Wednesday, February 21, 2018

February 11, 2018 - Transfiguration

There is a conflict between how the church lives and what the church says.  Part of the reason the church is often charged with hypocrisy.  We say, often without thinking, things like, “God’s love is for everybody.”  We justify that with a passage like the Great Commission at the end of Matthew where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”  The love of God is for everyone.

                But if we think about it, we will end up adding some exceptions to the statement that God’s love is for everyone, maybe based on behavior, maybe based on discomfort.  If we look at how the church has formed and how it has reached out there are sometimes implicit statements about who we accept made by the way we live.  I have told story of my time in the Slovak Zion Synod, a small non-geographical synod of the ELCA, made of congregations of Slovak heritage.  They were small enough that synod assembly was just held at one of the larger church buildings in the synod, so not just sitting for hours of meetings, but sitting in pews for hours of meetings.  In such a situation I have been known to exert my Christian freedom from the law and get up and walk out for a little bit.  So I was in New Jersey and walked out of the Slovak church into what had clearly become an Hispanic neighborhood.  The Slovak-heritage members of the congregation had mostly moved out of the neighborhood and drove by the Spanish-speaking casas y mercados to have a service in Slovak.  So the implicit message was God’s love is for everyone but not exactly for everyone in this neighborhood.  Go around the ELCA and you can find churches that have similar stories. 

                My internship congregation was founded by Swedes working the textile factories in Lowell.  In the early 1900s, they were approached by a group of German immigrants who wondered if they might worship in English so that all could take part.  I read the letter from the president of the church who insisted that the Swedes should continue to worship in the true Lutheran language; the German should start their own community.

                My point is that as much as the gospel pushes us to share the love of God with all people, we still have a sense of insiders and outsiders, those who belong and those who do not.  We are a community that claims to welcome all people and at the same time we are a membership organization.  As soon as you have people formally join a community as members you have people who belong a little bit more than everybody else.

                I think this is a natural human impulse, we tend to surround ourselves with people who already a little bit like us, with whom we have something in common, but it also something that gets justified by a misunderstanding of the gospel story .  In the gospel there are definitely some people who are a little closer to Jesus in the narrative, the Twelve.   And among the Twelve you have Peter and James and John who seem even a bit closer,  who get to see this amazing moment of transfiguration, the encounter with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop, and then are told to hold it close, keep it secret until the right time.

                You have Paul in the reading to the Corinthians, talking about the gospel as veiled, acknowledging that some people can hear the story, encounter the gospel and have no reaction.  So the gospel is for everyone, but the shiny objects of this world can blind us from seeing it.  The scales have to fall from our eyes, probably every day.

                It wasn’t that Jesus was trying to create a secret society, God’s special friends, those who get it right.  It was more that Jesus was modeling a specific way of sharing this good news.  He gathered a group around himself and he taught them and lived with them and walked with them.  That is how they learned the good news, through a relationship built over time.  He didn’t just give them a speech or offer them a pamphlet, as though the gospel can be learned from an instruction manual.  All through the story, through the teaching and the healing and the feeding, through the betrayal and the denial and suffering, through the cross and the death and empty tomb, he was showing them the life that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God.

                And if you read the scriptures and get into the book of Acts, you hear what happens next, those twelve are sent to do the same thing, to start communities that live the life that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God.  He didn’t send them out with catechisms and creeds.  He sent them out with stories and with acts of love and acts of sacrifice.  He sent them with the good news that the gospel is for everyone, not to start closed communities, holy members-only clubs, bastions of cultural religion.  He sent them out even though, as Paul discovered, not everyone would respond positively to that good news, a good news that challenges the powers that be, that questions the market economy, that ignores social status and deplores racial bias.

                And you thought you were just going to church, but you have stepped into the stream of God’s love that is the gospel.  You are on the path that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God.  Do we always get it right?  Of course not.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of least racially diverse Christian traditions in the United States.  Now we can blame that on our heritage, most churches begun by Northern Europeans, but only for so long.  The Swedish neighborhoods are no longer Swedish, but still can’t figure out why no one gets excited by the Santa Lucia festival.  Somewhere along the way we lost that outward view.  Many of the original immigrant communities had it.  New people would come into the area and the church would reach out, it’s just that often those new people shared the same cultural heritage, moving into specific ethnic communities.  We need to rediscover that outward sense of church, that the gospel invites into community with Jesus so that we can turn it back outward.  If God’s love is for everyone, then everyone already belongs, they just don’t know it yet.  It’s our job as the church to keep reminding everybody that they belong.

                So we will respond to this idea with our hymn.  I have talked to a few people who have a love/hate relationship with this following hymn, “All Are Welcome.”  They love the idea of the song, but they also know that it is not quite true, whether our lack of diversity or people glaring at children for being children.  We sing of an ideal that in practice we haven’t realized yet.  And we need to sing it with a humility that recognizes that fact.  We are not singing “All Are Welcome” because we have the welcoming thing down.  We sing it because it is where Christ is calling us to be, “ a house where love can dwell and all can safely live.” 

As I said at the beginning of our discussions on love, we are disciples learning to love, learning to lean on God as the source of love.  We probably won’t truly understand the nature of love until the end of things, but we can glimpse it in this place, in the gospel story, in the love of Christ.  So we sing of a place that is not where we are yet, but where God is calling us and leading us to be, a place where all are welcome.

February 4, 2018 - Love and Healing

As human beings, there are a lot of things that can go wrong.  The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has wondered about the existence of a benevolent God because he looks to the heavens and does not see a benevolent universe.  He looks out and sees many things that could destroy us in short order:  black holes, solar flares, asteroids, and the cycle of a star’s life, our sun eventually becoming a red giant that will engulf the planet Earth.  As people of faith we might argue, “Well, here we are anyway,” but the point is there is a lot that can very wrong, very quickly.

                We know this on an individual scale as well.  We get sick.  We lose ability as we age.  We have bad luck or lost opportunities.  We make bad choices and have to live with the consequences.  There is a lot that can go wrong.  Some of it is our fault, but much of it is simply what happens in life.  We get older.  We get sick.  We are human.

                Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to mitigate some of those issues.  In April I am going to be talking about stewardship and one of things I will talk about is stewardship of the body.  This body is part of being human, a gift from God and we are called to care for it.  They work best when they are used, so take a walk if you can.  Try to stay flexible.  Try to maintain some muscle.  Do what your doctor tells you to do.  Eat less sugar and more fruits and veggies.  Most of this is common knowledge, but one of things I will talk about when get there is that such actions can be acts of discipleship, part of our stewardship, caring for the gift of the body.

                But even if you maintain a perfectly balanced diet, do yoga and pilates and run marathons, you will still age.  You will get sick.  You will not become sixteen again.   That is not your fault.  That is the nature of life.  Now there may be some things that come as a consequence of past behavior.  If you have smoked forever and now have lung problems you can probably make a connection (though I know some of you were encouraged to smoke, given cigarettes in your field rations).  But the broader point I am making is that aging and illness are consequences of being alive.

                I say this because often when we talk about illness, there is this “What did I do to deserve this?” that wells up inside of us.  If there is a benevolent God who loves me, how is that I got the flu, or bad knees, or cancer?  We hear stories of healing in the Bible and wonder why it doesn’t happen to us.  Why won’t Jesus cure my arthritis or take away my migraines or let me run like a teenager again? 

                When we do the healing service, I am not here to sell you a bill of goods.  There is a long tradition of faith healers who blame the sick for their failure to heal.  If you truly believed this would work.  If you truly believed, you would stand up from your wheelchairs and throw away your walkers.  So now not only are you sick but you are also unfaithful and that is why you are sick.  That is not good news!

                I think the primary power of a healing service is to remind us of the constant nature of the love of God.  The power of God’s love is healing.  It may not often manifest itself in the sudden end of an illness or the sudden return of lost ability.  Yet it is healing nonetheless, allowing us to be reconciled with who we are and where we are and how old we are still embraced in that love.  It is good news that the love of God is constant, sustaining us through all of these moments, giving us the strength to endure, giving us the power to hope.  Remember the greatest sign of God’s love is not in Christ’s acts of healing, but in Christ’s participating in human suffering and death.  The healing stories are a reminder that God is with us in midst of all the things that can go wrong.

                So I invite you to come forward and know the love of God this day in the ancient rite of prayers and anointing for healing.  I am not here to do a magic show.  I am here to remind you that the love of God is in this place and in your life whatever is happening.  The love of God is with us when we are well and when we are ill.  The love of God is a healing promise of life now and forever.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

January 28, 2018 - Love and Christian Community

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one the most important documents written for the church, especially for the church as it has manifested itself in American culture.  We are a culture that celebrates independence and individualism.  In a most non-Lutheran way, we are a culture that says, “Rules are fine for most people, but I don’t have to play be the rules.  I will make good decisions on my own.”  Just to be clear, Lutheran theology acknowledges our fallen reality, assuming that, left to our own devices, we will make self-serving and selfish decisions without regard to our neighbor.  It is only by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit that we can repent and change direction.

               And this very much describes what seems to be happening in Corinth when Paul writes his letter.  They are a congregation struggling with authority, unclear about who, if anyone, should be in charge.  In worship, people are talking over one another.  In the fellowship meal, some people are coming with baskets of food while others didn’t have much to eat and nobody thought it important to share.  This was the original congregation of people saying, “Nobody tells me what to do.”

                Part of this has to do with the city of Corinth itself.  Not only did you have the early division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, but Corinth was a major trade center, a meeting place of many different cultures, as well as some strong class divisions, daily laborers mixing with merchants mixing with businessowners.  And while they may have had the story of Jesus in common, those differences didn’t seem to mesh very well in the life of the church.  They have different attitudes about leadership, worship, fellowship and morality.  Some think they are more important than others, central to the life of the church.  “If it weren’t for me this church would be nothing and nowhere.”

                So it is not surprising that much of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians revolves around the idea that is supposed to be at the heart of Christian community.  Love each other.  This is the letter from which we get the treatise on love that you hear at most every wedding.  “Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is not envious or boastful or rude.”  It wasn’t intended for weddings.  It was intended for a Christian community that couldn’t quite figure out the meaning of love.  It seems like Paul started this church and left telling them to “Love each other.”  But he realized after hearing from them that they didn’t agree on what the nature of love would be.  Or maybe they knew what love meant as an idea but they certainly were having trouble putting it into practice.  For the most part Paul keeps his cool, but there are some veiled insults in the text.  He calls them babies not ready for solid food.  I wanted to feed you with meat, but I have to give you milk, because you are babies.  Grow up and love one another!

                This call to love and the description of what love looks like permeates the letter.  Today we heard what feels  like a somewhat obscure discussion of food sacrificed to idols, whether to eat it or not.  One of the ways ancient temples raised money, paid for their priests and buildings, was to sell some of the meat sacrificed to the god of the temple.  There was often a small stand to the side of the temple.  In ancient society, such meat was served as a way to honor one’s guests, a sense of holiness about the meal.  So the church was arguing about this practice.  On the one hand, as Paul points out, since idols are not real, the meat sacrificed to them would have no special significance.  It’s just meat.  So from this perspective you are free to consume it, because you know it isn’t magic meat.

                On the other hand, some new Christians, and especially gentile Christians who may have grown up acknowledging a multitude of gods, might be confused, might be led to think of Christianity as just another option among many.  So for their sake, Paul says, don’t eat it.  Theologically, it would be fine to eat it (no idol, no harm, no foul), but an ethic of love involves curtailing that freedom for the sake of someone else.   We are comfortable if love involves sharing food or helping somebody, but we are not so good if love involves restraining ourselves, denying ourselves something for the sake of somebody else.

                Sometimes I wonder if love in the Christian community is an unreasonable expectation.  In every congregation where I have served I have seen wonderful manifestations of love: people sharing, people visiting the sick, people helping each other.  But in every one of those congregations I have also seen failures to love: backbiting and blaming, gossiping and grumbling.  Because the church seeks to be tolerant and open, because we celebrate humility and kindness, we sometimes open ourselves to the behavior of bullies and let childish hubris go uncorrected. Is it reasonable to expect that this gathering, this mixture of age and ability, this assembly  of visions and dreams, of folks who want the church to move forward, and folks who want the church to live in the past and folks who want the church to just be there when they need support, that this gathering should love one another?

                Yet that is exactly what we are here to do.  We are here to be a place where people can learn to love.  We are here to be a place where the love of Christ is modeled and tested and refined.  There was a book by the author Parker Palmer that came out a couple decades ago that referred to the modern church as “The Company of Strangers.”  He noticed that there was a shift from congregations that were bound together by blood family relationships, even neighborhood, shared culture relationships, to congregations that were more regional and unrelated, strangers gathering together for worship and ministry.  It was changing the ways the congregations functioned, but was also an opportunity for learning to love people who were not like you, didn’t agree with you, didn’t necessarily have the same history, values and expectations as you.  This is much more like the situation that was happening in Corinth in the early church, a company of strangers learning to love.

                After worship today we will have our annual meeting and this is not only an opportunity to look back and look ahead but it is also an opportunity to love.  We have a lot to celebrate this year, and we can celebrate together in love.  We will have some challenges in the coming year and we can face those together in love.  We will have unexpected things happen. (let’s just say I know way more about septic systems this week than last) but we can bear those together in love.  Love does not always mean we will agree.  Love does not mean we shouldn’t engage in debate.  Love means that as we debate and discuss, we respect that we are all looking for what is best for the community but coming at it from different angles.  It means caring for the brother or sister in Christ who is right in front of you, recognizing that person as a precious child of God, even when you disagree.  It means turning and returning to the love of Christ in our midst and finding union in that love.  When love is the center of who we are and what we do, we are truly living in the kingdom of God.