably not the Trinity.  When we use analogies we end up pointing toward the Trinity but the analogy is never a perfect explanation.  We either end up over-emphasizing the oneness of God or over-separating the persons.

                God is a mystery.  We are always pointing toward that mystery, but we don’t get to define it.  I believe that this is why groups like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a lot of Fundamentalist Christianities have been growing in popularity.  They proclaim to have definite knowledge of who God is and how everything works.  Usually it is based on biblical interpretation.  The Bible is very clear and says this…  Or if everything the Bible says is true and there can be no conflict, then it has to be this way.  That guy at Christ Lutheran is going to give a wishy-washy talk about mystery and grey areas, but we get it.  If you want to get it, come find us. 

                In our society today, that is an attractive message, to be definitely certain that you are in the right.  Whether you watch Fox News or whether you watch MSNBC (and I am not recommending either one), although their political views are at odds, their underlying message is the same.  We get it and the rest of the world doesn’t.  You are so smart for watching us because you are getting the real news, the real facts, the real knowledge.   You are on the right side of things.  Good for you for being on the right side and let’s all gasp and snort and and shake our heads in shock at the cluelessness of those on the other.

                So I will give you that wishy-washy talk about mystery and grey areas because that is where God belongs, in mystery.  This is a God who comes to Moses proclaiming that the divine identity is “I am who I am.”  This is a God who warned Israel that the holy was too awesome to be safely viewed.  I don’t understand God and I am glad that I don’t understand God because not understanding gives space for creativity and growth.  I am glad that I don’t understand God because it means that God is bigger, cannot be contained by my imagination.  I am glad I don’t understand God because it means that the story of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit are all the more miraculous and beautiful.  When Jesus speaks and says, “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…” that’s not just some bearded guy on a gold throne sending Jesus as a divine hug, it is the omnipresent power of the universe fixing itself in one specific place at one specific time so that we might be reminded and drawn back to the love that is God. It is so much bigger than I can understand, so all I can do is stand back in awe and praise the wonder of the story.

                The Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and sometimes we think that if we declare a mystery loud enough or frequently enough it will become less mysterious.  It doesn’t become less mysterious, we just learn to live in it.  Every day, we are surrounded by technology.  There are some very smart people who know how these things work but for most of us, we just know what they do.  Most people don’t know how a microwave oven works, we just know what it does.  We know when it stops working, frustrated that it is no longer doing what it is supposed to do.  Every day there are people who heat up leftovers in a microwave oven because that is what it is for.  That’s what it does.  It doesn’t mean they understand how it works.

                We know God, not because we understand God, but because of what we experience and how we have experienced it.  In light of what I have been preaching recently, I would say that the Trinity is simply a way of talking about the different ways we experience the generosity of God.  We look at the creation, and we experience the basic generosity of every breath of life that comes from God, the Father Almighty.  We come to the table and experience the generosity of being fed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.  We gather as a community and experience the generosity of God, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each of us.  When we encounter that generosity, are open to it, perhaps overwhelmed by it, washed in it in the waters of baptism, we are made beautiful, not perfect, not always making the best choices, not always able to get out of our own way, but beautiful.

                And if you have been paying any sort of attention for the past few weeks you know exactly where I’m going to go (and if not, wake up, people).  We have been made beautiful so we can make something beautiful.  We have been given the gift of breath by God the Father so we have the time and space to make something beautiful.  We have been given the story and the way and life of Jesus so we can know what beautiful looks like.  We have been given the Holy Spirit so that the source of all beauty might inside, so that we know that each of us in our own way, with our own gifts, has the ability to make something beautiful. 

                We do not know who God is or how God works, but we have seen God at work, experienced the Father , Son and Holy Spirit at work.  The Holy Trinity has made us beautiful so that we can make something beautiful.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

May 13, 2018 - Make Something Beautiful

The past few weeks I have been pursued by a phrase, three simple words: make something beautiful.  I worry that it sounds trite or perhaps too playful for serious church-folk.  Yet I have been trying to build a practical theology of stewardship that is more spiritual than the budget-based frustration of our tradition but more gracious than the “Bible tells me so” theology of the conservative traditions.  There has to be more to stewardship than blind obedience. Jesus didn’t reject the Sabbath itself, just a legalistic observance of the Sabbath that ignores its gift of freedom.  Grace says that we don’t have to be generous, but our faith is lacking something when we are not.  At the same time, there has to be more to stewardship than the pure practicality of meeting a budget.  In most of our scripture stories, in most of Western literature, generosity is something joyful, while miserly and miserable share the same root.

                And then I thought about the images we have had about bearing fruit.  In the reading from the gospel of John a couple of weeks ago, Jesus described himself as the vine and his followers as the branches and the job of the branch is to bear fruit.  I thought about the garden of Eden myth, where God puts the first human in the garden to till and keep it.  I remembered a phrase of one of my theology professors, that to be human is to be a “created co-creator.”  And I thought about what we can do with what we give.  One of the most neglected ideas in talk of stewardship is that money and time can do things; they make things happen.  We treat it as a dirty secret.  In my career I have been to many council and committee meetings where finally spending money almost felt like a failure, like we were doing something wrong.  I once spoke to a contractor who spoke about his dislike for fixing old churches because congregations never want to spend money, so when he shows up because something has gone very wrong, he can almost guarantee he will find other things that have failed, are about to fail or were fixed badly and no one likes to be the bearer of bad news.

                Yet we can do amazing things with a little time and generosity.  Last Sunday was beautiful.  A number of people mentioned to me about how it was a beautiful Sunday, some even saying we should do it every Sunday (perhaps forgetting that the occasion for last Sunday was the death of a member so that is not a sustainable model).  What you may have missed is that last Sunday was also a product of time and money.  Because of your financial giving, you have a pastor and minister of music in place to orchestrate some of this an event like Sunday.  You fund a custodian.  Chris was here on Friday morning cleaning up and downstairs.  Leading up to Sunday, I know Vicki and Ilona were here a few times setting things up.  I know on Friday afternoon other folks came for cleaning and preparation.   The choir was here early that Sunday morning to practice, giving a little extra time.  This is not even to mention the food which many people prepared, purchasing ingredients that will not register on a financial statement.  Together, as a community, we made something beautiful.  That is our job and that is what good stewardship can do.

                The problem with talking about making something beautiful is getting stuck on that word, “beautiful.”  Beauty tends to be subjective, in the eye of the beholder.  I may find something quite beautiful that someone else does not.  We have different tastes and cultural norms when it comes to things like art or music or poetry.  But I also think we have to go a bit deeper than art, music and poetry otherwise we will end up with the same kind of culture wars and divisions that have shaped discussions around worship for the past few decades.  Organ music is beautiful but electric guitars are not.  Ballet is beautiful but hip-hop is too common.  Hymnals are beautiful but video screens are ugly.  We will get caught in the weeds of preference and miss the deeper meaning and purpose of beauty.

                As I define it, in the context of Christian stewardship, beauty is that which points us to the true meaning of Beauty (Beauty with a capital B), namely God.  God is the source of all things beautiful.  God is beauty beyond beauty.  And we live in a world where many voices try to convince us that what is ugly is beautiful, that what is destructive is beautiful, that what is hateful is beautiful.  We live in a world that looks for beauty in gold-plated bathrooms, that finds beauty in violent rage and well-placed insults, that finds beauty and purity in the clear lines of division.

                Our call to stewardship is a calling to make something beautiful, something that reminds the world of the true nature of beauty.  Love is beautiful.  Community is beautiful.  Peace is beautiful.  Creation is beautiful.  Kindness is beautiful.  Shalom, that Hebrew concept of being whole and complete, is beautiful.  These things are beautiful because they reflect who God is, what God seems to want, what God hopes for humanity.

                But there is another aspect of beauty that we need to embrace as the church: with the exception of God, beauty is a moment and not a constant.  One the great Christian mystics described our experience of God as though looking at God behind a cloud of unknowing.  We never see God clearly, but now and again, if we pay attention, the cloud breaks and we glimpse the beauty of the divine.  We experience temporary moments of beauty in this life.  Last Sunday, we had a glimpse of the beautiful as we gathered together.   People walked away with a sense that something special had happened.  It was a beautiful moment, but only a moment.

                This is true in our own lives, in the passing seasons, in the growth of children.  The daffodils bloom and then wither.  The moon waxes and wanes, beautiful but never the same.  The cute child becomes the awkward teen.

Yet as the church we act as though beauty should be codified and canonized, our buildings permanent fixtures, our memorials eternal tributes.  Much of our stewardship goes into preservation, keeping things as they are or renewing what they were.  So much so that we often end up pointing to ourselves rather than pointing beyond ourselves.  Now don’t freak out because I am not making some kind of prophetic proclamation.  We are not meant to be here forever.  Organizations are mortal just as people are mortal.  Again, I am not putting a timeline on that, just saying that we are temporary.  We are not meant to be here forever, but we are meant to be beautiful while we are here.  If all we are doing is maintaining what we have we are not doing our job.  We are missing out on this glorious calling to make something beautiful.

And I know some of you will still hear this and say, “But I’m not an artist.  I’m not a musician.  I’m not a creative person.”  Remember this is not primarily about making artwork but rather beautiful acts of lovingkindness, beautiful gatherings of loving community, beautiful gifts of sharing and welcoming and honoring others.  Make a beautiful moment.

So here is my challenge to you.  Using the gifts you have, the talents, the money, the possessions you have, how can you make something beautiful?  Take that home and think about it.  And then join me in discussion as we think about how we can make something beautiful together.  How can we show the beauty that is God?  How can we poke through the cloud and let others glimpse God at work.  How can we be good stewards and make something beautiful?

May 6, 2018 - Funeral Sermon for Hilda Gibson

One of the challenges of this kind of service, where we are celebrating our normal Sunday worship as well as remembering someone who has died is that people may be here for different reasons.  Some folks might be visiting, expecting a normal Sunday service.  Some members of the congregation who joined recently did not know Hilda as she was in a nursing home for quite a while.  Some of you may be here only because you knew Hilda and perhaps are feeling like you have been roped into Sunday worship as well (so keep it short and to the point pastor).  Welcome all of you, for whatever reason you are here.  Welcome to the Easter season.  Welcome to the celebration of resurrection and new life.  Welcome in the name of Christ.

                Now concerning what to call this service for Hilda.  I received a few awkward phone calls last week of people wanting information about the service while trying not to refer to the service as a funeral or memorial service because that’s not what Hilda’s family was calling it.  I know that those terms can feel depressing or sad.  And often our culture doesn’t like to deal with depressing or sad.  We want to skip to the celebration.  We want to have our Easter without Good Friday, our empty tomb without the cross.  So let me say that it is all right to feel how you feel right now.  For me, Hilda’s death has stirred up mixed emotions.  I am sad because death is sad.  Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus even though he would bring him back to life.   As I look out on the row that used to have Polly and Hilda and Betty, as I think of the diminutive lady who was not afraid to tell me how things should be, I am sad that I will not see her in that place again, just as she was sad as she came to realize she would not return to that pew, and I believe God accepts that feeling as an offering of praise.

                I am also grateful.  Hilda did not enjoy the past couple of years as her memory faded and connections became difficult.  She was always very kind to me, but for the past year and half I was always a stranger and, her family can tell you, she was very kind to strangers.  But she was also confused and frustrated, knowing that her past was increasingly out of her reach and expressed more than a few times that she didn’t know why she was still here, still waking up each morning, still taking medicine she didn’t know why she needed, still eating food that she didn’t know she wanted.  Not to mention a couple of falls, a broken arm and a phase where she was certain, absolutely certain, that the room she was in was not her real room, that the staff kept moving all her stuff to an imposter room while she was out.  It was a frustrating existence.  So I am grateful that the struggle is over, that she has left this life to fall into the promise of the resurrection, new life, restored life, whole life.  And I believe God accepts that feeling as an offering of praise.

                I am also happy because Hilda is alive in those promises.  I am happy because I know death has been conquered in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I am happy because Hilda was baptized in the name of Christ, a child of God.  I am happy because she is alive in the love of God.  And I believe God accepts that feeling as an offering of praise.  So whatever you feel this morning it is good.  If it is open and honest it is an offering of yourself that you bring to God.

                Now, as I said, some people are here for a normal Sunday service, so I I am going to talk a little bit about stewardship.  For those of you who are visiting, stewardship is my theme for the Easter season.  When I talk about stewardship, I am not simply talking about money, I am talking about using the gifts that God has given us: material things, abilities and talents, our seconds of life, our every breath.  The call to stewardship is to use those things that God has given and continue God’s work of creation, to make something beautiful.  Next week I will talk a little bit more about what that means, because I am not just talking about artwork or music or poetry, though they may be beautiful.  As I look out this morning; as I see the people who have gathered to pay their respects; as I think about Hilda and the friendships represented by that pew; as I see her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I see something beautiful.  Community is beautiful.  Love and friendship are beautiful.  I see the work of a good steward, maybe a little rough around the edges, but a good steward nonetheless.  Whether she knew it or not, whether she or those around her could see it or not, throughout her life Hilda was making something beautiful, and here it is at least in part.

                And all of us have been invited by God to make something beautiful of this life, in this world.  All of us have been empowered with gifts and abilities.  All of us have been set free in the story of Jesus to let go of our mistakes and try and try again, to let go of our failures and imperfections and try again to make something beautiful.

                Then at the end, we will encounter the true meaning of beauty, something that Hilda and those who have died before us are experiencing now, a union that the great mystics waited for, a love that is the source of all love, a life that is whole and complete in the arms of a loving God, a friendship with Christ, as Jesus describes it in the gospel story.

                That is where Hilda lives today and that is the true beauty to which the beautiful things we make in this lifetime are supposed to point.  Hilda is in the hands of a loving God today.  Whatever that means to you and however it makes you feel, know that this is where she belongs, whole and complete in the beautiful love of God.