Saturday, February 15, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 6, Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Matthew 5.21-37, Choose life

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
God grants us the freedom to choose, but the choice is between life and death.  Nevertheless it is still our choice.
Put in those terms, as Moses did, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose anything but life.  But it gets complicated.
In our world today it’s hard to hear these words about choosing life without calling to mind the whole debate concerning abortion and the way it’s been framed as a question of pro-Life or pro-Choice.
We all have heard the arguments on both sides.
The pro-Life people argue adamantly that the unborn child has a right to life, and that abortion is murder and should be banned.
The pro-Choice people maintain that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices, that is, to determine whether or not she gives birth to a child.
The way this issue has been formed, as a conflict between the rights of the mother versus the rights of the child, there will likely never been any consensus about what is right, though some of us may try.
Personally, I find myself in the middle.  I believe that it is indeed the right of the woman to choose what happens to her, but that the moral obligation in most circumstances is to choose life.
This is in keeping with the teaching of our Church on this matter.
Our social statement on abortion lifts up the sanctity of life and questions whether it is ever appropriate to talk about absolute rights.  In this regard, talking about a woman’s rights versus the rights of a fetus is simply wrong.  It’s not either or.
And our Church acknowledges that there are some situations where choosing abortion is morally justifiable.  Three situations are specifically mention: when a woman’s life is in jeopardy, when the fetus is not viable, and in cases of incest and rape.
But the abortion statement leans toward maintaining that these decisions are best made by those involved, weighing all the considerations. 
My point is that there is a middle ground, and I believe that it is Choose Life.  Namely, that the woman has the right to choose, but that the moral imperative is to choose life in most every circumstance.
Having said that, one of the criticisms of the pro-life position is that it is too often just a pro-birth position.  That is, there is so much more to life than simply birth.  And to advocate for life, is to advocate for those things that are crucial to life beyond the delivery room.  Caring for the child throughout that child’s life.
Moses put it this way.
We choose life “by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances.”
Today’s lessons are once again part of the holiness tradition.
Often times in our teaching we focus on confession and absolution.  And the Gospel is viewed almost entirely from the standpoint of what Jesus has done for us that we might be forgiven and saved.  He died to take away our sins.
The holiness tradition is different.
The holiness tradition begins with the supposition that how you live your life matters.
If you live and upright and Godly life you will experience enumerable blessings.
But if you abandon the ways of the Lord you will experience the consequences of those choices.
We have a choice.
But the choice is between life and death.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us about life and living.  And when we consider his teaching we quickly discover that Jesus was concerned not just about the letter of the law, but the Spirit of the law.  And also, in keeping with that, the choices we make will have consequences.
Consider his teaching on murder:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
What Jesus is saying here is that to choose life is more than simply not murdering someone.  It also involves how we treat one another.
In our highly polarized society, how often has anger, or insults, or accusations of foolishness been at the core of our behaviors?
Just watch the news.  Just watch the news.
Day after day, cutting one another down and showing one type of disrespect after another has become the norm.
Too often we fail to honor and respect one another.
I also believe that when we listen to Jesus teaching there are other implications.
Health care, for example.
I rather imagine that if Jesus was alive today he would say “It’s not enough that you do not murder.  You also should provide the healthcare that is essential to life.”
During one of our classes a while back the question was asked whether we determined what is sinful or not.
My response was “Yes, and no.”
Yes in that there are many things in our modern world that were not addressed in the Bible because they simply did not exist at the time.
But no in that it was Jesus taught us that we are to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves.
We are too love one another.
But what does love involve in a particular circumstance.
One example of an issue that goes beyond what the Bible addresses is the whole field of medical ethics.
There are choices today that the Bible could never have anticipated.
End of life choices, for example.
This is something that surprised me when I became a pastor.  I had no clue when I became a pastor how frequently life and death decisions are made at the end of a person’s life.
We are moving toward the day when every single death will involve a choice on our part.  When do we keep people alive at all cost, and when do we allow them to die.
When I entered the ministry, no one had prepared me for all the times that I would have to help people with the decision to let their loved one die.  Many times I was the one to tell the doctor to stop treatment.
Underlying those choices was always the question of what is the loving thing to do in that circumstance.  What is God’s will? 
Divorce is another issue that Jesus addresses that is very relevant to today.
It’s complicated.
There is a story told about a young man that approached Billy Graham with a question about divorce.  He explained that he and his wife just didn’t love each other anymore.  His question was whether God really wanted him to remain married to someone he didn’t love anymore.
Billy Graham replied “No, God doesn’t want you to be married to someone you don’t love, so get on your knees and pray that God will help you to love your wife again.”
So that is one side of the question.
But at the same time, marriage was never intended to be a prison.  Some marriages should end because of the abuse and harm that is part of the relationship.
The question is how can we best live in a health enduring relationship.
Here is where the Spirit of the Law and the Letter of the Law come into play.
One of the things that humors me is when people avoid getting married because they are afraid of getting divorced.  And so they just live together.
According to the letter of the law they will never have to divorce and feel that pain.
However, if their relationship comes to an end they will grieve just the same.
A relationship is a relationship, and God desires that we choose lifelong faithful relationships.  That is to choose life, not death.
Choices.  Life is full of them.
And the choices we make affect the quality of the lives we live.
We are free to choose, but the choice we make has consequences.
That’s life.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Year A, Ephiphany 5, Isaiah 58:1-12, A Godly Nation

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Following their return from Exile in Babylon the nation of Israel was in ruins, having been destroyed by Babylon a generation before, and now the Israelites were faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the nation.
Isaiah speaks to them at this time in their history.
In today’s lingo, he basically said:  “You want to make the nation great again?  Don’t bother yourselves with all your ‘religious rituals’ like fasting and such.  Do justice.  Obey the ordinances of God.  Then and only then, will the nation be great again.”
Taking Isaiah’s Word and applying it to our context it sounds like this:
“So you want to make America great again.”
“Quit giving lip service to God while ignoring his word and commandments.  Quit pretending to be religious and faithful and instead seek to do God’s will.”
And what is God’s will?
How would God have us act to restore the greatness of our nation?
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Just stop it, Isaiah says.
Humble yourselves.
. . .”loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. . .
. . .share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
Do this, and America will be great again.

We live in a highly polarized and partisan age.
And there are those who will say that if we do this, if we feed the poor, bring the homeless into our homes, if we cloth the naked and attend to our families, if we quit pointing our finger at one another and speaking evil, if we end all oppression and injustice, then we are nothing but a socialist state.
And of course, it’s politically incorrect to promote socialism in some circles.
One of the movements in American politics is to embrace the concept of “democratic Socialism”.
I quote from an article in the Business Insider:
In general, socialists believe the government should provide a range of basic services to the public, such as health care and education, for free or at a significant discount. 
In the present day, "Democratic socialist" and "socialist" are often treated as interchangeable terms, which can be confusing given Democratic socialists don't necessarily think the government should immediately take control of all aspects of the economy.
They do, however, generally believe the government should help provide for people's most basic needs and help all people have an equal chance at achieving success.
Jesus had a few words that were similar to Isaiah’s and that also spoke to this notion that we should collectively work to provide for people’s most basic needs.
You know the passage.  It’s in Matthew 25:
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. ' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? ' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. ' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. ' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? ' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. ' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
So are Jesus and Isaiah socialists?
The answer to that is “No.”  You can’t put Jesus, or Isaiah, into any of our political boxes.  And we shouldn’t.
But on the other hand, in this teaching of Jesus he specifically says things about how our nation will be judged, things like feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.
If that sounds like socialism, then so be it.
But when Jesus said it, socialism didn’t exist as a political movement.
When Jesus said it, as when Isaiah said it before, it was not to conform to any particular political movement or ideology, nor was it about any form of governance.
Caring for the sick is a Godly thing.
Feeding the hungry is a Godly thing.
The point is that rather than identifying these commands of Jesus, of God, with any particular political movement, we need rather to recognize that indeed, this is God’s Word and God’s will.
And if you want to make America great again, listen to his word and do his will.
And God doesn’t really care how we cure the sick or feed the hungry.
God simply wants the sick to be healed and the hungry fed.
And we don’t do these things to be part of some great political movement.
We feed the hungry because they are hungry.
We care for the sick because they are sick.
We’ve been hearing Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount these weeks.
Jesus says some radical things there.  For example, he says: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
OK, so this is the thing.
When I or anyone else suggests that we should do that people are free to disagree and share that they don’t believe it.
If you don’t believe that we should love our enemies, though, it’s not that you don’t believe me, it’s that you don’t believe Jesus.
Whether or not you believe me is irrelevant.
Whether or not we believe Jesus matters.
This is the thing, though.
If we don’t believe Jesus then all our pious prayers and lip service is simply nonsense.
Here I’ll share a personal pet peeve.
If you listen to some of the public discourse you’d think that all Jesus was concerned about was whether the Ten Commandments should decorate the walls of our courthouses, or whether teachers in our public schools should lead prayers, or whether we call that decorated evergreen tree a holiday tree or a Christmas tree.
Jesus said nothing about any of this.
Jesus spoke of forgiveness.  Loving enemies.  Feeding the hungry.  And all that jazz.
Christmas trees.
That’s such a non issue.  Actually, there is nothing whatsoever “Christian” about a Christmas tree.  It’s not biblical.  It’s a cultural, perhaps even pagan, practice to decorate evergreen trees during the midwinter.
And yet Christians want to make a big deal about what we call this tree.
That doesn’t matter.
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
That matters.
Feed the hungry.
That matters.
Care for the sick.
That matters.
Free the oppressed.
That matters.
Forgive those who have wronged you.
That matters.
This is the thing.
To be a Christian means that we listen to the words of Jesus and actually seek to live our lives according to his teaching.
It doesn’t mean that Jesus simply blesses whatever we choose to do.
It isn’t about offering all sorts of pious prayers and platitudes.
It’s about conforming our lives to Christ.
That’s it.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 4, Matthew 5.1-12 Grace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
This has been an exciting week for me.
Ever since 1979 I’ve been a cabinet maker.  But throughout all of those years I’ve never had a real shop.
I’ve worked out of make shift space in basements, which is a real pain in the neck when you have to carry all the material in through the house and down the stairs.
I’ve worked in garages.  That was always a challenge for space.
That was always a challenge, though the one I have now is as good as any,  it even has radiant heating in the floor.
 But space is an issue.
Well, this last week our new shop was constructed on my son’s property in Sagle.  It’ll still be a few months until it’s finished but it’s exciting.
We had a wonderful crew, all of them part of one family, a father and his sons and daughters.
The older men had distinctive beards.  The younger men were clean shaven, and the women’s heads were always covered.
After a few comments about our faith, I asked and found out that indeed, they had Amish background.
They were actually no longer part of an Amish community, but the heritage was very evident.
I got to speaking with Vern, the father, and he shared something about his faith.
It was actually a criticism, at least an observation, about much of Christianity.
As best I recall, what he said was “What happened, from the very beginning, was that Christians became so preoccupied with Christ’s death and resurrection that they entirely missed his reason and purpose for coming, and that was his teaching about living in the Kingdom of God.”
Basically, what he was saying is that we should listen more to Jesus, and less to Paul.
I’ve been thinking about that a bit, and you know, he has a point.
One of the interesting historical facts is that Paul had a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, but was not personally one of the disciples who were with Jesus during his life and ministry.
Paul was not present to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or all the parables, and other teachings.
Well, what about Jesus?
And what would it be like if we concerned ourselves more with Jesus’ teaching and less with Paul’s focus on the meaning of his death and resurrection?
For starters, we would have to learn about the Kingdom of God and the values of that Kingdom.
It would be about living and loving as Christ lived and loved.  Like the Amish, we would devote ourselves to peace and forgiveness, and perhaps even, learn about what it means to be “meek”.
What it means is “enduring injury with patience and without resentment” and “not violent or strong”, qualities that the Amish seek to live out in their lives.
Well, before we go any further, it would be helpful to step back and think about the values and beliefs that were present throughout the Old Testament.
Blessing and Curses.
That is the major theme that runs through the Old Testament.
Be faithful to God and you will be blessed.
Unfaithfulness will be cursed.
To be blessed meant prosperity.  Good crops, herds, and children.  Prosperity also extended to the nation.  When the nation was faithful to the covenant good things happened.  And it was also the case that “as goes the king, so goes the nation”.  If the king was righteous, so also the nation.  If the king was corrupt, so also the nation. 
Faithfulness was always rewarded by God.
But unfaithfulness resulted in curses.
Barreness was one of the most dreadful curses.
For a woman to not be able to have children was a source of great shame.
Hence the overwhelming joy experienced by Sarah, for example, when she conceived in her old age.
Today, civil religion as well as preachers such as Joel Osteen, preach about this theme of blessing and curses.
I’ll quote for you from the Wikipedia article on Osteen:
Osteen's sermons and writings are sometimes criticized for promoting prosperity theology, or the prosperity gospel, a belief that the reward of material gain is the will of God for all pious Christians. On October 14, 2007, 60 Minutes ran a twelve-minute segment on Osteen, titled "Joel Osteen Answers his Critics", during which Reformed theologian Michael Horton told CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts that Osteen's message is heresy. Horton stated that the problem with Osteen's message is that it makes religion about us instead of about God.

When asked if he is a prosperity teacher, Osteen responded that if prosperity means God wants people to be blessed and healthy and have good relationships, then he considers himself a prosperity teacher, but if it is about money, he does not. He has specifically stated that he never preaches about money because of the reputation of televangelists.
In an interview with The Christian Post on April 21, 2013, Osteen expressed his sentiments on being perceived as being part of the prosperity gospel. "I get grouped into the prosperity gospel and I never think it's fair, but it's just what it is. I think prosperity, and I've said it 1,000 times, it's being healthy, it's having great children, it's having peace of mind. Money is part of it; and yes, I believe God wants us to excel ... to be blessed so we can be a bigger blessing to others. I feel very rewarded. I wrote a book and sold millions of copies; and Victoria and I were able to help more people than we ever dreamed of. But when I hear the term prosperity gospel, I think people are sometimes saying, 'Well, he's just asking for money'."
Well, the basic theme, however you state it is that if you’re faithful you will be blessed and good things will happen to you.
Many people believe that.
And like I said, it’s a major theme in the Old Testament.
Now it’s true that actions have consequences.  For example, because of my alcoholism I now have some neuropathy in my legs.  I haven’t had a drink in over seven years, but the consequences of my drinking are long lasting.
But it’s also true that bad things happen to good people.
Well, what does Jesus teach?
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Now some of those whom Jesus called blessed would appear to be living a good and faithful life, manifesting Godly virtues like being merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.
But others that Jesus says are blessed are actually suffering.
The poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who are reviled and persecuted. 
It simply is not true that good people will always experience good things, and bad people will always suffer.
Sometimes it is just the opposite.
The good die young and the evil become rich and powerful.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy:
The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
And again in Romans 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What does all this mean for those of us who would follow Jesus?
It means that throughout life, both in the good times and in the bad times, we will experience the grace of God and be surrounded by his love.
In fact it is often in the midst of life’s greatest tragedies that grace abounds beyond measure.
This is the way of Jesus.  That whether we live or die he is with us full of grace and truth.  And to follow Jesus is to live gracefully.
St. Francis’ prayer speaks to this.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred,let me sow charity;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and Where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.  Amen."

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 3, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, ONE!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
There is a radical inclusivity of the Gospel that defies our human failings and shortsightedness.
We are One.
In Ephesians 4 Paul writes:
1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
We confess our faith using the words of the Nicene Creed which stands as a symbol and document of our unity as the Body of Christ, saying:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
And yet from the beginning we have struggled to maintain the unity that is ours, as a gift, in Christ Jesus.
Hence Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
10Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucifi ed for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
And again from Ephesians:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all.
And of course, we could also turn to the high priestly prayer of Jesus, which he prayed with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion.
"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
There is a theme here.
Christ is not divided.
Christ cannot be divided.
Its not that we haven’t tried.
We have since the very beginning.
You see, Jesus prayer for his disciples didn’t just come out of left field.
Even while they were still with Jesus, the disciples bickered among themselves.
And the fighting intensified after Jesus left them.
Could Gentiles become Christian?
Were they to eat everything, or keep kosher?
Does the Jewish law still apply?
Who is the head of the Church?
Who is Jesus?  How do we understand that mystery of the Christ, that he could both be man and God.
St. Nickolas, that early bishop of Myra, and yes—the inspiration for Santa Claus—is remembered by the tradition of the Church as being a defender of the faith.  At the Nicene Creed he was reported to have punched his opponent in the face.
That to me, epitomizes the struggle we face regarding unity.
Instead of embracing a unity that includes an incredible diversity of people, we try to unify the Church by imposing a single standard of what it means to be Christian, and rejecting everyone who does not conform to OUR STANDARD, and I emphasize, Our Standard.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
It’s hard to look at the Church and believe what the Bible says.
There is no issue so great, or so trivial, but that it can divide us.
And on the surface we have indeed become divided.
On every single matter of faith, from birth to what happens in the afterlife, Christians have differed and divided.
Baptize infants, or only adults?
Baptize by sprinkling, or by emersion?
And is baptism with the water and the word, sufficient?
Or must there also be a manifestation of the Spirit, as Pentecostals believe? 
Or must one also have a ‘born again’ experience?
Need I go on?
There are hundreds of different denominations because there have been hundreds of different answers to these questions that we’ve allowed to divide us.
Who is part of the Body of Christ?
And how do we serve Christ as our Lord and Savior?
Those are the two most basic questions and far reaching.
Who is welcome, and how we serve.

I am convinced that it is our sinfulness that has divided us, not our quest for righteousness and getting it right.
We set ourselves up as judges over our brothers and sisters in Christ, and on that basis, determine who is worthy and suitable to be part of OUR church.
But this is the thing.
·         We don’t have a say in who Jesus saves.
·         We don’t have a say in who the Spirit calls.
·         And we don’t have a say in who the Father loves.
And God has time and time again shown that he has the capacity to save and redeem people of every size, shape, and color.
And we are not all the same.
Diversity is the key word.
From Creation to Salvation God has chosen the path of a rich and abundant diversity. 
And it is our privilege, not our curse, that we get to be part of that diversity.
I imagine that the Kingdom of God is rather like a great banquet with people from every tribe and nation seated around tables.  And rather than the menu being one entree for all it is a smorgasbord of every imaginable food and beverage.
And God delights in it all.
Can we celebrate that diversity with God and each other?
Can we learn from each other and grow with each other?
And can we accept the fact that “different” doesn’t mean bad.
This is something that has bothered me.
For example, there is a sentiment that some people have in our society that says that you have to love one, and hate the other.
Do you love your country?
Then you must despise all others.
But it’s not an either or situation.
It is possible to love America and also appreciate a country like Canada.  Or Norway.  Or South Africa.  Or China.
In fact you can love them all.
God does.
That I believe is our holy calling:  to bear witness to the love of Christ by embracing the diversity of God’s creation and his children.
You see, the Body of Christ is not divided.
It only appears to be.
We are all one in Christ Jesus whether we want to be or not.
The differences that seem to divide us are actually the diversity that truly defines us as God’s people.
Let me say that again.
The differences that seem to divide us are actually the diversity that truly defines us as God’s people.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 2, John 1.29-42, Behold the Lamb

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Behold the Lamb of God!”
Behold the Lamb.
If you were a Jew living in first century Palestine how would you hear those words?
You would think of Abraham, of Isaac:
1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."
God had asked of Abraham the impossible, as a measure of his faith.  God asked that he sacrifice his son Isaac, the son who he loved and which had been the fulfillment of God’s promise to him and Sarah.
How could God demand such a sacrifice of Abraham?
"God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
In the end, it was God who provided the Son to sacrifice.  Jesus.
Behold the Lamb of God.
21 Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, "Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. 23 For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. 24 You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. 25 When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. 26 And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this observance? ' 27 you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses. '" And the people bowed down and worshiped.
It is notable in the Gospel of John that Jesus is introduced by John as the Lamb of God and then is crucified at the very hour that the Passover Lambs were being sacrificed in the temple.
The Passover Lamb whose blood saved the house of Israel from the angel of death that they might be free.
God comes to us as a Lamb, vulnerable and weak, that he might destroy the greatest power that holds us captive—death itself.

“Behold the Lamb of God!”
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." 37 And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."
“Behold the Lamb of God!”
And then finally, in Revelation, yet another vision of the Lamb.
9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." 10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
“Behold the Lamb of God!”
From Abraham to the end of time the Lamb of God was central to God’s plan of salvation.
God provided the lamb for Abraham to sacrifice.
God destroyed Israel’s enemies and set free those who were marked with the blood of the Lamb.
On the cross, Jesus was the lamb whose blood both was the sacrifice for our sins and the means by which God saved us from our enemies.
And finally, the Lamb will be the light of all people.
God with us, in the form of a vulnerable Lamb.
Crucified and Risen.
People laugh at this message.  They scoff and ridicule it.
Just read the comments on Facebook.
Its part of the vulnerability of the Lamb that God would be laughed at.
Of this Paul writes:
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
19 For it is written,
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Year A, Baptism of Our Lord, Isaiah 42.1-9, Matthew 3.13-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Who are we?
Who are we related to?
And what shall we do?

 ----Sexist stereo type alert----

One of my observations over the years is that if you ask a room full of women to tell you who they are, they will most likely begin by talking about the relationships in their life.
On the other hand if you ask the same question of a room full of men they will tell you what they do.
There is not a right or wrong here.
Be we men, or be we women, we are both related to many people in our lives and called to do many different things, and together, our relationships and our vocations define our lives.
But what is more important?  What comes first and lasts longest?
It is the relationships, the many different relationships, that are primary and which endure.
Our vocations will inevitably change over the course of our lives.
But our relationships have much more of an enduring character to them.
Your mom and dad, are forever, your mom and dad.
Your siblings remain your siblings.
When we enter into marriage it is with the intent that it be life long, and even if we fail at that, that relationship shapes who we are throughout our life.
Children are our children forever.
Even when death separates us, these relationships of our lives continue to define who we are and whose we are.
Our vocations are much more fleeting.
Our earliest vocation is to be a learner, a pupil of life.
And then as our life unfolds we are called to various vocations.
Some of our vocations are defined by our relationships:  for example, being a parent means that we do certain things.  A mother, a father, has to do the work of ‘mothering’ and ‘fathering’.
Likewise, husbands and wives are called to do the work of marriage.
Many of our vocations shape our relationships beyond our immediate family.
I am a pastor.
And a woodworker.
Early in my life, I had a wide variety of jobs that gave me the experience I would rely on throughout the remainder of my life.
I mowed lawns, delivered papers, worked in a grocery store and lumber yard.  I drove a truck.  I’ve been a custodian.  I’ve built a house. 
Even as a pastor I’ve been called to do a wide variety of things, from baptizing little children to being with the elderly as they died. 
Who am I?
Who am I related to?
And what shall I do?
These are the questions each of us answer in one way or another throughout our lives.
They are all interrelated.
You can’t answer one, without reflecting on the others.
From the perspective of faith, baptism answers all those questions.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
These words spoken at Jesus’ baptism shine light on all three of life’s questions.
Who is Jesus?  Who is he related to?  And what about his vocation?
Jesus:  A child of God, God’s own son.  Beloved of God, and called to be Savior of the world.  That is the meaning of his name:  He saves.
Isaiah speaks about the servant of God in today’s first reading:
1Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
In thinking about Jesus, and this question of identity, this is the bottom line:
Jesus cannot be Jesus apart from his relationship to the Father and to us, or apart from his vocation to serve the Father and save us.
Jesus cannot be Jesus apart from his relationship to the Father and to us, or apart from his vocation to serve the Father and save us.
Jesus baptism speaks to his identity, his relationships, and his vocation. 
And likewise, when we are baptized it shapes our identity, our relationships, and our vocations.
The three are intimately intertwined. 
In Baptism we are identified as Children of God.
And we are brought into a relationship with God as our Father and our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
And finally we are called to be servants of God and each other.
This is expressed in our Affirmation of Baptism service:
You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:
to live among God’s faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

Who are we?
Each of us is a child of God, created in his image and called to be his own through our baptisms.
Who are we related to?
Here we have both an extended family and an immediate family.
In breadth, as creatures of God, we are one with all creation and all people.  Our relationship with the world in which we live and the people with whom we live is established in creation.
But also, as Christians we have a more immediate and intimate relationship with those brothers and sisters who share the same faith in God, and in Jesus Christ.
And what are we called to do?
What is our vocation?
It is to love God, and each other. 
We do that by continuing in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism.
Who are we?
Who are we related to?
And what shall we do?

These three questions and their answers are intimately intertwined. 
But inevitably we as humans have taken these intimately connected issues and made them into conditional laws.
If you don’t do the right things. . .
If you don’t hang out with the right people. . .
Then, you must not, cannot be a child of God.
When we do that we make everything into a status that is dependent on our efforts and not the Grace of God.
But our identity as Children of God and heirs of the promise is not the result of our actions, but rather God’s saving grace.
What Martin Luther talks about is that those other things, who we relate to and how we act flow from the first, our identity as children of God.
In the Augsburg Confession this is called the New Obedience of Faith. 
Put simply, the more that we live in the promise that we are loved by God, claimed as his children, and called according to his will—
Then we will naturally begin to love as we have been loved, care for our brothers and sisters, and act according to the will of God’s Spirit within us.
Well, what about when we fail?

Not everyone has faith in God.
Not everyone cares for their neighbor as a brother or sister.
Not everyone does the will of the Spirit.
In fact none of us does so to perfection.
We all fail.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is simply a sign that God is not done with us yet.  He’s still working on us.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Year A, Christmas 2, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18, Children of God

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
I believe that there is an ongoing argument between God and the whole of humanity,
An argument that has continued since humanity first became conscious of God till the present day.
This argument has shaped the very scripture that we read and has formed our common faith, sometimes in good ways, often in bad ways.
At the core of the argument is a simple question:
                “Who are the children of God?”
Or to put the question in a different way:
                “When God sent Jesus into our world, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, who did God intend on saving?”
From a theological perspective, it all comes down to the starting point.
Where do we begin when we answer that question about “Who are the children of God?”
                If we begin with Creation, we will come up with one answer.
                If we begin with Redemption, and our baptisms, we will come up with another answer.

Do we call God “Father” because he created us?
Or do we call God “Father” because we were adopted?  That is, out of all of humanity God chose a few to be adopted, and through our adoption as children of God we have been granted an inheritance in the Kingdom.
How inclusive is God’s love?
How exclusive is God’s grace?
This is not just a theoretical question.  I’ve had to preach at the funerals for a number of unbaptized infants – are they children of God, loved and redeemed by him – or not?  What do you say to their grieving parents?
One response to these questions is to rush to the statement “The Bible says” and then quote one verse or another.
To which I say, “Not so fast, the Bible is shaped by this question, and if we read the entirety of scripture it is clear that within the Bible, this question is consistently answered in a variety of ways.”
It’s not as clear as we would like it to be.
In the earliest scriptural passages, God was Israel’s God.
Israelites were the chosen people of God, and the rest of the world, the gentiles, were not.
God would fight on behalf of the Israel against all her enemies.
The Israelites alone, were the children of God.
It was their birthright.
So much so, that throughout the history of Israel, conversion was simply not part of the conversation.
You either were Gentiles – or Jews.
There was never any missionary movement within Judaism.  And to this day you will not see Jews going door to door in an attempt to convert the world to Judaism.  It just doesn’t happen.
One of the most interesting books of the Old Testament from this perspective is the book of Jonah.

When we think of the book of Jonah, we think of the large fish that swallowed Jonah, and often miss the whole point of that book.
The story begins with God calling Jonah to go and proclaim a message of warning to the city of Ninevah, Israel’s arch enemy.  Jonah refuses to prophesy to the Ninevites, and tries to flee from the presence of God, in Israel, heading in the opposite direction.  That’s when God steps in, brings on the storm, causes Jonah to be thrown overboard, recues him with the whale, and brings him back to Israel, where once again the call is issued for Jonah to go to Ninevah.
So Jonah goes.
When he gets there, his message is simple.
In forty days God is going to destroy you.
And then Jonah sits down to wait.  He wants only one thing, and that is to see the fire from heaven destroy his enemies, the Ninevites, one and all.
Only the Ninevites repent.
And God shows mercy.
And then Jonah is angry and wants to die.
Jonah says: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
God says:  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
How inclusive is God’s love?
How exclusive is God’s grace?
Is God’s grace limited to the faithful few, the chosen ones?  That’s what Jonah wanted.
Or does God love all, even the Ninevites, Israel’s enemies, because they too are created by him and for him?
As Christians we too continue to struggle with this question.
One the one hand you have scriptural passages such as Matthew 22: 14 where it is written “many are called, but few are chosen.”
And then on the other hand you have passages such as Romans 3: 22-24 “For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”
And the promise that is so near and dear to us from the end of chapter 8 that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God.

John 3:16 sums up this question perfectly.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
How inclusive is God’s love?
                “God loves the whole world.”
How exclusive is God’s grace?
                “Everyone who believes in him”
In today’s Gospel lesson this same tension is present between the inclusiveness of God’s love and the exclusiveness of God’s grace.
1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
And then again in 1:16 “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
There is an incredible inclusiveness to that one little word “ALL”.
All things came into being through Christ.
We have ALL received, grace upon grace.
But then the exclusivity is there as well:
1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
I have wrestled with this question throughout my life.
On the one hand you have passages such as our reading from Ephesians where Paul writes: “ He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.”
It’s hard not to hear in that the exclusive statement that “He destined US for adoption”, but not “THEM” whoever the “THEM” might be.
Often we cling to this exclusivity of God’s grace.
One of my parishioners once said “If God plans on saving everyone, what is the point of Christianity?”
But just when we get convinced that God’s love and grace are for the chosen few we hear the other side to the story,
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

The longer I struggle with these questions the more I am convinced that the inclusivity of God’s love and the lavish generosity of God’s grace will win the day.
I wish I could tell you that there is one scripture passage that answers this question conclusively for all time, but I cannot.
What I do know is this:
As a human Father I have four children.  And there is no way that I could love one more than the other.  And never, never, would I choose to condemn one, while embracing the other.

We all understand that.
Love is like that.
Even in all of our human imperfection we know at the very depth of our being that a parent’s love for their children is absolute, and does not depend on a child’s behaving in a certain way. 
I believe that God’s love and grace will be even more inclusive than a parent’s love for their children.
I believe that we will be surprised at the depth of God’s love, and the breadth of his grace.
I have become convinced that the love of God, shown to us at Christmas, as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, is in fact a love that embraces the whole world.
And I believe that it is God’s utmost desire to save and redeem the entirety of his creation.  Not just a part.

I think part of the reason I want to believe this is that if God only plans on redeeming a select few, I am tormented by the question if I am one of them.  Finally, the question gets very personal.
It’s not so much about whether God loves the world, or if God’s grace is sufficient to cover all –
                It’s about whether God loves me, and whether I can rest assured of his grace?
And the answer to that is “Yes”.  That is the bottom line.
Wondering if God loves the whole world is one thing.  But at the heart of the question is whether we can believe that God loves us.
And the answer to that question is simple.
It was for you, that God sent his Son,
It was for you that he was born,
It was for you that he died.