Saturday, September 21, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 20, Psalm 113, Amos 8.4-7, Luke 16.1-13

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
The LORD makes the woman of a childless house to be a joyful mother of children. Hallelujah!
Sometimes God’s grace comes to us in very concrete ways.
I remember a member of my congregation in Thompson Falls citing this verse as her hope.  God hears the cries of a barren woman, and makes her the mother of children.
They ended up adopting their two children through Lutheran Community Services.
Karla’s brother and sister adopted our niece. 
Our neighbors and friends in Sandpoint adopted a son.
A colleague in ministry adopted a daughter from China.
For them, grace was a bundle of joy, a baby, perhaps an older child, but one to call their own and to love and care for.
What made adoption so special for them from a spiritual perspective was the experience of receiving from the Lord’s hand that which they could not conceive of on their own.
Of course there is also great joy when we give birth to a child.
The delight is in the gift of a child, not in the means of delivery.
In Biblical times it was about blessings and curses.
God’s blessing was experienced in abundant crops, productive herds, and many children.
God’s curse was experienced when crops failed, herds of animals did not thrive, and when women were barren.
From Sarah onward, the scripture tells the story of one woman after another that was barren, yet by God’s grace, became the mother of children.
And in each case there is great joy.
Joy because of the gift of the child.
And joy because the curse has been lifted.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, becomes the song of every mother:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
This is part of a larger theme that runs through the scripture, namely, that God has a deep concern for the plight of the lowly, the poor, the outcast. 
Mary’s song goes on to say:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
It is the concern for the poor that is the focus of Amos’ words from our first lesson:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,  .  .  . buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Think about this for a moment.
We worship a God who is concerned about a childless mother, and a motherless child.
We worship a God who champions the cause of the poor and the outcast.
The God who called into being the entire universe, cares for the least of these, his children.
That’s grace.

We live in contentious times.
One of my observations is that whenever we seriously consider the implications of a Biblical faith for our daily lives, there are those who say we are getting “too political”.
But this is the thing:
God cares about the barren mother, and the motherless child.
God cares about the poor.
God cares about the outcast.
God cares about sinners.
God cares about refugees and immigrants, otherwise why would God say: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”?  (Leviticus 19:4)
So here is a question for you.
Are caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, lifting up the lowly, healing the sick, matters of faith?  Or politics?
And which comes first?
Does our faith shape our politics?
Or do our political convictions shape our faith?
That matters.  It says something about who is truly our God.
Jesus says:
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Is wealth a bad thing, then??
Well, if we are honest, wealth can be either a blessing or a curse.
In the Bible, wealth is often associated with God’s blessing, for example, when God blessed Jacob with much wealth.
But the accumulation of wealth is also seen as a great evil, for it so often comes at the expense of the poor.
One question to ask ourselves is whether our wealth is used to serve God and our neighbor?  Or do we use our wealth and power to oppress and subdue others?
God is in the business of lifting up the downtrodden.
And we are in the business of doing God’s bidding in the world.
That’s our calling.
To be God’s hands and feet in the world.
To do his work.

One of the most compelling and troubling things for me, is the realization that people will learn more about the God we worship by observing our actions, than by listening to our words.
Is our God a loving and compassionate God?
Well, do we act in loving and compassionate ways?
If we truly believe that God is loving and compassionate, then our own actions should bear witness to that.

There’s another side to these matters.
It’s not just about what we should do for others, it is also about what God has already done for us.
We are to love, because God first loved us.
We are to care for the poor, because God has first cared for our needs.
We are to feed the hungry, as we have first been fed.
We are to lift up the lowly, as we have first been lifted up.
We are to welcome the stranger, as we ourselves have been welcomed.

Day to day stuff.
We have been blessed so that we can be a blessing.
And therein lays the single most important question for each of us as we live out our faith.
How can I be a blessing to others, as I have been blessed?
I have been forgiven, can I be forgiving?
I have been fed, can I do the feeding?
I have been welcomed into this community, can I in turn welcome the stranger?
I have been loved, can I love others?
Can I be an ambassador of God, offering to others what I first have received from God?

This is not always easy.
On Tuesday, during our study, a man came into the church and requested money for gas and food.  And his primary concern seemed to be money for gas.
What I’ve learned over the course of my ministry is that we should never give out cash as that often enables drug addiction and other problems.
And so Tuesday, I didn’t give him any money, but rather offered him some of the food we had collected for the food bank.  He took a can of stew.
This is where we need to be shrewd.  What is wise?  What is truly helpful?
Caring for the poor is one thing, but enabling drug addiction by giving out cash is another.  That’s the struggle.
But the fact that offering assistance in a helpful way can be challenging is not an excuse for not trying to begin with.
And perhaps we have to allow for the fact that our assistance will be abused by some, in order for that same charity to get to those who really need it.
There is another side to this.  My colleagues and I were talking about the soup kitchen at All Saints Lutheran, and the criticism they’ve received that they are just feeding drug addicts and enabling their addiction.  Our response was that the reason we feed even drug addicts, is that a dead drug addict can never be cured.
That’s why we are to show mercy in all our charitable work.  Because that mercy may one day save that person.  And that is the work of God.  To save the lost.
It’s who God is.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 14, Psalm 51.1-10, Luke 15.1-10, Come Home!

“Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home!
You who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.”

There is a reason you are here.
There is a reason I am here.
It is because, deep within us, whether we know it or not, we have heard the Lord call our name.
He calls to us, each individually, by name, and begs us, as sinners, to come home.
If you want to understand the Church,
                Understand, just that.
“Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.”

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Children of God?”
Perhaps you think of the basic goodness with which God created each of us.  There is a blessed innocence about a child. 
Or perhaps when you hear the phrase “Children of God” you hear it as a contrast.
Paul writes in Romans, the 8th chapter:
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.   For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
In this way, we understand ‘children of God’ as a status granted to us by virtue of our baptism into Christ Jesus.
And so it is a contrast, children of God, the redeemed, versus the rest who are not.
The Righteous. 
And the Unrighteous.
The problem with this understanding of “Children of God” is that we often equate our being a child of God with something we have done, and thereby, we deserve that status on our own merits.
There is another understanding of ‘children of God’, and that is that we are all dependent on the grace of God.
Paul writes in Romans, the 3rd chapter:
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.”
If the first understanding of ‘Children of God’ is that we are all created good;
And the second understanding of ‘Children of God’ is that some are good, and some are bad;
This third understanding is that we are all sinful, but forgiven, by the grace of God, as a gift.
Of these three, the one that is not Biblical is the second one.  Specifically, none of us are righteous on our own account.  If we are righteous, it is purely by the grace of God.

“Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home!
You who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.”

Why are you here?
Consider this as a possibility.
You are here, because God recognized in you a sinfulness that begged for forgiveness, and a brokenness that only grace could heal.
Maybe you are aware of what that might be.
Sometimes we are.
Sometimes we truly sing that song,
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T'was blind but now I see.
At other times we simply do not see, and do not understand, the nature of our sin.
But God does, and God calls us.
Have you ever experienced an illness, or condition, that you weren’t fully aware of until you experienced healing???
I think of numerous examples in my own life.
My eyesight.
It’s often not until I get a new prescription that I realize how blurred my vision had become.
Or my hearing.
It wasn’t until I received my hearing aids that I realized how much I was not hearing before.
Or my alcoholism.
It wasn’t until I stopped drinking that I realized how addicted I was to alcohol. 
The list could go on and on.
Sin creeps up on us, and gradually takes control of our lives, and we often do not realize it or the extent of it, until after we have been set free.
“I once was lost, but now am found
T'was blind but now I see.”

Martin Luther teaches us that we are, at one and the same time, saints and sinner.  The Latin phrase is simul justus et peccator. 
What that means is that we come here as ‘children of God’, each of us created in God’s image, and each of us, good.
It also means that each of us comes here as a sinner, needing God’s forgiveness, and entirely dependent on God’s grace.
And finally, it means that by God’s grace, we have been redeemed, and are now that child of God once again, that is precious and good in the sight of God.
All of this is God’s gift.

But do we believe it???
And do we live it???

The answer to that lies in how we treat others, especially the newcomer that comes to our door.
When someone new comes do we see in them, a precious child of God, who has come here, because in some way, somehow, God has brought them here for healing and hope.
We should imagine ourselves as being like an emergency room in the hospital.
People do not come here because they are well.
They come here seeking hope and healing, and the forgiveness of their sins.
And we are to receive them, as fellow members of the body of Christ. 
·         People in need of forgiveness as we are.
·         People longing for healing as we do.
·         And people whom God loves, just as he loves us.
Nowhere in there is there room for us to judge, other than this: we judge them to be equally under the grace of God as we ourselves are.
This is a sacred trust that God has bestowed on the Church.
A sacred trust.
To receive those God has called to us, and to be agents of healing, forgiveness, and hope.
One of the most powerful images of the Church for me comes from my experience of being in inpatient treatment for chemical dependency.
All of us were there because we were chemically dependent and sought healing.
But all of us there were also helping to heal each other.
Even the counselors were recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. 
When someone walked in, we’d all know that they had the same problem we had.  We knew this.  But sometimes the newcomer didn’t recognize it yet.  But they quickly understood.
And, also, we all recognized that we needed each other to help and encourage the healing that would be a key to our very lives.
This continued into the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  A bunch of broken people helping each other find wholeness.
That’s what the Church is:
A bunch of sinners helping each other experience God’s forgiveness.
And every time, even one sinner comes home, heaven rejoices.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Is it worth it?, Year C, Pentecost 13, Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Luke 14.25-33,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Make a choice”, Moses said.
“Choose life!” he declared.  And if you do, you will reap the benefits of God’s blessings and have a long prosperous life.
“Make a choice”, Jesus said.
“Choose to follow me!” but before you do, know that it may cost you everything that you have, even your own life.
There is no more pronounced contrast than this.
Moses is urging us to “choose life”.
Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to “choose death”, as we follow him on the way of the cross.
We are here because we want to follow Jesus.
But his words challenge us to the very core of our being.
1.       “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
2.       “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
3.       And finally, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Our family.  Our life.  Our possessions. 
What more could Jesus possibly ask of us??
What else is left?
Just let that sink in a bit.

Wouldn’t you rather follow Moses than Jesus?
Moses promises God’s blessings and prosperity.
Jesus warns us that following him means giving up everything, including our lives.

One movement in contemporary Christianity today is called the “Prosperity Gospel”.
I quote:  “The prosperity gospel is an umbrella term for a group of ideas — popular among charismatic preachers in the evangelical tradition — that equate Christian faith with material, and particularly financial, success. It has a long history in American culture, with figures like Osteen and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, glamorous, flashily-dressed televangelists whose Disneyland-meets-Bethlehem Christian theme park, Heritage USA, was once the third-most-visited site in America.
A 2006 Times poll found that 17 percent of American Christians identify explicitly with the movement, while 31 percent espouse the idea that “if you give your money to God God will bless you with more money.” A full 61 percent agree with the more general idea that “God wants people to be prosperous.”
“If you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.”
Ok, I have to confess that I don’t know if that is actually true.
What I do know is this.  If you give your money to God, as in the Church, God will bless ME with more money.
I mean, “Hey, Joel Osteen is worth millions.”
I can be very crass about this.  But the point is a bit more subtle than that.
A lot of us would like to believe that if we are faithful Christians our lives will be good and prosperous.
Even Karla’s mom and dad, who were hardly followers of Jim and Tammy Faye, would share their own experience of making the decision, early in their marriage, that they would tithe everything that they had.  This decision came one Sunday morning when they had one dollar to their names, and were thinking about what they could give as an offering that day.  They decided to give 10 cents, and throughout the rest of their lives gave 10 percent of everything that they had.
Their believe was that by doing so, they were trusting in God to provide, and also, they believed that because they did so they always had enough.
I admire Karl and Becky’s faithfulness.
I really do.

But this understanding of the tithe and the blessings that we will receive for our faithfulness is an Old Testament concept.  It’s roots lie with Moses’ teaching, not Jesus’ teaching.
Moses said to give ten percent.
Jesus did not let us off so easily.
“Give everything.”

Here’s a question for you to consider.
“Does following Jesus and doing what he commands, make you in the least bit uncomfortable?”
If it doesn’t, are you really following Jesus?
Jesus said:
1.       “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

But you know what.  Even as a pastor I have to admit that my family comes first.  If I’m honest.  If I’m truly honest there is very little in life I would be willing to commit myself to if it got in the way of my relationship with my wife and kids, and especially my grandchild, Jasper.
Jesus said:
2.       “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Truth be told, I’m  more concerned about having my health insurance paid for than giving my life on the cross. 

3.       And finally, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

OK, so maybe this is a “three strikes, you’re out” thing.  I’m not interested in giving up all my possessions.  I’m interested in securing my retirement, making wise financial decisions, and doing everything I can to insure that Karla and I will have enough during our retirement years.

Jesus is a radical.
Christianity, however, has become domesticated and tamed.
I remember a statement made by one of the members of Agnus Dei, Karla and my home congregation in Gig Harbor, WA.  At the time, this member was shopping around and had attended one of the mega Churches in the community.
“I feel good when I leave there,” she said.  “I feel good.”

Is putting Jesus before your family a good feeling?
Is putting Jesus before your life a good feeling?
Is putting Jesus before your money a good feeling?
No.  Probably not.
Again, I go back to my own struggles as a pastor.
We have a purpose statement, that we as a congregation have adopted and recited for many years, now.
“God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.”
That statement speaks to the radical nature of Jesus’ love, and often I’ve referenced it in my preaching and teaching here.
But do I really want to push the issue?
Welcome all.
Love all.
Serve all.
Locally and globally.
We have domesticated and tamed Jesus’ radical message, and one of the ways we have done so is to subtly change that “all” to “some”.
Yes, we “welcome, love, and serve”, but only some, and we pat ourselves on the back for being ‘pretty good’, even if we are not perfect.
The problem with welcoming, loving, and serving all is that it might cause conflict with some of our own brothers and sisters in faith, it might put us at risk, and it might affect the bottom line.
In other words, if “welcoming, loving, and serving all” means that we might lose members, experience risks, or see our offerings decrease, we would prefer to change that to a more palatable “welcome, love, and serve SOME”.
Case in point, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has tried to live out that command of Jesus to ‘welcome, love, and serve all’ and the result has been conflict, numerous conflicts.
I was struck this last week by one of the comments on our Facebook page.
“How ironic,” the person wrote, “to see ‘Peace’ and ‘Lutheran’ in the same name.
It was an obvious reference to the conflicts we’ve experienced as we sought to welcome, love, and serve all.
But is it worth it??
That’s the question.
It is worth it?
Is following Jesus worth the cost?

That’s a question each of us will have to answer in our own lives.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 12, Luke 14.1, 7-14, Good News to the Poor

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Almost half of white Americans say the USA becoming a majority nonwhite nation would "weaken American customs and values," a new Pew Research poll says.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that before 2050, the majority of the USA will be made up of minority populations. According to Pew's research, 46 percent of white people fear that would weaken U.S. culture.
"The finding speaks for itself. It suggests concern broadly held by whites about a majority-minority country," says Rich Morin, a senior editor at Pew Research Center.
The survey of 2,524 U.S. adults conducted in December focused on Americans' view of the future of the country and asked about political, economic and societal changes that could come by 2050.
Pew did not define "American customs and values" or "American culture" for the survey.”
(USA Today)
We hear a lot about “white privilege” today.
What is “white privilege”?
Simply put, “white privilege” refers to the fact that in our culture, there are many challenges that minorities face, that white people never experience.
Opportunities are more abundant for whites.  Doors simply open more readily for us.
One of my colleagues, Eric Samuelson, reported an experience recently.
He writes:
At Holden Village last week, John Noltner asked for stories about when we recognized our privilege for his "A Peace of My Mind" photo project. I recalled a Friday morning teaching at Trinity Lutheran College when my students started talking about how they got to college, and how hard it was to get there. They started telling stories about all the people in their lives who discouraged them, who told them they shouldn't dream big, or that they weren't college materials. It was so many stories of so many people who did this to them. And I sat there realizing nobody has ever said those words to me. Those students had more grit and determination than I ever have, and they continue to inspire me to this day. I remembered too that they also told stories of that ONE person (and for many, it was only one) who let them know they could make it, and the incredible role that person played in their life. That moment had had a big impact on me, as I seek to be that kind of person who gives hope and encouragement to the young people in my life. 
And why do almost half of the people in the U.S. fear the day when there are more minorities than white people in the country????
It’s because many fear losing the privileges that we have long enjoyed.
One of my memories from childhood is of playing in the school yard during the winter.
One of the things they did was to clear the snow from the playground, and pile it up creating a wonderful mound.   It was ideal for playing a game of “King of the Mountain”.
You remember the game.
One person would get to the top, and then try to stay there as long as they could, while the rest tried to push them off the top of the mountain.  Inevitably this resulted in the “King of the Mountain” taking a slide down the icy slope of our ‘mountain’.  And once one “King” was pushed off the top of the mountain, another person took their place, and the game continued.
Mary, the mother of our Lord, sang a song that we know as the “Magnificat” when she found out that she would have Jesus.
In that song she declares:
(The Lord) has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Kinda sounds like “King of the Mountain” doesn’t it.
This theme of God’s special concern for lifting up the downtrodden, even at the expense of the elite, runs throughout much of Luke’s Gospel.
It’s no accident that in Luke’s Gospel, it was the lowly shepherds that welcomed the savior’s birth, not the wise men, the privileged travelers from afar.
In today’s Gospel message, Jesus once again visits this theme.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus tells his hosts the parable, about the wedding guests seeking the places of honor, and how it is better to take the lowest seat at the table and be brought up, than to take a place at the head table, and be asked to move down.
Consider again, the Pew Research poll.
Why do so many white people fear the growth of the minority populations in our country?
Because there is a concern that the status of the minorities will be improved at the expense of the white people.
The same dynamic happens with respect to immigration.
There is a fear that if we do not control immigration they will take our jobs.
And of course, the hopes of those who come here is that they will have a job.
It’s all a game of “King of the Mountain”, where an elite few are at the top, defending their status, while the rest seek to displace them.
Only it doesn’t have to be that way.
And it will not be in the Kingdom of God.
Let me give you an example.
Imagine for a moment, that the world is a great banquet and all are invited.
When we sit down to eat, there are numerous possibilities.
One possibility is that there is simply not enough to go around.  So the privileged few will eat prime rib, while the rest go hungry.
Or similarly, most of the people get macaroni and cheese, but some get prime rib.
In both cases you have an elite class.
And if you are one of the elite, you fear that the next time you’ll be eating the mac and cheese, or nothing at all.
Or imagine that the resources are limited so instead of serving some prime rib while others go hungry, the host serves everyone broth and bread.  That’s one of the fears we have been taught regarding communism.   If everyone gets the same, it’ll be broth and bread, not prime rib.
But there is another possibility.
Suppose, that due to the graciousness of the host, there is in fact enough prime rib for everyone to enjoy.
Would that be so bad?
Or do we, in our sinfulness, desire to have more than another?
One of the ways this comes into play is with respect to our understanding of salvation.
I have been amazed at how important it was for many people in my parishes to believe that there is a hell where people will suffer eternally.
So you have some, who in the afterlife, experience eternal bliss.  And others that experience eternal torment. 
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is that Lazarus, who suffered in this life will enjoy eternal bliss in the next, while the rich man who was privileged in this life will be in agony in the next.
But what if God, in God’s wisdom, was able to redeem the entire world, so that all are saved, and none are condemned????
Would heaven be any less heavenly if everyone was there?
Is prime rib any less tender if we all have a portion?
Is forgiveness any less blessed, if God offers it to all?
Is grace diminished when it is abundant?
Does God have to hate some, in order to love others?
And the answer is of course not.
I have four children.
I can and do love them all.
I don’t have to love some of them, and despise the others.
Love can be freely and unconditionally given.

That brings up a second point.
In Jesus parable, there is a contrast between seeking out the positions of honor, and being granted those positions. 
If I humble myself and expect nothing, then everything I have is a blessing, a gift.
That’s grace.
It’s not that some deserve God’s favor and others don’t.
Grace is that no one deserves God’s favor, but God gives it anyway.  Gives it.  Offers it freely and unconditionally for the sake of Christ.
And in that, we are all equal.
Hierarchies will be destroyed in the Kingdom of God.
There will not be a privileged few, and impoverished masses.
For there is no limit to the grace of God.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 11, Luke 13.10-17, Becoming Well

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
We don’t know what to make of the demons in the New Testament.
Our modern minds and worldview leaves little room for ghosts, demons, and other spiritual beings, even good ones such as angels.
Also, our understanding of the world and our growing expertise in healthcare changes the way we view diseases, either mental health issues or physical health issues.
And so today, when we read the scripture, we recognize many of the ailments that Jesus cured and understand them, not as demons, but in light of our 21st century medical knowledge.
Mental health.
And in today’s lesson, Osteoporosis.
Even in the lesson itself it is viewed in two different lights.
We read on the one hand that she had “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years”, but also Jesus refers to it as an “ailment”.
Is she ‘possessed’, or simply suffering from a disease?
According to Dr. Ira Brent Driggers, who wrote the commentary in Working Preacher for today:
“Luke and the other evangelists emphasize Jesus’ power to heal physical brokenness because they are convinced that God created everything and called it good, meaning Jesus’ messianic mission is not some Gnostic deliverance of the spirit out of the body but a healing of the entire person.  In the case of the bent over woman, Luke goes so far as to call her condition a form of Satanic bondage, which is an ancient apocalyptic way of saying her condition violates God’s will for her life (and is not her own fault!).  To be clear, she is not demon-possessed.  But according to the Lukan Jesus, she is tragically broken.
Disease is not God’s will for our lives.
And it is not our fault.
That’s what demon possession in the New Testament signifies. 
In contrast to this we often hear people respond to adversity in their lives by saying “it must be God’s will”.  There is a sense that everything that happens, happens according to God’s plan and will. 
People will say all sorts of things in this light, for example, when a child dies they will say things like “God needed another little angel in heaven.” 
Against all that, the Bible uses demonic possession as a way of saying that no, everything is not according to the will of God.  Evil exists.
And neither is everything bad that happens to you a punishment for having done something wrong.
We know today that some diseases are the consequence of our actions.
You smoke your whole life and the risk of lung cancer and other diseases goes way up.
People who drink excessively experience health issues related to that drinking, including cirrhosis of the liver.
If you’re obese, other risk factors come into play.
 And in addition to this sort of thing, other actions on our part may contribute to suffering, such as taking risks driving, or carelessness at work, and such.
That said, though, most of the diseases we will experience are not our fault.
Nor are they the will of God.
To the contrary, it is God’s will that we be set free from this type of bondage.
Bottom line:  call it a disease, or call it demon possession, it is against God’s will and his plan is that we be set free from it.
One of the things that strikes me about Jesus’ ministry is how much of his time and energy was devoted to the task of making people well.
Jesus was not just about saving souls, and neglecting the rest of our lives, our bodies and minds.
Rather redemption means wholeness in body, mind, and spirit. 
And yet, so often we suffer for years without hope of getting better.  Eighteen years this woman in our Gospel lesson suffered.
It is simply part of life, it seems, that each of us will eventually get some chronic condition from which there will be no relief.
One of the conclusions that I have come to over the years is that no one can pray their way out of their own mortality.
We will die.
And yet we have the promise, that even in death God is at work bringing about a new creation and wiping away every tear from our eyes.
Again, redemption means wholeness in body, mind, and spirit.
If Jesus’ ministry is in any way instructive to us, then we would devote ourselves first and foremost to this task of health and wellness.
Somewhere along the way, though, we got distracted.
We started focusing more on being religious, than on being well.
And believe it or not, Jesus had very little time for our religiosity.  He did not come that we might be more religious, he came that we might be made well.
When Jesus cured the woman in today’s lesson, all the religious leaders could think about was that he had done so on the Sabbath.  Their religious traditions were more important to them than the wellness of this woman.
This was a pattern that was repeated throughout Jesus’ ministry.
The religious leaders were more concerned about people being religious, than they were about them being whole.
As a pastor, I find myself questioning whether I am likewise more concerned about how religious people are, than how well they are.
And if we are totally honest, our well being as pastors and the Church is dependent in no small way on the religious devotion of our parishioners.
Let’s just focus on the Sabbath as an example.
We don’t have the same sorts of Sabbath laws as they did in Jesus’ day.
But we have our own religious practices associated with the Sabbath.
“Be in Church.”
That’s something we highly value.  Be in Church on Sunday morning.
Yet we live in a world that draws people away from church on Sundays.
All sorts of activities compete for our time.
And in the face of that, there is an unwritten rule that says that “good Christians” will be in Church each Sunday morning.  That’s what it means to be religious, right????
And the truth be told, there is a very self centered reason that religious leaders are concerned about people observing the Sabbath by being in Church Sunday mornings.
That’s when we take the offerings.
People who are in Church every week tend to give more than people who aren’t.
And so the Church as an institution, and pastors as leaders, tend to promote religious behaviors that are beneficial to the Church and to the pastor’s own well being.
Go to Church.
Two measures of how religious we are.
OK, so these things are important.
It’s important that we hear God’s word and receive the sacraments. 
And none of our ministries would be possible apart from your gifts that make them possible, gifts not only of your money, but of your time and talents, as well.
And yet, that said, it is far more important that you be made whole, than that you become religious.
There was even a book written about this back in the ‘60s. 
One of the ways that this comes into play, is that when a new visitor, especially one who has never or rarely been to church before, comes to worship they find themselves feeling rather lost and alone because they don’t know all the religious rituals that we observe. 
But what brought them here?
Was it a desire to learn all sorts of religious rituals and observances?
OK, here’s a news flash.
People who come to the Church for the first time are not concerned with how to hold their hands in prayer, or when to stand and when to sit in worship, or any other such things.
There is one reason above all others that brings people to Church for the first time.
It is a sense that there is a void in their life, that something’s missing, or something’s wrong.
And they long to be made whole.
People yearn to become spiritually whole, not religiously devout.
That is what Jesus’ ministry was all about, and it remains the most important thing about our ministry.
If someone is not healed, in body, mind, and spirit, it does not matter how religious they are.
What matters is if they are well.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 10, Luke 12.49-56, The times they are a-changin

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Come gather 'round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'
“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'
“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin'
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'
“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'
“The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'”
(Songwriters: Bob Dylan  (Witmark Demo - 1963))
That was 1963.
When you think of the late fifties and early sixties, what do you remember?  What images come to mind?
The first images that come to my mind are from the television shows that I watched as I grew up.
Leave it to Beaver.
Father knows best.
I Dream of Jeannie.
Mayberry, RFD.
And one episode after another of “The Wonderful World of Disney”.
Those times, in hindsight, are often referred to as the Golden Age of the American experience.
The Baby Boom was underway.
Suburbs were sprawling out all across America.
Life was good!

And yet, even as we entertained ourselves with the wonderful images of the good life, there was a restless wind of change in the air.
A black lady, Rosa Parks, refused to move to the back of the bus.
Americans first heard about a small nation in Southeast Asia, called Vietnam.
President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Later, his brother Bobby, and Dr. Martin Luther King would also fall to assassin’s bullets.
The times, they were a changing.
If ever there were a time that exemplified the verses in today’s Gospel lesson it was that time.
From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
While we watched the “Wonderful World of Disney”, the Watts Riots raged.
Jesus said “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Those are probably not the most comforting words of Jesus, and they are difficult for us to hear.
There have been a lot more sermons preached on “love your neighbor as you love yourself” than on these verses.
And yet, with Jesus comes change, and with changes comes conflict.
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we hear the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song.
It begins nice enough.
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.”
If Mary had stopped singing there, perhaps we would have been more comfortable.  But Mary doesn’t stop singing there.  She goes on to say:
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Those are words about change, and the transformative power of Jesus.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'
Mary’s Song is not Good News for the proud, the powerful, and the rich.
She sings of the changes that God promises in a world redeemed by love.
And whenever the winds of change blow, conflict ensues.
My Mother-in-Law used to say “Whenever God is at work, Satan is not far behind.”
That’s one way to look at the conflicts and divisions we experience in life.
God is doing a good thing but the Devil is actively opposing God’s will, and conflict is the result.
Then, as we wrestle with our divisions, we can debate who is on God’s side and who is on the Devil’s.  And of course, that debate itself will cause conflict.
One of the things I learned when I was studying philosophy in my undergraduate work, was called the Hegelian dialectic. 
What that means is that in every situation there is a thesis, and an antithesis, opposing viewpoints that are in tension with each other.
Transformation takes place as these opposing viewpoints, the thesis and antithesis, merge into a synthesis.
What I find myself longing for is that amid all the polarization that we experience in society and the Church, we might see these differences, not as a source of division, but rather as a creative tension that will resolve in a faithful and Godly way.
That may be wishful thinking on my part.
The struggle for us is that we agree in principle, but struggle when it gets down to specifics.
I continue to return to our purpose statement as a congregation:
“God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.”
That’s the principle we agree on.
The conflict occurs, though, when we get specific.
If we were to say that our purpose is to welcome, love, and serve specific groups of people, conflict would follow.
On example of that occurred in the last couple of weeks.
The ELCA Assembly, reaffirmed its long standing commitment to minister to immigrants and refugees through such organizations as “the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services”.  As I reported to you, following our Synod Assembly, our commitment to this ministry is such that the Federal Government has requested our assistance in dealing with the influx of immigrants at our southern border.
But, in reaffirming this commitment, the Churchwide Assembly chose to use the word “Sanctuary”.
This resulted in some people being convinced we were advocating doing something illegal, which we’ve been assured was not the intent.
We will see how this all works out.
But the point is simply this:
It is easier to say we will “welcome, love, and serve ALL” in our local and global community,
Than it is to say we will “welcome, love, and serve the immigrant and refugee” in our midst.
What I will say is this:  That whenever we try to faithfully do the work of Jesus, there will be a tension, a struggle, a wrestling with each other over what is faithful and what is not.
But what I also will say is that I believe, that as painful as this conflict can be, God will work through that to bring about a greater good.
What we are called to do amid all the changes and conflicts of this world, is to trust that indeed, ‘the Father knows best’.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 9, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16 From a Distance

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land:  Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." 5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord 's command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth- peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.  (Deuteronomy 34: 1-6)

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
In this is faith, that we believe the promise and hold fast to it, even though we will die without having seen its fulfillment.  And yet we believe.
From an early age I’ve been aware of the church, both as a safe haven, my home, for it in fact was.  My father being a pastor, I literally grew up in the Church.  It is home.
But it has also been a place of turmoil and conflict.
That said, I have lived my life with a promise.  A promise that speaks to me of what the Church will one day be, even if today it is not.
During the summer Karla and I met at Bible camp, in 1976, our theme was “Shalom”, or the Peace of God.
One of the lessons lifted up the passage from Isaiah 11 about the Peaceful Kingdom.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

A number of things within this passage speak to me of what the Church is promised to be:
·         It is to be an inclusive community.  “With, And, and together” are throughout this passage. 
·         It is to be a community of repentance, specifically, there are two things that must be let go of for peace to be achieved.  Fear and hostility.  Put bluntly, the ‘wolf’ needs to repent of eating lambs, and the ‘lamb’ needs to quit fearing the wolf.  Only then can peace happen.
·         And finally, the Church is to be a place where They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
A second passage that has spoken to me about the promise of the Church is in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Why are we here????
Because we are God’s ambassadors, given the message to share with the entire world, not just through our words, but by being reconciled to God and one another.
Early on in my adult years, I clung to these promises as an ideal of what the Church might be.
Karla and I joined a mission congregation intent on creating that very type of community.
However our youthful idealism would soon be replaced with a brutal realism.
Our beloved pastor was involved in sexual misconduct.
And the Church, we discovered in the years which followed, often was a place of conflict and pain. 
The promise that “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”, seemed very distant and far away.
As I am aging, nearing the end of my career as a pastor, I must confess that there are many deep and painful disappointments regarding the Church.
Try as we might, we are not an inclusive Church.
In 1988 the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set a goal that we would become an inclusive Church, and setting a target to increase the number of minorities in our Church to 10% of our overall population.  We’ve failed miserably in that effort.  Instead we remain the whitest denomination in the United States.
And efforts to reach out beyond our traditional membership demographics have often resulted in opposition and conflict.
Most of all, what has disappointed me is that as a Church we far too often devour each other with judgment, condemnation, and all sorts of conflict. 
One of the most poignant statements that I’ve heard in my ministry was at a church council meeting a number of years ago.
It was also one of the most honest statements.
“Of course, all people are welcome in the Church, BUT if we have to say that THEY are welcome we will leave the congregation.”
You can fill in the blank.
The fact is that there is not a single congregation that truthfully welcomes all people.
Kennon Callahan, a widely read church consultant, refers to this as the “Principle of Homogeniety”, or in other words, ‘birds of a feather flock together’.
One of the biggest struggles we have in the ELCA, and a source of much conflict, is that we believe deep down that the Church is an inclusive community where people from all walks of life are welcome.
Under a theme of “Reconciled Diversity” we have tried to hold everyone together in one Church body.  Sometimes we’ve succeeded.  Often we’ve failed.

You see, it’s just much easier to have
·         a Church for Wolves,
·         and a Church for Lambs,
·         and a  Church for Lions,
·         and a Church for Oxen,
·         and most of  all we want to protect the children from the asp and the adder.
But this is contrary to what we say we believe when we confess our faith and say that we believe in the “one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
As a congregation we say that our purpose is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.
When I hear that I have two reactions.
The first is to shout “Yes!”, and to do everything possible to fulfill that purpose.
And the other response is to believe that I will die long before the congregation ever fully realizes that purpose. 
The truth is this.
That we sit with Moses on Mount Nebo, gazing at the Canaan on the distant horizon, seeing from a distance the promise and greeting it, but only as a matter of faith that one day this will be.
I wish that this was a place where everyone was welcome and that reconciliation and peace was always the norm.
But, that is a promise that we may well die anticipating.
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. .  .”
We pray that prayer.
And Jesus said “on earth as in heaven”.
But will we ever see the fulfillment of that promise?
Or are we left to cling in faith to the promise, seeing it from a distance, as Moses did on Mount Nebo?
The Kingom of God.
In the distance.
Calling us, beckoning us, leading us.
But always in the future.
And there we sit with Moses.  Seeing the Promised Land from a distance but unable to reach out and touch it.