Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Year C, Easter 7: Come!

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.  (Revelation 22:17)

"Welcome" is an active verb.  It is something we do.  It is a gift we offer.  And it is always gracious.

"I've always said, 'To know us is to love us.'"

We were discussing evangelism at a church council meeting.  The member who said this went on to say that many first time visitors to the congregation just didn't give us enough time.  Her point was that if the first time visitors would make the effort to get to know us as a congregation, they would eventually come to appreciate this congregation, and make it their own.  But, it would take effort on the part of the visitors.  Basically, the responsibility was seen as entirely being the visitor's.  It  was their responsibility to come, to get to know, and in turn, to love.  It required quite a commitment on the visitor's part.  It was no accident that most of those who did come, and stay, were people who already had a deep faith and commitment to the Church.

"Well we have to put 'All are Welcome!" on the church sign".  On numerous occasions I've challenged my congregations to think about this statement and what it means.  A more truthful statement would be "Most are welcome.  Inquire within."  The truth is that we have a limited capability to be gracious and welcoming to "all".  We are to quick to come up with the "except. . ."

A young person who is transgender was finding his place within our congregation and offered this suggestion:  "The congregation says it wants to grow-- why don't we make the effort to reach out to all the 12 Step groups that meet in our church?  And why don't we consider becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation and make it clear that GLBT are welcome as well?"  Mostly because I wanted to see what the response would be, but partly because I felt it was a good question, I put the matter before the congregation's council.  The response of one of the members was "Of course all are welcome, but if we have to say gays and lesbians are welcome we will leave the congregation."

When we read scripture, we will hear either an exclusive word, or an inclusive word.  In the first case, there are many passages of scripture high in judgement and condemnation.  Case in point, just two verses after the above passage it reads "if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person's share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."  And yet in verse 17 it says "everyone", "everyone", and "anyone".

The older I get, the more I wonder, what part of "All" do we not understand.  In Romans 3:23 & 24 it is written "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are (all) now justified by his grace as a gift,".

Today is Mother's Day and we honor and give thanks for our mothers and the love they have shared.  Of all the things we could say about mothers, I think one thing stands out.  And that is the capacity of a mother (or a father, for that matter) to love 'all' their children.

And I'm struck how often we think less of God's capacity to love, than we do of our mothers.  For we are too quick to believe that God will condemn to eternal punishment the vast majority of his 'children', who he created.

In contrast to our tendency to judge, stands this one Word.  Come!  Like a mother calling out to her children God calls out to us, simply, "Come!"  Anyone who wishes, is invited to come, and to take the water of life as a gift.

When I showed up at the AA meeting that I now attend regularly, I approached the door apprehensively.  I was greeted with the words "Welcome, we are glad that you are here."  Underlying that welcome was the knowledge that anyone who showed up at that door, at that time, was there because they desperately needed to be there.

My hope and prayer for the Church is that we might also realize that everyone who shows up at our door, does so because somewhere deep in their soul they heard the voice of God say "Come!" and secondly, that we might then be as welcoming as humanly possible simply because these, whoever they may be, are God's invited guests.  Think about that -- no one gets there unless they are invited, and everyone is invited.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Year C, Ascension: Turning and Returning

The admission itself, is the beginning of redemption, for it signals a turn in direction.

The hardest words I ever heard were from my doctor:  "Dave, you are an alcoholic."  And the hardest words I've ever spoken were when I in turn told my wife, my children, and my bishop that "I am an alcoholic."  And then the miracle took place.  The mere utterance of those words set me free.  Today, as a consequence of that admission, I have 3 1/2 years of sobriety, 1,289 days, 30,950 hours, but who is counting!

Jesus names the demons.  And in doing so he has power over them.  And freedom from them is possible.

Isaiah prophesied against the rich getting richer and the poor being squeezed out of the land.  Today, two unlikely allies, Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis, are echoing the same message and calling for a change in direction.  Its likely a confession that we will not be willing to make, yet if we would, we would be set free from our bondage to unfettered capitalism, the "dung of the devil".

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

If you would follow Jesus, there is a strong possibility that this will involve a change in direction, a turning, and with  that a returning to the one who created us.  God stands willing to raise us up with Christ, but first comes the acknowledgement on our part that we need to be raised, that in fact we have died, that we need a savior.

Repentance.  A turning and a returning.

And all of this within the context of forgiveness.  

The Twelve step program lifts up the ideal of "rigorous honesty" and the principle we are to live by.  The  fourth and fifth step call forth this "rigorous honesty" in a way that few people outside of recovery have experienced.  Repentance.

What is totally lacking, however, is condemnation.  That is the surprise for everyone who has gone through the program, facing their fears,  convinced that the consequence of their practicing this rigorous honesty will be humiliation and condemnation.  More likely, they will experience laughter.  And forgiveness.  Forgiven, but never condemned.  The laughter is because we've all been there, and have been set free.  

Jesus left his disciples, ascending into heaven, with these words about repentance and forgiveness.  

I think Christians need to laugh more.  To become so overcome by the experience of God's grace, opened up to us in repentance and forgiveness, that all we can do is laugh.  Laugh at that which once seemed so powerful over us, but which has now become powerless.  Laugh because we have been set free from our bondage to sin, death, and the devil.  Laugh because we who have died, have been raised.  Laugh so wholeheartedly that our laughter ascends to heaven with Christ.  

And life, once again, is good.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Year C, Easter 6, "Oh, my God!, its a City"

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
                   (Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus")

I imagine that the gates to the new Jerusalem resemble Ellis Island.  Ellis Island during the height of immigration, with one exception.  All the nations of the world would be represented.  No preference for northern Europe immigration.  Huddled masses from every corner of the world.  Wretched refuse.  Homeless, tempest-tost.  The tired.  The poor.

In short, all those people for whom Christ showed a deep compassion.  Which in the end is all those people, period.  You and me, included.

"Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there."

Somehow we missed this as we've imagined the pearly gates, with St. Peter holding the "keys", and checking to see whose been naughty or nice.  No locks.  No bars on the doors.  No moat to cross.  No defensive bulwarks needed.  Just an open  door.  And an invitation to come.

Too often have we imagined heaven in terms of who will not be allowed in.  Perhaps, instead, we should think only of who has been redeemed.

One of the most controversial sermons I ever preached, at least in the eyes of a few of my parishioners, was one in which I stated my belief that God created no one with the intent of then condemning them.  I find the Orthodox teaching compelling in this regard.  For they believe that all, "All" with a capital "A", will be in the presence of God in the after life, precisely because there is no place where God is not.  The glory of God will be heavenly for the redeemed, and will be experienced as judgment for those who are not.  I'd take it one step farther and say that God's glory, that uncreated light that shines from his presence, is the redemptive love and grace of God that will in the end leave no one condemned.  All will be born anew.

The parishioner most upset by my sermon where I hinted at this, refused to receive communion from me from Pentecost til Christmas.  And then, when in my Christmas sermon I spoke of my own need for a savior, he had a change of heart and subsequently came forward for communion.  One sentence following the service said it all.  "Pastor, there is room for both of us at the foot of the cross."  And indeed there is.

A youth director I served with use to be preoccupied in her youth messages with this matter of heaven and hell.  As with so many, this one issue was what Christianity is all about for her.  One day she asked the kids, "What do you have to do to get to heaven?"  "Die." was the response of one young lad.  "Die."  Out of the mouths of babes. . .

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

What if those were in fact the words of Jesus, of God, as he beckons us to enter the city.

Imagine that City of God, being somewhat like New York during the height of immigration, a cosmopolitan melting pot of every nation and culture of the world.  And in the midst of all of that diversity there is one thing that unites us.

The love of God.

Not such a bad thought, is it?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Year C, Easter 6: Shalom

"14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Don not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  During my seminary years a venerable old pastor had declared that there were three things that were essential to maintain one's health and sanity in the ministry:  a confessor, a good antacid, and a bottle of Scotch.  Check, check, and double check. . .

It actually took me over a decade of ordained ministry to discover Scotch.  By that time I had a couple of difficult calls under my belt and was beginning a new call with its unique blend of challenges and opportunities.  In the midst of it, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I was dealing with being bipolar.  As I struggled with the mood swings, and the anxieties associated with ministry, I found that there was nothing quite like the amber liquid poured over a glass of ice to lift me up when I was down, and chill me out when I was flying too high.

Looking back, there were two things that I sought.  I wanted to gain control of my moods and to let go of my anxieties.  My new friend allowed me to do both.  From a light hearted lifting of the spirits, (pun intended) to a deep melancholy, even to the point of despondency, I could control those moods.  I knew how I would feel after one, and after 5 drinks. My mind might race with ideas, or settle into a comfortable contentment.  It was all just a matter of quantity and the pace of consumption.  And in the midst of it, I felt I had found a long sought after pathway to inner peace.  It worked until it didn't.

In the end, I, like so many others, crashed and burned.  I realized that I had lost control, and could not let go.  And there was certainly no 'peace' to be had.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

There is a reason why alcoholics in recovery pray this prayer.  Most simply put, peace is what we've sought all along.  And we've learned that it doesn't come sealed in a bottle.

'Foreboding' is the word that comes to mind as I imagine the disciples on that last night with Jesus.  If they had listened to his words, if they had paid attention to the events in Jerusalem as they unfolded, they must have sensed that something was up and it wasn't good.  "Peace, I leave with you."  Yea, right.  Peace must have been the farthest thing from their minds in that moment.  Anxiety, yes.  Fear, for sure, but peace?

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

"I do not give to you as the world gives."  My immediate reaction is that the peace of which Jesus spoke didn't come in a wine skin.

I wish that I could write this morning as an expert on peace and inner tranquility.  I have not yet achieved it.  I continue to yearn for it.  I don't know whether to relentlessly seek it, or simply to pray that I will be granted it.  That's part of the wisdom that we seek in praying the Serenity Prayer.  What I have learned, though, is two things:

First, that peace comes from the recognition that we are not in control.  But that God is.

And second, that peace comes from embracing the notion that tomorrow is God's worry, not mine.

Would that these two principles were as easy to live and they are to write.  One day, perhaps they will be.  I can only pray.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Year C, Easter 5: You Cannot Come. . .Yet.

John 13:31-35

'Where I am going, you cannot come. '

There are some paths in life down which we simply must walk alone.  For all the talk of having companions along the way, there is a point at which those 'companions' are at best spectators, and we are left alone in the experience.  Suffering and death are such a journey.

Strange contrasts in today's text.  Jesus had just said to Judas, "Do quickly what you are going to do."  Betrayal.  Immediately following this text, Jesus tells Peter, "Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times."  Denial.  And in the midst of this denial and betrayal by his own disciples, Jesus speaks of this moment, this moment, as the time of his glorification.  And he speaks of love.  "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."

Ever since Luther said that a true theologian is a theologian of the cross, and not a theologian of glory, Lutherans have been reluctant to talk about the glory of God and the glorification of Christ.  One of the most difficult things for me to make sense of, is that it is on the way to the cross that Jesus speaks of his glorification.  "You will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory."  "Now the Son of Man has been glorified."  These words are spoken in the context of the suffering and death of Christ.

The "Crucified One" is the glorified Christ.

I have come to believe that to be glorified is this:  to have fulfilled the purpose for which one was created and sent.  Nothing less.  Nothing more.  A teacher is glorified when a student learns and grows.  A soldier is glorified when the nation is defended and protected from its enemies.  A doctor glorified in healing.  A carpenter in the building.  A chef in the breaking of bread.  And a Savior, in the saving.

Thus it is precisely in the cross, in offering his life for the sake of the world, that Jesus is glorified.  This solitary act of love, clothed in suffering, surrounded by betrayal and denial, is the glorification of Christ.

And it was a path he had to walk alone, a purpose that only he could fulfill.  No one could do it for him or with him.  "Where I am going, you cannot come."  "But," he adds in a moment, "you will follow afterward."

"Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."

As Christ was glorified, so also, those who follow Christ will be glorified.  And our glorification is this, that we have love for one another.  This is the purpose for which we were created, and it is in the fulfillment of that purpose that we enter into our 'glory'.

There are some paths in life down which we simply must walk alone.  Love is one of those paths.  At first, this statement seems absurd.  Love is that which binds us together.  Love is by definition, is it not, a relationship with the other person.  Right?  Well, no.  I would suggest that what we are talking about is the consequence, the hopeful consequence, of love.  It is not always that way.  As with Christ, sometimes the act of loving the other results not in the establishment of a loving bond between two people, but in betrayal, denial, even death. You can love another person, only to have that person kill you.  That is the truth.

"Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward."

The glorification of one who would follow Christ, is in loving without regard to the reward.  It is in loving even if our love is to be rejected.  It is in loving, even if that love lands us on the cross.

Perhaps it is because I am at the core a very shy introvert that I think in this way.  I have never felt more alone, exposed, and vulnerable that when I first, clumsily, attempted to reach out in love.  The fear of being rejected, and utterly humiliated, was very real.

If congregations were always loving, being a Christian would be easy, being a pastor a breeze.  But love is not always received nor reciprocated.  It is always vulnerable.

And yet it is in this giving of ourselves, as Christ gave himself for us, that we are glorified.  It is the purpose for which we are created.  Loving, offering ourselves to others, as Christ offered himself for us, is a journey to which we are called, even if that means walking the entire way alone.  Yet, when we do so, with are with Christ, and Christ is with us.

And that is sufficient.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Year C, Easter 5: "Tov Meod!"

'What God has made clean, you must not call profane. '

There is an old preacher's story:
In times past, when Latin was the language of the learned class, there was a teacher who was dying.  Impoverished in his old age, he was dying in a pauper's hospital that was as much a laboratory for medical research, as it was a place of healing.  While he lay on his bed, two doctors were making their rounds and discussing in Latin the experiments and research they would perform on the death of each of the patients.  When they got to the teacher's bedside, one of them said, "And what shall we do with this vile creature?"  The teacher, being fluent in Latin, responded, "How dare you call vile a person for whom our Lord offered his life!"

During the course of the conversations in our Church with regards to sexuality over the last few decades, there was one parishioner in particular who could not broach the subject of homosexuality without quoting the passage from Leviticus, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination."  And it was not simply a specific act that he considered an abomination -- it was the people.  In doing so, he joins a long line of people, that truthfully probably includes all of us, who routinely make value judgments about the worth of other human beings.

'What God has made clean, you must not call profane. '
"How dare you call vile a person for whom our Lord offered his life!"

Of late, I have been reflecting about how even the shape of our Gospel proclamation continues this age old tradition of beginning with a declaration of our being "vile", or "profane", sinners to the core.  We begin our worship with confession, "I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed!"  "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift,"  Justification, yes, but (and this is a big "but") only in the context of confession & repentance.  Our theological roots demand that we begin with the utter depravity of human kind.  It's the first word.  The first word, apart from which the Gospel makes no sense, we are convinced.  And yet is it the first Word?

"What God has made clean. . ." can be interpreted from the standpoint of redemption, that is, what once was "profane" has now be made clean.  Or it can be interpreted from the standpoint of creation.  God made this clean!

"God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good."

That evil is present in our world, I do not deny.  I have had to confront the reality of my own failings too many times to deny this.  But is that where we must begin?  With an understanding that the world and all that is in it is fundamentally evil, including our own selves?  I wonder if our very understanding of the Gospel is tainted by our preoccupation with sin.  And I wonder what it would be like to begin our conversation with one another, to begin our worship, not with "I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself." but with a simpler, more gracious Word:  "Tov Meod!"  Good.  Exceedingly Good.

I have been so indoctrinated into the Lutheran  understanding of the Gospel that to consider beginning with the Goodness of creation seems like heresy.  Can I consider myself an "Evangelical" Lutheran apart from a theology rooted in an understanding of the sinfulness of all humanity".  There are voices from my past that declare that "No, no I can't be considered Evangelical, if the starting point for my theology is anything other than sin."

Interesting, that the Bible does not begin with "sin", but the goodness of all creation.

How does the conversation of life change if this is our starting point?  If I encounter my GLBT neighbor with the words "Tov, Meod!", that is "exceedingly good", on my lips instead of "abomination", does it not radically change the conversation?

Actually, what I am yearning for is not that radical of a proposition at all.  We recently welcomed into the world our first grandchild.  As we first held Jasper, it was as if the whole creation was screaming "Tov,  tov meod!"  I just cannot imagine holding a newborn in one's arms and declaring "Vile!", "Profane!"  "An abomination!"


Child of God.  Created in God's image.  And God's Word was "Tov, Tov Meod!"  That is the heart of the Gospel message.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Year C, Easter 4: Coming Out

Revelation 7
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal. . .

Well, that covers a multitude of situations in life, doesn't it?  Historically, the author of Revelation undoubtedly has a specific ordeal in mind, probably one of the first major persecutions of the Christians.  Would that that had been the only ordeal.

Life itself can be an ordeal.  An ordeal made worse by the knowledge that it didn't have to be that way.  I remember an elderly woman in one of my parishes, who upon the death of her spouse of 64 years reflected on what had been a difficult marriage at best.  She had two things to say.  "Pastor, when you say 'for better or worse' you have to realize that there will be some times that are worse."  And then:  "But it could have been so much better."  She is one who had come out of "the great ordeal".

A woman, having been raped hours before by one she loved, collapses on the floor of my office.  The great ordeal.

A couple, having faced more than enough challenges in life as it was, woke up to the horrifying sound of their daughter's alarm clock ringing.  Alison had been killed in an automobile crash the night before.  Desperately they tried to silence the alarm, but they could not.  It was the moment that amid all the shock of what had happened the reality set it -- their daughter would wake up no more.  The great ordeal.

For me, one of the most difficult times of my life was reaching my rock bottom brought on by alcoholism.  There was the gradual descent.  The loss of control.  Nearly the loss of my life.  And the utter humiliation of hospitalization and the admission that I am an alcoholic.  The great ordeal.

Would that we might have been spared all these things.  But we were not.  Perhaps, even we could not be spared.  That's simply not the way life is.  There simply will be times great and small that are a "great ordeal".  No exceptions.  If nothing else, we will all have to face our own death, timely or otherwise, and that alone is a "great ordeal".

The promise is not that we will be spared, but that we will come out of it.  "These are they that have come out of the great ordeal."  There is no better messenger of hope for one that is in the midst of a great ordeal, than the witness of one who has been through it and come out of it.  The grace of "coming out" is that we weren't destroyed by it.

But, there is more.  To speak of Christ's "passion", is to speak of his "compassion", a suffering with those who suffer, who are in the midst of the great ordeal.  There we encounter suffering.  There also, we encounter the Crucified One who meets us in our suffering and sees us through to the other side.  That there are those who have "come out" is a promise that there is a way out, that suffering will not be the final word, and the Christ will lead us through it to the other side.

Post Script:  To those of you who thought my blog entry "Coming Out" would bring a particular revelation about me, sorry.  Though I should acknowledge that coming out in that way, is also a place where many have encountered Christ, and the end of their own "great ordeal".

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Year C, Easter 4: The Father and I are One

John 10:22
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." 25 Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. 30 The Father and I are one."

Jesus prayed:  "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,"

We live in a world that is radically diverse, yet One.  The diversity, that which differentiates each of us from the other and from the world in which we live -- this is visible.  The oneness, that unity that binds us all together into the very fabric of life is invisible.  Faith alone can see this.

Imagine what it would be like if we could see the world the way it is, not just the way it appears.  Imagine if our eyes could see on an atomic level.

I'm fascinated by this.  Especially by how different the world is at an atomic level from the way it is that we perceive it.

First of all, everything is alive.  Think about that.  Everything is alive.  The fence post is naught else but a collection of neutrons and protons, and those whirling electrons.  Energy.  Alive.

And then on top of the fence post a crow sits.  Likewise, a whirling constellation of atom after atom, no different at this level that the post on which it stands.  And here I sit, able to look at the crow, and the fence post, and to reflect about them, yet I too am but a constellation of whirling atoms.

Were we able to see at this level, what we would see is not the radical diversity of creation, but its radical unity.  It is a cosmic soup of atom upon atom, each bound to the other by the forces of energy, and each distinguished from each other by those same forces.

Wonder.  It is so elementary that all of creation is one.  Yet, we devote so much of our energy to the matter of differentiation.  The unity of creation is offensive to us.  And not only do we differentiate, we assign different values, values that always favor us, because after all we are making up these rules.

There is the differentiation of that which is "alive" from that which is "dead".  Of simple organisms from the complex.  Of plant life from animal life.  And at the pinnacle of it all, we stand, sentient beings, thinking, feeling, living beings.  To us alone do we ascribe souls, and the designation, "created in God's image".  Yet we do not stop there, we differentiate ourselves from one another by race, class, and creed and any number of other markers.  And to each we assign a value, greater or lessor, depending on how closely they resemble ourselves.  

Over and against this differentiation of being and value, we have two of the most radical statements made by Jesus in all of Scripture.  The first statement almost got him killed.  And shortly after the second statement he was killed.

"The Father and I are one."  The second is like it:  "I ask that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,"

The Orthodox refer to this process of becoming One with God as Theosis.  In the West we are more inclined to see this as blasphemy.   

The wonder of it all is the "Oneness", the unity of all creation with it creator, is not something to be aspired to, it is the fundamental basis of existence.  And to speak of the reconciliation that is at the heart of the Gospel message, is to reclaim this truth about ourselves.