Sunday, July 19, 2020

Year A, Pentecost 7, Romans 8.12-25

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
8I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
One of my deepest convictions is that within history there is an advancement, a progressive movement toward a greater good.
More than anything else, this is the reason I consider myself a “liberal”, though such labels are not always helpful.
Let’s just say that within our culture there is a divide.  That divide centers around the question “Do you believe that our best days are behind us, or ahead of us.”
There are some who look to the past and seek to preserve and reclaim that which they perceive to be great about it.
And others look to the future and the hope that we might advance as a people and a nation and become greater than we have ever been.
It is in this second sense that our founding Fathers wrote in the preamble to the Constitution:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The whole premise upon which our nation was founded as the great experiment of democracy, was that indeed, we could create “a more perfect union.”
Notice that it does not say, that we can create a “Perfect Union”.  Nope, can’t do that.  But we can work toward a more perfect union.
And so over the years we have striven to achieve this lofty goal of creating a better future than the past.
There is a tension though.  As much as we hope for a better future we need to be realistic that there will always be evil and hardships and challenges along the way.
That’s why Jesus told the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.  If you try to destroy evil, you will destroy the good as well.
In the face of this we hear words of hope from the Apostle Paul.
8I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
There are two basic hopes that sustain us as Christians:
                The first is that tomorrow might be a better day.
                And the second is that after all is said and done there awaits for us in heaven a glory beyond all others.
We are to keep these two things before us.  That in the face of the “sufferings of this present time” tomorrow might be a better day, and that in the end all suffering will be gone and all creation will be redeemed.
The sufferings of this present time—
When Paul wrote those words he likely was referring to the persecution that the early church was experiencing, especially the Christians in Rome to whom this letter was written.  Paul would eventually be martyred in Rome.  And yet for all the hardship he experienced he clung to the hope of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Throughout the ages hope has abounded in the face of suffering.
One thing that bears mentioning is that historians have told us is that one of the most powerful witnesses that the early Christians gave was in the context of the pandemic, the plague, that attacked the Roman Empire. 
Why most people fled, the Christians stayed behind and cared for the sick and the suffering, standing firm in their hope that this present suffering might be overcome both in this world and the next.
We live in uncertain times once again.
And faced with the suffering that is taking place in our world we are torn between longing to go back in time to a better place and situation or to move forward beyond this ‘present suffering’ to an even ‘more perfect’ day.
Covid 19 struck close to home for us on Wednesday. 
Our daughter-in-law tested positive, and though she is currently symptom free, as is our son, we worry.
That  being the case it is no longer an abstract reality.
Our son was scheduled to visit this weekend.  Had our daughter-in-law not been tested at work, we might all have been infected.  We dodged the bullet this time.
Not only that, but on Thursday I learned that one of the members of Point of Grace that also worships in our building tested positive.  Precautions have been taken, and so far no one else has been infected, but it points to the vulnerability we all share.
Fears abound.
With respect to COVID 19 we don’t know how bad it will get or how long it will last.
And individually we face other issues.
I had some symptoms develop over the last few weeks that left me dealing with my fears.  One of the blessings and curses of living in this age is that when you have some medical symptom you can google it and get all sorts of information.  It’s a blessing because you quickly can determine if it merits a doctor’s visit.  It’s a curse because you learn about everything that might be wrong and you end up fearing the worst.
In my case, further tests revealed that it was nothing to worry about at this time.
Other issues abound.
Murder hornets are in Washington State.
Global warming continues.
Racial tensions are unabated.
Some have said that it appears “Mother Nature” is mad, and you don’t want to mess with “Mom”.
The sufferings of this present time.
And the hope for tomorrow.
Again I will say, that our response to such suffering is twofold.
  1. We faithfully do what we can to create a better world for ourselves and others.
  2. And we live in hope that evil will not be the final word on our lives.
We pray.
And we ask God’s guidance.
But most importantly we trust that he will deliver us.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Year A, Pentecost 6, Romans 8:1-11, Freedom

Romans 8:1-11
1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
  9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Last week, I made a statement that some of the online community found controversial.
When I value my own freedom more than I value your life, it is because of the power of sin that is within me. 

Here is an irony.  Our devotion to our own personal freedoms is a slavery that can kill us.  When our personal liberties are our god, we are not free at all, but captive to our own sinful desires.
Freedom is an interesting concept, because in fact, it is an illusion.
We talk about freedom a lot in this country.  But it is not what we think it is.
When the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from England and established this country the people didn’t automatically become “free”, as in free from any government authority in their lives.
Freedom, pure freedom, doesn’t exist.
We are always under the law, the only question is what law we are under.
When our nation fought and won the Revolutionary War what that meant was not that the colonists were set free to do whatever they want, but that they could establish a new government, of the people, by the people, and for the people.  But there was a new government.
Free from one government to serve another.
Likewise, throughout history, whenever we have had to defend our freedom, it was not actually “freedom” we were defending, but independence.  World War II was fought to make sure that we were not conquered by Germany and Adolf Hitler but rather could remain an independent nation living under our own constitution and the laws that govern this land.  But we are bound by those laws.  We are not free.
The founding fathers, for example, declared “No taxation without representation.”  But there would be taxes to pay, and we pay them to this day.  It’s just those taxes are determined by our elected representatives.
Likewise, we live in a land of laws.  There is almost no aspect of our lives that is not regulated by some sort of law or another.  Even the food we put on our table is regulated by law.  I mean we can choose whether to have beef or chicken for supper, but there are regulations that govern how that beef or chicken are processed and distributed.
Likewise there are laws governing almost every aspect of our lives, in one way or another.
To be a citizen of this country is not to be free from all laws and mandates, but rather to choose to submit to them as “law abiding citizens”.  Right?
The alternative is anarchy, lawlessness, and chaos.
This is the thing about freedom.  We are set free from one thing, to live under another thing.
In fighting for our independence from England, we became free from the rule of the King of England, but bound to the rule of our new government. 
If I moved from here to Canada, I might be free from the reach of the laws in this country, but I would need to be subject to the laws in Canada.
The Apostle Paul has been speaking about our bondage.
In Romans Paul consistently lays out two options.
We are slaves to sin, death, and the devil.
Or we are slaves to righteousness, life, and God.
In today’s lesson this theme is expressed as the choice of living in the flesh or living in the Spirit.
5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”
To live according to the flesh is to be bound by our sinful thoughts and desires.
To live according to the Spirit is also to be bound, but to live according to the law of love.
One path leads to death.
And the other to life.
To live according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit.
To be in bondage to sin, death, and the devil,
                Or to serve God in loving obedience.
Those are our choices.
There are no others.

But this is the thing:
To live in the Spirit, to be in Christ, and to submit to the law of Love, is perfect freedom for love is the fulfillment of the law.
The easiest way to illustrate this is to think about marriage.
I am bound to Karla in marriage.  And in that I am bound to her in marriage I am not free to do anything.
I am not free to abuse her.
I am not free to neglect her.
I am not free to be unfaithful to her.
If I do those things there would be a consequence to pay.
However, because I love her, I would never choose to abuse her, or neglect her, or be unfaithful to her.  I freely do what the Law requires.

To live in the Spirit is to live according to the Law of Love and it is prefect freedom for Love will always will to do what the law requires.
If I love you, as Christ first loved me, it’s no longer about what I have to do, but what I want to do, for to love is to conform our lives to Christ.
Martin Luther speaks about the paradox of Christian freedom.  He says:
“A Christian is an utterly free man, lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is an utterly dutiful man, servant of all, subject to all.”
To rephrase that, think of it this way:
Love demands nothing, but gives everything.
To love your spouse, is to demand nothing.
But to love your spouse, is to be willing to give everything.
That’s the way Christ has loved us.
Christ demands nothing of us, but gives everything for us.
And for us to live in the Spirit of Christ is to live in the same way as Christ, demanding nothing, but giving everything.
And in that is freedom.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Year A, Pentecost 4, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
And Righteousness.
And our World View.
You’d think that after all the years that have passed since Jesus walked among us we’d have some degree of agreement regarding such basic simple concepts such as these.
What is sin?
What is righteousness?
What is evil?
And what is good?
Our answers to those basic questions form our world view.
What is good, and what is evil?
Plato, that ancient Greek philosopher, suggested that there existed an ideal to which everything in the real world ought, to a greater or lesser degree, to conform to.  The Platonic Ideal.
There is in his understanding a perfect table.  And every real table is measured against this ideal.  The degree to which each table conformed to the ideal is the basis upon which it was deamed to be good, or bad.
That is one way to view the world.
That everything ought to conform to a particular ideal, and any deviation from that ideal is evil.
But is this a human construct, or is this of God?
Another example of this is our yards.
Think of all the effort that we as humans devote to getting our yards to conform to our own vision of the ideal.
A lawn is supposed to be 100% Kentucky blue grass.  We douse our lawns with herbicides of one sort or another so that nothing else grows.
And then we draw a line and create a flower bed and there we want roses, and iris, and dahlias to grow, but no grass.
And then we draw another line and call it a garden, and in the garden we want strawberries, and potatoes, and corn, and peas, and all sorts of other edible plants.
And then, in order to maintain our lawns and gardens we weed.  Day after day we weed. 
Now there is an interesting concept.
God actually never created any weeds.
That something is considered a weed is a human idea.
We want a Kentucky blue grass lawn and so dandelions are considered a weed, as is crab grass, or clover.
And the grass that grows on one side of the line we draw becomes a weed if it grows on the other side of the line.
You see, we have this ideal to which we expect everything to conform, and any deviation from that ideal is considered bad.
But that is a human point of view.
If we look at the creation around us it is diversity, not uniformity or conformity that abounds.
And when God looked at all he had made he said “It is good.”
This basic issue of diversity versus conformity gets more complicated when we talk about humans, and what is good and what is evil in our lives.
Is there an ideal human being?
And ideal to which all people ought to conform?
And is our basic worth as a human being dependent on the degree to which we conform to one ideal?
One way of understanding the Christian faith, or any other religious movement, is that there is an ideal Christian life and our calling is to conform our lives to this one ideal.
OK, that sounds alright.
But where it gets dicey is when we seek to identify the ideal human life and being.
Every race and every culture shares a unique perspective on life.  And even within a given culture there are variations of the human experience.  Some of those are celebrated.  Some are considered deviant.
Who I am as a human being is shaped by where I came from, my ancestry, and my cultural upbringing.
I’m of Norwegian ancestry, I grew up in the farm country of South Dakota, and I have been shaped by the values my parents instilled in me.
But my experience is different than that of a person of another race, who was raised in another place, and who learned different values.
If I had been born to a Lakota family on the reservation in South Dakota my experience of life would be entirely different. 
OK, we know that.  We live with that.  We know that the perspective of a person from Tibet is going to be different than that of someone from Sioux Falls.  We know that.
But where life gets difficult, and sin enters in, is that we as humans make value judgments.
We define an ‘ideal’ human life, and judge any deviation from that ‘ideal’ to be evil.
Our own culture has been dominated by people of northern European ancestry.  Our values, and culture, and way of life have been dominant.
That in itself is neither good nor bad.  If you grew up in Japan, the same could be said for that culture.
But when we take the next step and define any variation from this northern European culture as evil you end up with the most fundamental basis of racism, and sin.
Our sinfulness leads us to conclude that one race is inherently better than another.
And it doesn’t stop there.
We have an ideal regarding every aspect of life and everything else is considered inferior.
Most of us would state emphatically that we are not racist, nor are we white supremacists. But this sin runs deeper and more pervasive than most of us would ever care to admit.
We would deny that we believe white people are inherently superior to black people. 
But, almost everyone of us, deep down, believes in the superiority of western civilization to all others. 
And not only that, we link western civilization to Christianity in a way that maintains not only our ‘superiority’ but that this is ordained by God as righteousness.
One of the ways that this has played out over the years is that Christian missionaries spent an enormous amount of effort converting people, not just to Christianity, but to western civilization.
When I was growing up we used to have missionaries come and make presentations from the mission field.  We saw before and after pictures.
Africans were pictured in their traditional attire before conversion.  And then after becoming Christian they would be wearing western attire, white shirts and black slacks, for the men, dresses for the women.
Missionaries would use the terms ‘evangelize’ and ‘civilize’ interchangeably.
This fundamental belief in the superiority of western civilization is probably never more evident than in our interaction with the Native Americans.  We so believed in our superiority that we took their children to raise them as white people.  That still troubles me because it was happening even in my life time.
What is the point?

Is diversity part of the goodness of God’s creation?
Is it to be celebrated and embraced?

Or is righteousness defined by conformity to one ideal and norm for all?

I believe that when we seek to impose our ideals on all people and force their conformity to those ideals we are dealing with our own sinfulness.  That’s my conviction. 
I believe that God created a diverse world in which the rich variety of life is the ultimate good, not evil.
And that we are called to celebrate this diversity, not  despise it. 
Racial tensions are running high in our world.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement is in the forefront of the news.
Why is it important to say “Black Lives Matter”?  The reason is that for far too long black lives have been devalued as deviations from the norm. 
It is true that “all lives matter”, but that is not our legacy.  We have clung to the notion that some lives matter more than others, that some humans are inherently superior to others.
We have lived our lives believing that there are good plants, and weeds.
But God didn’t create any weeds.
God didn’t create any weeds.
God looked at all he had made, and behold it was good.
Exceedingly good.  That’s the point.
It is our sinfulness that leads us to believe that deviation from the norm is evil.  That conformity is righteousness.  But that belief leads to hatred and death, the consequence of our sin.
To understand the basic goodness of all creation is to open ourselves to love and acceptance.  And that leads to life.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sixth Sunday of Easter 2020, Peace Lutheran Church, Otis Orchards, WA

To love as Christ loves is to practice social distancing so that we do no harm to our neighbor.

To love as Christ loves is to bear one another’s burdens so that we can lessen the economic burdens caused by this pandemic.

And to love as Christ loves is to do willingly without compulsion, that which benefits our neighbor.

That’s my prayer.

That somehow in the face of all our divisions love might prevail.  And that through love we might be united not only as people of faith but as a nation as a whole.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Easter service, Peace Lutheran Church, Otis Orchards, WA

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.