Saturday, November 9, 2019

Leaning into the future. Year C, Pentecost 22, Job 19.23-27a, Luke 20.27-38

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, Amen.
When we were young, the span of a human life seemed like an eternity.
As we age, it’s more like the blinking of an eye.
We are growing older.  It seems time passes quicker as each year goes by.
I heard an explanation as to why that is the case many years ago.  That person suggested that we measure time by the span of years we have already lived.
That is, if we are five, waiting a whole year seems like forever because it’s twenty percent of the total span of years we had lived up to that point.
However, if we are 100, a year is only 1% of the total life span that had passed before, and so it seems like a relatively short period of time.
At any rate, whether we are five or fifty, aging happens.
Another thing that happens with age is that the focal point for our hope shifts.
The younger we are, the more our hope is focused on the future that we are growing into in our lives.  It’s a hope for the here and now, for the world in which we live, and for the days and years ahead.
And then as we grow older, we begin to recognize that our days on this earth and the time we have left is drawing to a close.  We look beyond the horizon to the promise of salvation and eternal life.
Two futures.
And we lean into those futures with hope and expectation.
For Job, whose life fell apart in a most devastating way, it was the future that sustained him in hope.  God’s future, that eternal hope.
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, .  .  .
As my father approached his 100th birthday, he longed for the fulfillment of this promise.  Actually he had misgivings about the length of his life.  On the one hand he felt quite blessed to have lived well into his nineties with relatively good health.  One the other hand, he somewhat envied those who had died, for they were already with Christ, surrounding the throne of God, and living in paradise.
There is another side, though, to our future hope and that is the future that will be on this earth.
That future will continue to unfold without respect to how many years are left in our lives.
It’s a future that will be lived by our children and our children’s children.
Our future in heaven is a gift we receive directly from God.
And the other, the future in this world, is a gift we give to our children.
To live our lives faithfully and in hope means that we lean into those two futures, not neglecting one for the sake of the other, but rather recognizing the importance of each.
To live in hope for the future of this world, is to care for the environment, seeking to pass it on to future generations in better shape that when we first received it.
Our time on this earth may be getting more and more limited, but the future generations that will follow us still need this earth, even if we don’t.
To live in hope for the future of this world, is to care for things such as our government, our schools, and such things as the local businesses upon which our lives depend.  And we do so, even when our own personal, immediate and pressing need has passed. 
For example, even though I am long since past my school years, and my children as well, I am thrilled that in Sandpoint this last week we passed a permanent levee so as to provide stable and sustained funding for the years ahead.  That will benefit my grandchildren, and the others that come behind me.  It’s for their future, not mine.
And also, to live in hope for the future of this world is to nurture the relationships that are so crucial to making our lives meaningful and rich.
One example for me of this came to me when I lived in the rural areas of eastern Montana and elsewhere.
What I noticed was that there was reluctance for most of the farmers and ranchers there to enter into any significant conflict with their neighbors.  The reason was that the quality of their future and the future of their children for generations to come was tied up with those neighbors on the other side of the fence.  They stood by each other because they knew that they, and subsequently their children, would still be standing side by side for generations to come.
To live into the future with hope is to care for the quality of life of future generations without regard to how many years that we ourselves have left.
Yet at the same time we invest in the future in this world, we also look beyond to the fulfillment of God’s promise of eternal life.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

"1 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
where God our Father dwells:
how boundless there the blessedness!
No tongue its greatness tells.
There face to face, and full and free,
the everliving God we see,
our God, the Lord of hosts!
2 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
what glory deep and bright!
The splendor of the noonday sun
grows pale before its light.
The mighty sun that goes not down,
before whose face clouds never frown,
is God, the Lord of hosts!
3 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
no tears of pain are shed,
for nothing there can fade or die;
life’s fullness round is spread,
and like an ocean, joy o’erflows,
and with immortal mercy glows
our God, the Lord of hosts!
4 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
God has a joy prepared,
which mortal ear has never heard,
nor mortal vision shared,
which never entered mortal thought,
in mortal dreams was never sought,
O God, the Lord of hosts!"

This hymn by Laurentius Laurentii Laurinus speaks to this hope.
Of heaven, and of this hope, it is easier to sing than it is to speak.
We wonder what it will be like.  We question.  We imagine.
Today’s Gospel lesson is an example of the type of questions we raise.
If a woman has seven husbands in this life, whose wife will she be in the resurrection???
This brought back a memory from my confirmation class.
Candance Jorgenson was one of my classmates, and during one of my dad’s lessons on heaven, Candace blurted out “I don’t know if I want to go to heaven!”
And then she talked about sitting in the clouds playing a harp, as not sounding like very much fun at all.  Nor did my dad’s suggestion that we would be constantly worshipping God and singing his praise. 
It’s like enough already.  A worship service without end seems a bit much.
What will we do, what will it be like, who will be there, and such? Questions.
On a more serious note, one woman who I spoke with as she was dying was deeply concerned about this Gospel reading.
A big part of her hope was that she would be with her husband in heaven.
She was deeply concerned that Jesus said: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
To be honest, I didn’t know how to answer that question.
Some of us hope that even death will not part us, do we not????
And what will we do, what kind of relationships will we have?
We will not find hope, though, in the questions, but in the promise:
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

We cling to this promise, ready to be surprised, but trusting in the one who called us to faith, Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord and Savior.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Year C, All Saints Sunday, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31, Now and Not Yet

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
We believe that we are Children of God, created, redeemed, and sanctified.
And as children, heirs of the promise.
That promise is summed up in these words from Ephesians:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
To be children of God, and to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all creation, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, is to make a bold statement about the status quo in this world.
At the level of our faith, we are no longer citizens of this world, subject to the authority of earthly rulers and powers, but subject rather to the reign of God.
Having said that I should acknowledge that Paul does exhort us in Romans to be subject to the governing authorities.
However in Phillipians it is also written that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We live, you see, as citizens of a foreign land, aliens and sojourners in this land, whose sights are set on the Kingdom of God that is promised, and are not content with the status of the world in which we live. 
The Spirit of God is a restless spirit, that leans into the future, God’s future, and claims the promise of what could be and what will be.
H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about the relationship of the Christian to the world in his book, Christ and Culture.
Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit's encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture.  For the conversionist, history is the story of God's mighty deeds and humanity's response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less "between the times" and somewhat more in the divine "now" than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.
Is the Kingdom of God a very present reality, or out there, somewhere in the future?
And what does that mean for our life in the here and now?
One of the things we do as Christians is to relegate Christ and his reign to the future.
The Kingdom of God will one day be, but is not now.
It’s coming.
We hope for it.
Jesus will one day reign over all.
But not today.
Today we live as citizens of an earthly kingdom.
When we do that, we strip Jesus of the power and authority with which the Father has clothed him.
And we. . . can’t do that.
WE don’t have that authority.
But that’s not to say that we don’t often submit ourselves to earthly authorities, and declare our allegiance first and foremost to them.

When I look at the politics of this world, I’m convinced there are two basic viewpoints that govern our convictions and guide our actions.
Roughly, these worldviews correspond to the division between liberals and conservatives, but not entirely. 
But in general, people fall into one of two camps.
The ‘conservative camp’ rallies around slogans such as “Make America Great Again”, and underlying that is a conviction that there once was an ideal time, and our challenge for the present is to reach back into our history to reclaim that which we once had, but lost somewhere along the way.
The ‘liberal or progressive camp’ believes that we are on a mission to make the world a little better, in every way, every day.  It’s a belief that the future will be better than the past.
Using a Biblical image, one group wants to return to the Garden of Eden, the other yearns for the City of God.
The question is where do we find our hope?
One looks back to the nation of our childhood and hopes that we can return to that former time, often forgetting the challenges that we faced then.
The other looks forward to an idealized future in which we overcome the old challenges and wake to an ever better day.
Are your best days ahead of you or behind you?
That’s the question that underlies the politics of our day and which shapes our world view.
But the more significant question is whether the government under which we live has the capacity to fulfill the hope that we cling to.
And related to that, is the question of the Kingdom.
And our citizenship.
And who is our Lord and God.
For all of the differences that plague us, one thing most everyone can agree on is that things could be, should be, better than they are.
But who will make it so?
And when?
Put another way, just ask yourself this question.
“Does your hope for the future lie with the government or the Church?”
I’m not sure that I want to trust either of those as earthly institutions, as both of them have too often been flawed, becoming as much a part of the problem as they are a solution to it.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is a simpler question.
“Who is your Lord?”
And what does that mean for your life?
When you look to the future does your hope lie in earthly rulers like Barack Obama or Donald Trump?
Or in Christ, who is Lord of all creation and far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named?
Of course, as Christians we have no choice but to say that Christ Jesus is our Lord.
That’s who we are.
And yet, which authority do we submit to?
Do we live our lives as ‘good citizens’ of the United States?
Or the Kingdom of God?

When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom, he says:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
There is nothing more contrary to an earthly Kingdom, than that first sentence:  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
As a nation we kill our enemies.
We punish those who hate us, and shun those who curse us.
And, of course, we protect ourselves against those who would abuse us.
We celebrate our victories over others, and avoid at all cost showing any sign of weakness or defeat.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
When we hear such words of Jesus, most of us would conclude that an ideal such as this is simply not wise or practical with respect to governing our country.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
We may consider ourselves to be a Christian nation, but most of us would say that’s no way to run a country. 
But just maybe, Jesus, whom we declare to be Lord of All Creation, knows something about life in the Kingdom that we don’t. 
One final note:
When I get dismayed about the state of the politics in our land I find myself wishing that there was an option to be a citizen, not of this country, but of the Kingdom of God.
Pipe dream.
But actually, not.  We are called to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, heirs of salvation, and Children of God. 
We acknowledge one Lord and Father of us all.
That’s the life of faith, a life of being a sojourner, an alien resident of this land, but a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
It is to look forward in hope to the fulfillment of that Kingdom, while at the same time living our lives under the reign of the one true King.
Our God.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Be Still Year C, Reformation Sunday, Psalm 46

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.”
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Those two words, “Be Still”, represent for us one of the most difficult challenges for us and also, an incredible invitation to a life of faith and trust.
Be Still.
Just be Still.
Another similar passage comes from Exodus, the 14th Chapter.
Moses had just led Israel out of Egypt, and they had come to the Red Sea.  As they stood there with their backs to the sea, and with Pharaoh’s army bearing down upon them, they panicked. 
In great fear they cried out to the Lord.
In response to their cries, Moses said:
"Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again.  The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."
Of course then, the sea parted and the Israelites were delivered out of the hands of the Egyptians and set free.
Stand firm.
Be Still.
And know that I am God.
In Psalm 46 David addresses two of the most powerful sources of threats to the people, natural disaster and the national crisis of war.
In Genesis 1 the state of the universe prior to God’s creative activity was that of a watery chaos, formless, void, and dark.
And to an extent, the threat under which we live in the face of natural disasters is a return to that primordial chaos which reigned upon the earth at that time.
Fear is the result.
Jerusalem was a city that lay in the sites of many an empire.
The nations of the world would rise up against her, and more than once armies would lay siege against her.
Our instinctual response to such threats and the fears they provoke is either to flee or fight.
God invites us to another response:
Be still, then, and know that I am God.
Calm down.
God is in control.

As we journey through this life we face threats in various ways and forms.
The first is the threat to our life that comes as a result of our own mortality.
Life is fragile.
It is a delicate balance.
And it can come to an end in a moment, in the blinking of an eye.
The older I get, the more aware I become of this.
And one of the facts that becomes more and more pronounced for me with each passing year is how many times I have faced issues which might have caused my death.
On Friday morning, driving to work in Hayden for the last time, I reflected on how lucky I was to have made that commute, in all sorts of weather, for four years and aside from a minor altercation with a deer, to have been safe through it all.
A simple thing such as driving can be a threat and end our lives in the blink of an eye.
I’m also increasingly aware of the threat that we face with our health.
I’ve had at least three conditions that, in another day, could have meant my death.
Open heart surgery for a mitral valve failure.
Nearly drinking myself to death.
And last year, a bowel obstruction that just a few decades ago would have meant sure death in a matter of days and weeks.
In the face of all that threatens us, God calls out to us:
Be still, then, and know that I am God

Our nation finds itself in perilous times.
In years past the threat that we faced was from the outside.
Whether it was the Germans or the Japanese in  World War II, or the Russians during the height of the Cold War, the enemy was well defined and, to an extent, easily defended against. 
Today the threat to our nation lies within.
It’s not that the Left is a threat.
Or that the Right is a threat.
What really threatens our country is the growing partisanship and widening divide between Left and Right. 
Even though no shots have been fired it is as though our nation is at war with itself.
And we fear for the future.
Face with these fears, God’s word for us is
Be still, then, and know that I am God.

On another front, natural chaos looms on the horizon and is too often experienced.
Mother Nature seems to be pissed.
Scientists tell us that this is the result of climate change.
And, that matters will get worse, much worse.
Storms will rage and destroy.
Flooding and droughts.
Rising sea levels.
And significant changes to the delicate balance of this world in which we live that may result in a variety of threats to our health and wellbeing.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Be still, then, and know that I am God.

Face with all these threats do we fight or flee?
Or do we simply choose to ignore them, pretending they are not here?
For some of us, we have the privilege of responding with apathy and indifference because at the moment we are not under direct threat.
For others, the threat is real and the threat is now.
Category 5 Hurricanes cannot be ignored.
Nor can one ignore it when the family farm is now under water due to rising lake levels.
The dysfunction of our government, and the threat to our democratic way of life do not resolve themselves if we simply turn off the news.
Nor does our mortality go away if we but choose to ignore it for another day.
Faced with all this we can come out fighting.
Or we can flee as fast and as far as we can.
Or we can just stand there.
Be still, then, and know that I am God.
The measure of our faith is not in how we entertain ourselves during the good times, but rather in how we face the most difficult of times.
Can we sit back and simply trust God to be our deliverer, our savior, and our protector?
It seems to me that there are two dimensions of this faith in God.
The first dimension is to recognize that God, and not us, will be the only one to be able to address and overcome these most difficult of threats.
In the midst of it, our response then is to be that of faith, standing firm, being still, and witnessing the salvation of our God.
That is a passive faith in which we place our trust in the God who has promised to save us.
And then there is also an active faith.
It is a bold faith.
It is a faith that believes that God can work through us and bless our labors as we seek to do his will and follow his commands.
It takes faith to believe that we can be agents of healing.
It takes faith to believe that we can be ambassadors of reconciliation.
It takes faith to believe that we can care for this planet upon which our very lives depend.
Most of all, it takes faith to believe that God can and does work through us and through our labors.
May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Gimpy Faith Year C, Pentecost 19, Genesis 32:22-31, Luke 18:1-8,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Wrestle with God, if you must, hold fast throughout the night, and when morning comes don’t be surprised that you come up wounded from the battle.  One does not prevail against God and remain unscathed.  Yet cling to the promise, nevertheless.
When I went into ministry, one of my biggest concerns was prayer.
I had idealized notions of what prayer was all about, and very overwhelming sense that other people’s piety afforded them a prayer life that I simply didn’t have.
My sense was that my father, for example, was richly blessed with an ability to pray that escaped me.
He would pray as though God was just around the corner in the next room.  Raise your voice a little, which he did, and God will hear you.
I had heard others talk about their lives of prayer and devotion, and it often seemed like they had an admirable ability to be in conversation with God as though God was their best friend.  The words just flowed. 
This struggle remained with me throughout my years in ministry.
Of all the questions I’ve been asked during interviews by call committees, the one that gave me the most trouble was “Tell us about your personal life of prayer.”
If I had to tell you about it in an interview it was no longer my personal life of prayer.
That was one objection.
But the other was a sense of inadequacy.
I wish I could pray like my father.
But I can’t.
It’s not that I don’t pray.  I do.  You know that.
I’ve prayed with people from birth to the grave.
Sometimes my prayers are eloquent.
Sometimes they are labored and cumbersome.
Still, at other times I’ve felt inspired to pray.
At one such time I composed this prayer, which remains my favorite:
Hold me tight, most precious Lord,
                That I might follow you.
Grant me grace to live each day,
                May I be born anew.
Lift me up whenever I fall,
                And never let me fade
From the grace filled light
                Of your own sight
                That turns the night to day.

Yet prayer remains a struggle.
One of the issues I’ve had to deal with is the philosophical one.
I’ve questioned as a philosopher, the effectiveness of prayer.
My struggles philosophically with prayer are similar to the “problem of evil” that philosophers debate.
If God is all loving, and God is all powerful, then why is there evil?
Evil continues, so either God is not all loving, or God simply isn’t able to stop it.
That’s the problem of evil for philosophers.
My philosophical problem with prayer was similar.
When we pray for something good, like a cure from a deadly disease, and the person we are praying for dies anyway, then we ask why.
Perhaps we didn’t pray ‘right’.  It’s our fault for not praying as we ought.  But what a burden that is for us to bear.  I’ve prayed with moms and dads whose children were dying, and they did die.  Do I really want to believe that the reason they died was because of my inadequacy in prayer???  That if I had just been better at it, they would have lived???  That’s it’s my fault???
Maybe God just doesn’t hear our prayers.
You know, God has a lot on his mind, what with being the Lord of the Universe and all.  Perhaps he just doesn’t have time to worry about my surgery next week. 
Well, if God doesn’t have time to listen, why pray?
Or perhaps, God does care and listen to our prayers, but he just can’t do anything about it.
Babies will die.
Tragedies will happen in spite of our prayers, because God can’t or won’t intervene.
That’s a philosophical problem with prayer.  And it eats away at our faith.
But then there are other times when prayer seems to work like magic. 
Healing happens.
Doors open.
It’s just a clear as day.
And when it’s all over everyone involved just really senses that the hand of God was all over it.
As a bishop of mine once said:
“Dave, this is a God thing.”
Sometimes, you just know that.
As I’ve struggled with prayer over the years there are two passages from the Bible that have become most dear to me.
The first is from Romans 8:
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Over the years, I’ve prayed eloquent prayers, and not so eloquent prayers.  Sometimes I’ve know just what to say and how to say it.  At other times I searched for the right words.
But more times than not, I’ve learned to sigh.
“Sighs to deep for words” has become for me a model for prayer.
And as I sigh, I also cling to the promise that the Spirit is helping me in my weakness and that those deeply felt sighs are actually the Spirit’s own intercessions.

The second passage is today’s Old Testament lesson.
4Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
There may be a lot of things I haven’t done well with respect to prayer.
But, I can tell you this much, I have spent many a sleepless night wrestling with God.
This story about Jacob is amazing.
He wrestled all night.  All night.
And it was not just another man with whom he struggled, but God.
And having prevailed against God throughout the night he received God’s blessing at the break of day.
With a catch.
A dislocated hip.
He prevailed in his struggles with God, but was left with a limp when it was all over.  It took its toll.
Jacob had feared for his life as he anticipated meeting up with his brother Esau the next day.
You remember the story.
He had cheated Esau out of his birthright, and had been on the run ever since.
Now was the day of reckoning. 
Jacob had tricked his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, and now he had the audacity to wrestle with God until God blessed him as well.
Jacob often is looked upon as a despicable character, a cheat.
Yet there is another dimension to him.
A faithful dimension.
As evidenced by his wrestling through the night and prevailing, Jacob had a persistent, resilient, and unwavering faith.
He wrestled through the night and prevailed, and for that, God blessed him. 
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells us as his disciples to “pray always and not to lose heart.”
And he tells the parable about the woman who persisted in her appeals to the judge for justice, and finally was granted her wish because of that persistence. 
A stubborn, persistent, demanding even, faith.
Do not lose heart.
Do not give up.
Wrestle through the night but never let go.
Never let go of God.
Wrestle with God, struggle with God, but hold fast to God and the promise of his blessing.
That’s the epitome of faith.
To struggle through the night, and to prevail until morning when the promise is fulfilled.
The struggle may not be easy.
We may come up limping as a result.
But in the end God will be faithful to his promise.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 18, 2 Kings 5.1-3, 7-15c, Luke 17.11-19, Grace without borders.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Grace. . .
“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
Grace. . .
We have a problem with grace, and that is our ego.
A commander of an Aramian army.
One powerful enough that the King of Israel was frightened and intimidated by him.
A foreigner.
But most importantly, a leper.
A couple of things we know about lepers:
·         Leprosy was a dreaded infectious disease;
·         It was often considered a curse from God brought about by our sin and the decay brought into the world by the fall;
·         Lepers were shunned.  Fear of contracting the disease led to people being ostracized and isolated from their communities and families;
·         And finally, there was no known cure.
All of this meant that lepers were considered some of the lowest of the low, cursed by God and man alike, and with little or no standing in the community.
Which makes Naaman an interesting case.
Leprosy actually shows no favorites.
It’s not just a disease of the weak and the poor.
Naaman was a man of great power, and probably, wealth.
And yet he suffered from this disease.
And he was desperate.
So desperate that he took the advice of a young slave girl and sought help from an enemy and a foreign nation’s God.
Naaman was so desperate that he was willing to do anything to be cured.
What he didn’t expect was grace. . .
Elisha sent word to him, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman expected something different.
“I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?”
Wash and be made clean.
And he was enraged.
·         Well, for one thing, to be told to wash probably offended him because of the belief that leprosy was a result of filth. 
·         And secondly, Naaman was still proud enough that he felt he deserved the personal attention of Elisha.
·         And finally, he expected more of a ‘show’.
Instead, what he got was just a simple word of instruction.
Wash.  Be clean.  Be healed.
And he was.
In the Gospel lesson we hear the story of the ten lepers that Jesus cured.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
The focus then shifts to one of those lepers, a foreigner, a Samaritan, who alone returned to Jesus to thank him.
One of the directions we could go at this point is to say that these two lessons are about gratitude.
The story of the ten lepers used to always be assigned for Thanksgiving.
The message was sort of a shaming.
Shame on you for being ungrateful.  Even the foreigners returned to give thanks.  You should too.
That’s a little morality lesson.
We learned that from our parents.
Say “Please.”  And say “Thank you.”
OK, point well taken.

Another point we could make today, is about grace.
For starters, though we might want to judge the nine lepers who didn’t return to give thanks to Jesus, the fact is that Jesus healed all of them.
Their being healed was pure grace.
Likewise, Naaman, though he was enraged was also healed.
Wash, be clean.
Show yourself to the priests, be healed.
Another point well taken.

There is another dimension of these Bible stories that spoke to me this week.
That’s the matter of borders.
These were foreigners that were healed.
From Aram.  From Samaria. 
As we study the scriptures, one thing that we learn is that in the beginning there was an understanding that God was the God of the Israelites, and that other nations had their own gods.  It was the God of Israel against the gods of the other nations.
And through much of the Old Testament there was an understanding that God was Israel’s champion, defeating Israel’s enemies and always on Israel’s side.
God was a national God.
What happens as we move through scripture, over the ages, is that more and more God is understood as the God of all nations, not just Israel.  This culminates with the Great Commission where the disciples are sent out to the nations.
But the tendency remains for us, even to this day, to believe that God is “our God”, and by implication, not “their God”. 
There are two ways we draw borders and boundaries in order to claim God as our own.
The first is when we declare ourselves to be a “Christian Nation”.  Implied in that is the understanding that there are other nations that are not “Christian”. 
Now part of that is just fact.
We consider ourselves to be Christian.
Arabs most often are Muslim.
India is predominantly Hindu.
Israel, Jewish.
But there is a line that we cross at times wherein we understand that God is on our side, as opposed to all those other nations.  And sometimes, our American exceptionalism, is so great that we believe God is more on our side than even that of other Christian Nations. 
For example, there are many other nations that are as Christian, if not even more Christian than us, yet we tend to see ourselves as being better than, for example, Tanzania.
And even stronger border that we draw is the religious border. 
Historically, it is the Nicene Creed which defined that border.
If you believe the Nicene Creed you are part of the Christian Church, and if you don’t, you aren’t.
That’s a border.
An interesting part of our history is that the Nicene Creed was written and adopted in response to an order from the Emperor Constantine.
A ruler of nations mandating that the Church define its borders.
Once the Nicene Creed was adopted there were insiders and outsiders.
And grace was reserved for the insiders.
Fast forward to today and the question of borders continues to shape our understanding.
First of all, God is not confined within any of our human borders.
God is not a United States citizen.
And God is not a Democrat or a Republican even though sometimes we act as though he is.
God’s grace extends to all people, regardless of their citizenship or political affiliation. 
And secondly, is an even more divisive question.
Naaman would not have been a Jew, yet the God of Israel healed him.
The Samaritan leper was not considered to be an orthodox Jew, yet he was cured as well.
The question is:  Is God’s grace and mercy an exclusive gift to those who adhere to the Nicene Creed or any other definition we have of the “Christian faith”?
Is baptism necessary for salvation?
Does one have to make a particular confession of faith in Christ Jesus in order to ‘merit’ God’s mercy and forgiveness?
Our historical way of answering those questions was to say “Yes, grace is restricted to those within the Church.  Our Christian faith, our receiving the sacraments of baptism and communion, and our accepting Jesus are the basis of our salvation.”
That’s been our understanding.
That’s how we understand Jesus’ words "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Historically, that not only meant believing in Jesus, but being a member in good standing in the Church.
But over and against this very exclusive claim is another theme in the Bible, namely that God’s prerogative is to show mercy and grace to whomever he pleases:
In Romans Paul writes:
For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."  So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”
The bottom line:  If God wants to be merciful and gracious, God can to whomever he chooses and none of the boundaries that we would make and adhere to matter.  Amen

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 17, Luke 17:5-10, Faith & Forgiveness

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
In the verses that immediately precede this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says:
“Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.  And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive."
 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"
Increase our faith?
Why do the disciples make that plea to Jesus?
Because the forgiveness that Jesus commands his disciples to offer is one of the most difficult things a human can really do.
Harboring resentments, anger, and holding that person in disdain & contempt is a more typical response to those who have seriously wronged us, and certainly easy.
Forgiving, though, is harder.
Forgiving time after time the same offense is almost impossible.
Imagine, for example, a woman whose husband has been unfaithful.  When the affair comes to light, he is filled with guilt and remorse and says, “I am so sorry, please forgive me, and I promise, I’ll never do it again!”
She shows him great mercy and love, and forgives him.
But then, a short while later he has another affair.  Once again he comes to his wife.
“I am so sorry, please forgive me and I promise, I’ll never do it again!”
This scene repeats itself, time after time.
Can we really imagine that the wife, on the fifth, sixth, even seventh time that her husband confesses to having an affair can still find it within herself to continually forgive?
That task would be monumentally difficult.
Our response would more likely be something like:  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Or we might say that yes, we are to forgive our spouse if he/she is unfaithful, but there comes a point where we should also protect ourselves from further harm and hurt by divorcing them for their unfaithfulness. 
Forgive them, yes.
Stay married to them, no.
But that’s not really what Jesus says.
Even if the same person sins against you seven times and repents, seven times, you must forgive.
“Increase our faith!” the disciples exclaimed, “Increase our faith.”
In response to them, Jesus has two things to say.
First, that faith is powerful and does what it does.
And second, that faith is not some extreme virtue so high that only the spiritual giants among us can attain it, but rather faith is simply what each of us is expected to do.
When we forgive, forgiveness happens.
And to do that is simply our ‘job’.
Bill Belichick, the legendary coach of the New England Patriots is famous for his coaching ‘mantra’.
“Just do your job!”
He doesn’t expect his players to go out and win games on their own.
He doesn’t expect his players to go out and win championships on their own.
He expects one thing, and one thing only:  “Just do YOUR job.”
Like the slaves in Jesus’ example, that were expected to serve their master, we are expected to do the same, do what is commanded.
And that means among other things to forgive.
One of the objections we raise, too often, is that people must truly repent in order to be forgiven.
Did the person in Jesus’ example truly repent?
If someone sins against you time and time again, each time repenting and asking forgiveness, only to do it all again—is that true repentance?
Most of us would say “No.”
Yet Jesus says that we are to forgive such a person.
Another issue is the question of repentance.  “What does it mean to repent?”
Literally, repentance means to ‘turn around’.
In our theology, it has at least three different meanings, depending how we understand the work of Christ.
We’ve been studying this in our class, Sunday mornings.
If we understand Jesus to be the victorious King who is fighting the powers of evil in this world, then repentance means to turn from our fears, and trust that Jesus will defeat the forces of evil and set us free.
Repentance.  Turning from fear to trust.

If we understand the Christian faith as being the conflict between a righteous God, and a sinful humanity, then repentance means something different.  Actually, in this regard it means two things:
First, that as sinners we stop doing what we were doing that was sinful.  Just stop it!  And go and sin no more.
And also, repentance means that we turn from our guilt to receive with gratitude the forgiveness offered to us for the sake of Jesus Christ.
The problem with this understanding of repentance is that the Bible makes clear that we cannot just stop sinning.  Paul makes that point in Romans.  And if we could stop sinning, we wouldn’t need forgiveness in the first place.
The third way we understand the work of Christ is as the reconciler between God and humanity.  Sin is understood as separation from God and the family of God, and reconciliation is what forgiveness means.
In this sense, repentance means turning back and coming home.
It’s the story of the prodigal Son.
Do you give up your fear, and trust that Christ will defeat evil?
Do you turn from your guilt and accept the forgiveness freely offered to you by Christ, who died for your?
Do you turn back from your wayward ways and return home to the God who loves you?
These are the questions of repentance. 
Faith then, in these three senses, means:
1.       That we trust that God will defeat all the forces of evil;
2.       That we accept the forgiveness offer by Jesus; and finally,
3.       That we love God and each other as we have been loved.
We haven’t always ‘done our job’ in this regard.
In fact, we’ve failed miserably. 
The fact that there are so many difference denominations is a result of our not really being able to forgive each other for our differences.
We have our conflicts.
And rather than forgive, we either start a new church or join another church, or perhaps even give up church altogether.
Actually this is something that has always struck me as being really troublesome and futile.
First of all, there is only one Church.  We believe in ONE holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  One.
That means that when we have our differences, leaving one Church and joining another doesn’t resolve those differences, it merely accentuates them.
“Just do your job”, Jesus says.
Yet, time after time, we fail to do this one job.
Thankfully, the God who told us to forgive someone even if they sin against us SEVEN TIMES A DAY, also forgives US when we sin against him, day after day.
Thanks, be to God.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

O seer, go, flee away, Year C, Pentecost 16, Amos 6.1a, 4-7

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
It’s not profitable to be a prophet.
True prophets don’t win a lot of popularity contests.  And rarely are they welcome in the King’s courts.
Amos was one such prophet.
Later on in the book of Amos, Chapter 7, we hear this exchange between Amaziah, the Priest of Bethel, and Amos:
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel. '”
Amos had a very unpopular message.
He preached against the economic injustice in the land of Israel.
And he warned about the judgment that was to come, the destruction of Israel and the deportation of its people. 
One of my college professors posed a question.  “Why do you suppose that we have the book of Amos in the Bible, and not the book of Amaziah?  Why, when Amos had such a harsh word of judgment against Israel and Judah, did they in the end view his words as holy, and not Amaziah?”
The answer is that truth endures.
History is the judge between false prophets and true.
A true prophet’s words stand the test of time and are validated in the events that follow.
The reason we have a book of Amos is that the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed as he said it would be.  His words proved to be true.
What does he have to say to us, today?
And were he here in our midst, would we want to listen? 
Probably not.
Prosperity is one of our gods, afterall.
Bill Clinton once famously declared, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
That’s what concerns us.  Are we doing well?
One sermon that could be preached on this text would focus on issues of economic injustice and inequality in our land, as the rich just keep getting richer and the poor, poorer.
One example:
The average wage of a McDonald’s crew member is between 8 and 9 dollars an hour.
The average profit from owning a McDonald’s franchise is one million dollars a year, per store, per location.
Some would lift that up as a prime example of the disparity in our land between rich and poor.
So there’s one sermon.
And all four of the assigned readings for today deal in some way with the issue of poverty and riches, and economic justice.  Those are hard words for people such as us who live in one of the richest nations in the world.
Many would maintain that economic justice is not an appropriate topic for the Church, in spite of the focus that the Bible has on it.
We want to hear a message about love and forgiveness, not justice and mercy for the poor.
Alas, alas, alas for us.

Another question we might ask when dealing with the prophets is “who are the prophets in our day that we should be listening to?”
There are those of us preachers who would like to think that the message we have is a prophetic voice that needs to be reckoned with. 
I mean what preacher does not in some way want to declare “Thus saith the Lord!”
But the chances are that the true prophets will not be found wearing fine robes and earning a salary and benefits package.  And rather than aspiring to be a prophet, the word they carry is most often a burden. 
Amos said, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel. '”
I think we may have one such prophet in our midst, though only time will tell.
She might say:
“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s daughter, but I am a child, a sixteen year old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, who has been given a word to share that the adults in this world don’t want to hear, but that they need to hear, because everything depends on it!”
I am talking about a Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg.
She began her quest to raise awareness and action on climate change by staging a strike, skipping school one day, and sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament building.
That simple act, and her message has ignited a movement, both of those inspired by her and who share her concerns about our earth, and also of those who hold disdain for all talk of climate change.
Whereas last year she sat alone outside the parliament, this year millions around the world joined her climate strike.
And she spoke at the United Nations.  Here are a few of her words:
"My message is that we'll be watching you.
"This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
"For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.
"You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe. . .
"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
"We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.
"Thank you."
Is Greta Thunberg, the great grandchild of a well respected Lutheran pastor and teacher from Sweden, a prophet in her own right?  Is her calling to bring to us a message of warning, that we refused to listen to when it was Al Gore carrying that message.
Time will tell.
History will be the judge.
The risk for us all, though, is that we are dealing with serious consequences if the entire globe on which we live is at risk.
There is another issue regarding climate change that resonates with Amos’ prophecy.
Climate change is also an issue of economic justice.
This is the issue:
The poor, who contribute the least toward global warming, will suffer the most, while the rich who consume most of the fossil fuels that result in the warming of our planet, will suffer the least. That’s troubling.
I have firsthand experience with that.
My employer provides the cabinetry for an ocean front development in the Bahamas.  These homes range in value from a few million, to 20 to 30 million dollars.
They were hit hard by Hurricane Dorian, that category 5 hurricane.
But they were not the ones that are truly suffering.
People who can afford to build a 20 million dollar home, can afford to rebuild it.
It’s the poor people on the island that lost their lives and homes, and livelihoods.
The poor are also the most vulnerable to climate change.
Others will suffer as well.  I talked with a farmer back in my home town of Wessington Springs lately.  “How’s it going?” I asked.
“Well, if the rains would just stop.  .  .”
Climate change is affecting the weather in the Midwest, the bread basket of our country, and in turn, the productivity of the land.
But why talk about such things in Church?
The reason is simple:  God cares about our lives and our well being.
God created this world, and God cares for this world, and God has given us dominion over this world.
It’s a God thing to be concerned, then, about the health of this world. 
A few final thoughts:
I don’t know all the answers.
But I know I am part of the problem.
I also know, that all those windmills that dot the landscape across eastern Washington are not causing me to suffer, but are part of the solution to global warming.
I know that I need to repent.  And to do my part to improve the world in which I live.
I also know that the Church has obsessed over many things.  But perhaps nothing is more important than the health of our planet.
And finally, this may be the one thing that we are judged on, both by history and by God, for so much is at stake.
Is Greta Thunberg a real prophet, or a false prophet?
If what she says is true, we damn well better listen because the future of the world depends on it.
If not, what harm will have been done if we have devoted time and energy to development of clean energy and healthy environments?
That’s the thing.  We can care for the planet that God has created, and still thrive.  If fact, our wellbeing and the planet’s wellbeing go hand in hand.
To care for the world in which we live, will in the end, benefit those of us who live in this world.