Sunday, October 30, 2016

Year C, All Saints Day, Luke 5:20-31

"Blessed are you who are poor,
      for yours is the kingdom of God."

Sacred Time.  Sacred  Space.  And a people made Holy.

Walking with one to the Gates of Heaven, and there we bid goodbye.  

It is a rare privilege to be able to be with one who is dying.  For me as their pastor it was the only time when I felt my work was complete.  Into your hands we commend your servant.  We have done our  part, and now Jesus takes over.  

"Blessed are you who are poor,
      for yours is the kingdom of God."

This is the thing.  Finally we have nothing.  It's not that we don't try to accumulate vast riches.  Much of our lives is spent doing just that.  It's that in the end, we come to the gates of Heaven naked, with nothing.  There is no advantage for the wealthy.  Or disadvantage for the poor.  We have nothing, except for the Grace of God.  

"Blessed are you who are poor,
      for yours is the kingdom of God."

Poverty is not a virtue achieved.  It is the canvas upon which the Artist paints the richness of God's mercy.  When we have nothing, everything is Gift.  To have nothing in and of ourselves is to be blessed with everything from the hand of God.  Such is the Kingdom.

"Blessed are you who are poor,
       for yours is the kingdom of God."

It's the final stage.  A great cloud of witnesses surrounds the throne.  The Chorus sings the melody of Creation, the harmony of Redemption, and soaring above all, the descant of the Spirit's sanctifying work.  

The Father's Love.  The Mother's warm embrace.  And a Son who walks by our side.  Children of God.  Saints.  White robes now clothe our nakedness.  And the blood that pulses through our veins is His.  

There are no more decrees descending from the throne.  Only praise ascending with the angels.  

The warring madness is over.  Peace settles in with a gentle breeze.  

The Garden is no longer a wilderness.  It lies in the heart of the City.  And there all Nations, Every Man, and Every Woman takes up residence.  A rich tapestry.  

With our own eyes, we shall see God.

And all will be Good.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Year C, Proper 26, 2 Corintians 5:17-20, Reformation Sunday, "Reconciliation Happens"

Year C, Proper 26, Reformation Sunday
2 Corinthians 5:17-20
Peace Lutheran Church, Otis Orchards, WA

A reading from 2 Corinthians 15
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
Reconciliation Happens.
That’s my statement of faith for this time.
It’s a statement of faith because, quite frankly, there seems to be little by way of actual facts to back it up.  We live in a world of ever increasing polarization.

That is, an "intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself”, seems to becoming a national sin.

We see it in our politics.

We see it in our faith communities.

We see it in our personal lives.

And yet central to our faith as Christians is this theme of reconciliation. So much so, that Paul understands this as the “ONE THING” that God was up to in sending us his Son, Jesus Christ.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;”

That’s what it is supposed to be about, folks.
Not polarization.
About coming together as one people.
Not about being divided, one against another.

Reconciliation Happens.
I put this up on the reader board outside and then shared it on facebook. 
One of my friends, one who is as conservative as I am liberal responded”
“There is going to a need for a whole basket of reconciliation. If Hillary wins, she is going to have to convince all those "deplorable" people who voted for Trump that she is their President. If Trump wins, he is going to have to convince a lot of people he will govern fairly, without singling out anybody regardless of their skin color, sex, etc. I'm thinking the divide keeps getting wider with name calling becoming the norm.”

Polarization is the norm, it seems.

But Reconciliation Happens.

One of my favorite examples of this in modern political history occurred when Ted Kennedy died a few years back. Of all people, Senator Orin Hatch, the very conservative, Mormon, senator from Utah, was selected to offer the eulogy for Kennedy, that liberal, Irish Catholic senator from Massachusetts.

They were great friends. What I loved was that Senator Hatch, during the eulogy, recalled a story about how he, a teetotaler, had cornered Ted Kennedy after Ted had had a few too many drinks, and got him to agree to a number of things. In the morning, Hatch showed up at Kennedy’s office to remind him of the three things he’d agreed to the night before. Two of the things were with respect to legislation they were working on. “OK,” Kennedy responded, “but did I agree to anything else.” “Well,” Hatch answered, “you agreed to speak to a gathering of 200 Mormon missionaries this week.” Kennedy followed through and according to Hatch delivered one of the best speeches ever on public service to those young Mormon men. A conservative. A liberal. Best friends and respected colleagues.

Reconciliation Happens.

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday.

For Lutherans this is like our 4th of July. It’s the day we celebrate being Lutheran, and historically, the flip side of that coin is that we celebrate our independence from the Roman Catholic Church. We invented anti-Catholic sentiment and misunderstanding.

Luther had wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Instead his concerns were dismissed, he was excommunicated, and the Church was splintered, and divided almost beyond recognition. It was not what Luther wanted. It was not what the Catholic Church wanted. But it happened because of the harsh polemics of the day.

Europe became embroiled in wars between Protestants and Catholics.

The animosity between Roman Catholics and Lutherans continued even to modern times.

I remember myself hearing growing up, that “Catholics worship a dead Jesus (referring to the crucifix’s that hang in their churches), while we, Lutherans, worship the Risen Christ (referring to the empty cross in our sanctuaries).

For 500 years this has gone on.

But tomorrow, on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, in Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis will join The Lutheran World Federation President Bishop Munib Younan and General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge, in leading a prayer service, celebrating the unity we share in Christ.

They will celebrate not only the Reformation, but also 50 years of dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics that has resulted in, among other things, a Joint Statement on the Doctrine of Justification in which Roman Catholics and Lutherans AGREE on the matter of justification, which had divided the churches at the time of the Reformation.

Reconciliation Happens.

Jason and Jennifer (not their real names) came to my office, one day, distraught.
They were considering divorce.
Everything had come to a head after Jason returned from a business trip and confessed to having had sex with a woman, one night, after some heavy drinking in the bar. 
He was the one who wanted the divorce.
Jennifer was willing to forgive him, and Jason related that he should be doing cartwheels down the street because of how well she was treating him.
But, he wanted a divorce.  He didn’t believe that the forgiveness she offered would last.  He was afraid that she would use his mistake against him.  He didn’t want to live in a marriage where he constantly felt guilty.
Actually, he simply couldn’t forgive himself.
But, in the end, she forgave him.
And he was finally able to forgive himself.
And they remain married to this day.
Reconciliation Happens.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
If everything has indeed become new, then all of the past wrongs and the hurts we harbor, are no more.
It’s a new day.
That Reconciliation Happens is only possible because God first reconciled us to himself through Christ Jesus.
He did this by simply “not counting our trespasses against us”.
God didn’t keep score. 
And if you don’t keep score, no one loses, everyone can win.
It’s that simple.
But we like to keep score, some of us more than others.
I hate to admit it, but I am a great score keeper.
I have a good memory.  That can be a curse.
I’ve wasted a lot of energy over the course of my life singing a “somebody done me wrong song.”
To this day I can tell you what my wife said, the morning after we got married, that offended me and that I resented for years. 
Counting trespasses against people.
Allowing wounds to fester.
Yet it need not be so.

Reconciliation Happens.
It may be hard to believe, but it does.

Tuesday, November 8th, we will vote.

And on Wednesday, November 9th, we will still be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Reconciliation Happens.

A Pope and a Pastor.
A Catholic and a Lutheran.
Together, members of the Body of Christ, joining hands and praying for even greater unity.
Reconciliation Happens.

Husbands and wives.
Parents and children.
No longer keeping score.
Forgiving each other,
Forgiving themselves.
Reconciliation Happens.

And sinners, like you and me,
Justified by God’s grace,
Redeemed by Christ Jesus,
Part of the Body of Christ,
Children of God.
Yes, indeed,
Reconciliation Happens.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reformation as Reconciliation

2 Corinthians 5:17-19
 "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

We will gather for worship on October 30 and many congregations will make special note of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  It is the birthday of the "Evangelical Church" or the "Protestant" church.  Luther's great hymn "A Might Fortress is our God" will be sung.  And far too often our celebrations will be marked by a history of anti-Roman Catholic sentiment.  

And then in Lund, Sweden the Pope will jointly preside at a Reformation Service with representatives of the Lutheran Church, celebrating the Reformation by commemorating 50 years of Roman Catholic/Lutheran dialogues that are aimed at achieving greater unity as the Body of Christ.

God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

It is my belief that given the fractured nature of the Body of Christ today, one cannot talk of a Spirit led reformation of the Church without recognizing that for us, reformation needs to involve reconciliation.

It's what Christ was up too.  And he "entrusted the message of reconciliation to us".

But even more important than focusing on the needed reconciliation within the Body of Christ, ours is a ministry of reconciliation that extends beyond the Church to all those who remain as 'outsiders', estranged from God and the Body of Christ which is the Church.

If as I say, the Reformation ought to be about Reconciliation, then rather than our celebration being about the break away from the Roman Catholic Church, it ought to be a major mission festival.  Together the Church's of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches share in the Evangelical mission of reconciliation.  That is where our unity is to be found.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Year C, Proper 26, Psalm 32.5&6, Rigorous Honesty.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and did not conceal my guilt.
I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord."
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
(Psalm 32:5&6)

It was the most terrifying confession I've ever had to make.

I was in the Chemical Dependency Unit of Kootenai Medical Center.  I initially agreed to enter the hospital because of the depression I'd been experiencing.  But while there, my doctor confronted me about my drinking.  "You are an alcoholic."  "You almost died."  I'm not sure which statement was harder to hear.  But together they had an impact, to say the least.

And so I entered the 21 day treatment program.  And during the course of that program there was the "Family Day".  I my case, that involved sitting down across from my wife, with a counselor moderating the conversation, and with the rest of the class looking on.  Both Karla and I had to prepare answers to a list of questions about my drinking.  Rigorous  honesty was required.

Everything that I'd hidden had to be exposed.  "When you would go away for a weekend, I would buy an extra bottle of Scotch to refill the one you knew about so that you didn't know how much I drank. . ."  And on the answers went.  One by one.

Shame.  Guilt.

And yet as those transgressions hit the light of day, one after another, the shame and guilt melted away.  

In the end, absolution came in a hug.  Freedom from all that shame and guilt as well.

Confession does that.  It sets us free.  It restores our life.  And with it comes reconciliation for that which divides us has lost its power, a power that is wrapped in the secrecy.  

"So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Year C, Proper 25, Jeremiah 14.7-10,19-22, Luke 18.9-14, Suffering Savior

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen

Richard Rohr, in his book “Falling Upward” talks about the two halves of life.
Let me share a quote or two from a book review by Lauren Winner, published in the “Christian Century"
The spiritual life has two stages. In the first half of life, you are devoted to establishing yourself; you focus on making a career and on finding friends and a partner; you are crafting your identity. Spiritually, people in the first half of life are often drawn to order, to religious routine. We are developing habits and letting ourselves be shaped by the norms and practices of our family and community.”

“Then—a crisis. "Some kind of falling," Rohr says, is necessary for continued spiritual development. "Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost," writes Rohr, "a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured." The crisis can be devastating. The crisis undoes you. The flood doesn't just flood your house—it washes out your spiritual life. What you thought you knew about living the spiritual life no longer suffices for the life you are living.”

“If you welcome the second half of life, this is what you will find: you learn to hear "a deeper voice of God" than you heard before. "It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of 'common sense,' of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self." You can hear this voice in the second half of life precisely because of all the work you did in the first half; your very self is now a container strong enough to hold the call of the intimate stranger. You find that you can let go of things—pain, judgments, even the need to make judgments.”

In short, what Rohr is saying is that through suffering we move from a spirituality based almost entirely on what we do, our false selves, to a more mature spirituality in which we find our true selves in relationship with God.
But to make that transition, we often have to be shaken to the core.
And that is hard to accept.

We don’t want to accept it because during that time of crisis it feels as though we have been utterly abandoned by God, not as though we are being guided into a more mature relationship with God. Only the perspective of time allows us to see what was really happening.

Jeremiah writes at a time in Israel’s history when Israel was under threat. Eventually, the nation would be destroyed, and the people would be led into captivity and an exile in Babylon.
In our lesson for today, it would appear that the people were genuinely penitent, that they had great remorse for their sins, and that they were putting their hope in God as their savior to help them during this crisis.
But it isn’t sufficient.
Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
Truly they have loved to wander,
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them,
now he will remember their iniquity 
and punish their sins.

They hadn’t suffered enough.
At least not yet.
But they would.
And eventually God would say:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord 's hand
double for all her sins.

Grace eventually happened.
Israel was redeemed.
But first, there was suffering.

Those who have been in Alcoholics Anonymous will watch as people come in and out of the rooms.
Perhaps, they came to AA because of a DUI,
Or perhaps they have come because their spouse threatened to leave them,
Or they have lost a job because of their drinking.
But after a while they go back out.
Running after them and
                Trying to convince them to come back
                Is not effective.
Instead, the old timers in AA will simply sit back and say “They haven’t suffered enough yet, but when they do, they’ll be back.”

Sometimes suffering comes into our lives in a way that has no relationship to our own moral integrity.  We don’t deserve it, but we experience it nevertheless.
I was preaching about this a couple of years ago, and following the service we had an adult class.  One of the participants in the adult class had lost her husband after a long, difficult struggle with cancer.  He was “too young to die”, but he did.
These are hard situations.
Does God bring about such suffering so that we might be better people as a result?
What about the one who died?
Would God take one person’s life, so that another person might experience the growth that come with moving into the second half of life, to use Rohr’s language?
The woman was quite blunt in her response:
If the choice is between suffering the loss of my husband and becoming a more spiritually mature person because of it –
Or continuing in my spiritually immature state, but having my husband—
                I’ll take life with my husband.

It is simply unfathomable that the innocent must suffer in order to receive, through their suffering a greater good.
And yet the truth is that suffering,
                Whether it is deserved or not,
                More than anything else will shape our very identities.
Paul put it this way in Romans 5:
“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  .  .”

Likewise in Chapter 8 Paul writes:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  .  . “
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

And then we have the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray.
The Pharisee prayed:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
And the tax collector prayed:
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
One was justified, one was not.
We will cling to the mercy of God,
But only if we recognize our need for God’s mercy.

And this is the thing.
                Whether we’ve brought it upon ourselves,
                Or experienced it for no apparent reason,
More than anything else exposes our need for a savior.
The is sort of a Good News, Bad News, thing.

The Good News is that you will be raised with Christ.
The Bad News is that first you will die with Christ.

We’d prefer it was different.
Would that the Gospel message was that if you just accept Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior, all good things will happen to you.  That you will live a life beyond your wildest dreams.
But far too often, that simply is not true.
And if someone tries to tell you that, don’t believe them.
Suffering will not just go away.
But that we suffer is not an indication that God has abandoned us.
Quite to the contrary, Jesus suffers with us.
And in the end, it is Jesus suffering that will redeem our own suffering.  This is the mystery of the cross.  That somehow, through dying on the cross, Jesus has brought life to the world. 
Someday, we may understand.
Or perhaps we will simply recognize that it is not for us to understand.
But this much I know is true:
That our only hope in the face of suffering is to look to the crucified One and know that there, God is with us.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Year C, Proper 25, Luke 18:9-14, A broken and contrite heart. . .

I will confess the envy that I have experienced toward those who have a rich and well developed prayer life.  There are spiritual disciplines that seem to have escaped me.  As a pastor I often felt I should be better at this.  Its not that I don't pray.  I do.  In a variety of ways.  Often I'm called upon to be the "professional prayer", something I do willingly, though I often feel that others do better.  And then there is the "personal life of prayer".

I was being interviewed for the call to First in Sandpoint, when at the Synod's suggestion, they asked me to describe my "personal life of prayer".  "If I have to talk about it in a call interview, its no longer personal." was my initial response.  Part of me simply didn't want to talk about something that I felt was woefully inadequate.  I imagined what other pastors did.  In my imagination, I never quite measured up.  I've always taken great consolation in the verse from Romans, "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."  "Sighs too deep for words", that I can do.

And then came one of the worst moments in my life.  Over a period of ten years I had become more and more dependent on alcohol.  I was self medicating.  I was later to be diagnosed as bipolar.  Alcohol, it seems, is not a good mood stabilizer for someone who is bipolar.  Actually, it worked until it didn't.

A conflict erupted in the parish.  Personal criticism that I felt was unwarranted was thrown my way.  A letter had been penned that threatened to seek my dismissal if I didn't comply with their demands.  I went into a rage, and desperately tried to calm the beast within with my old friend, Scotch.  It didn't work.

I found myself locked up in the psych unit at a local hospital.  My doctor, very bluntly and forcibly shared two things with me in those first days.  "You are an alcoholic."  And "You almost died."  Utterly defeated in every way, I agreed to enter the chemical dependency program.  Correction:  I wasn't yet totally defeated, as part of my agreeing to enter the program was to preserve some sense of my own dignity.  I had fallen and injured myself, and I wanted some time to heal up before showing my face to my congregation again.  

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Many a prayer I would have preferred to offer. Many a thing I would have preferred to say.  But I had been entirely defeated.  The rage that I had experienced toward others, became focused on myself.  And now I had to face that rage without the numbing effect of alcohol.  I wish I could say that my prayers had an immediate positive and healing effect, but the truth is that I plummeted into depression and would continue to experience recurring bouts with it for years.  

Four years have passed.  Healing has come.  Life is good in sobriety.  In a few hours I will stand before a new congregation and offer the prayers. The words will be well crafted.  The posture -- liturgically correct.  And I suppose there may be some in my congregation that will hear my prayers and wish they could pray like that.  

Yet, in all my life, there was only one prayer that really mattered.  It was offered from that psych ward in utter despair.  And God answered.

"a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Year C, Proper 24, Luke 18:1-8, Do not lose heart

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Pray always.”
“Do not lose heart.”
“My help comes from the Lord.”
“The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
it is he who shall keep you safe.”
“I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
On the one hand these are incredibly comforting words.
At least they would be if life always worked out like that.  But life doesn’t always work out that way.  And because of words like these, it can leave us wondering if there is simply something we are doing wrong. 
Do we not have enough faith?
Did we not pray enough?
Are we being punished for some sin, known or unknown?

One quick response, that is used all too often, is that God always answers our prayers, it just that the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no, and sometimes wait.
And yet, when one is in the midst of a grave crisis in their life such an answer is inadequate.
Philosophers have put the issue this way:
Evil exists.
If God is Good,
                Then he must be unable to stop evil.
If God is all powerful, yet allows evil to continue,
                Then he must not be Good.
But if God is both Good, and All powerful,
                Why does evil continue???
That’s how the philosophers phrase the problem of evil.  But we’re not philosophers.
Our struggles get very real, personal, and tragic.

Jerry and Susan were excited.
They were expecting their third child.
And when Spencer was born they had all the hopes and expectations of any couple that just had a new baby.
But something was wrong.
Susan noticed that Spencer just could not nurse like his brother and sister had.
Subsequent testing revealed that Spencer had been born with a rare genetic disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy. 
Our congregation surrounded them with prayer and support, but the disease is what the disease is, and as predicted, Spencer slowly deteriorated until he lost all muscle function and died, about a year later.
Jerry and Susan had another baby, Andrew.
Andrew lived a little longer, in part because of some choices Jerry and Susan made which kept him healthier.  But just a little bit longer.  He too,  died.
“Pray always.”
“Do not lose heart.”
Those words are easy to say,
                That is until you are watching your second baby die of a disease for which there is no cure. 
Why?  Why does God allow such things to happen?
I’ve buried far too many children.
Some died in the womb.
Some died as new borns.
Some were killed in tragic accidents.
Some died of incurable diseases.
All of them were surrounded with prayer, fervent prayer, and yet they died.
And their parents will grieve for a lifetime.

And yet at other times prayer seems to “work”.
Yesterday I celebrated four years of sobriety.
I first became addicted to a drug called Ativan, or lorazapam.  I had been prescribed it to help with my chronic insomnia, and also, anxiety.  The downside of this drug is that it works on the same receptors in your brain as alcohol does, and like alcohol, is addictive.
I quit taking Ativan.  But I substituted alcohol for it.
I discovered that a couple of Scotch’s before bed would help me overcome the stresses of the day, and enable me to sleep.  But as always happened, I needed more and more to have the same effect.
Toward the end of my drinking, I had been prescribed Ativan, again.  And on October 14, 2012, I made the mistake of taking the Ativan after drinking heavily.
The combination of too much alcohol and Ativan almost killed me.  I entered a treatment center.
I prayed for help. 
Actually, what I would have preferred at the time is for God to help me through the crisis, but allow me to resume my pattern of drinking.  I enjoyed unwinding with a drink at night.  I didn’t want to give it up.

But instead of giving me what I wanted, God helped me to recognize that I was an alcoholic, and then he removed from me the compulsion to drink.  In place of the compulsion was a revulsion.  I couldn’t walk through the grocery store and see all the displays of wine and beer, without having a strong negative reaction.  Serving communion was a real struggle. 
But in the end, what happened is that I was set free.
It was an answer to prayer. 

There are many things we pray for.
In the wake of 9/11 our country collectively prayed that those who were behind that attack would be brought to justice.
It took time, and two wars.
Eventually though, Bin Laden, was killed, and in our mind, justice was served.
An answer to prayer.

At other times we pray, and yet find ourselves waiting and waiting for an answer. 
Our country has experienced too much gun violence.
Mass shootings have occurred in schools, and churches, military bases and night clubs, to name a few.
Sometimes there seems to be a motive.  Like racism.
At other times these killings seem to occur with no rhyme or reason whatsoever.
And they continue to happen.  In spite of our prayers.
Does God not care?

I don’t know all the answers.
Nobody does.
But it seems to me that there are some things we can say.

The first is the hardest.
You cannot pray yourself out of your own mortality.
Even Jesus died.
Some will have the good fortune to live to a ripe old age.
Others will die tragically, and too young. 
But we will all die. 
No getting around that.

But having said that, we also need to acknowledge that there is an incredible amount of healing in the world.  We probably will never know or appreciate all the times that we were saved from death by the healing hand of God. 
Sometimes it’s obvious.
I had open heart surgery to repair a failed mitral valve.  A hundred years ago I might have died.  Today I’m alive.  Healing happens.  And I thank God.
When we get the flu, or pneumonia, we don’t fear for our lives the way people once did. 
Healing happens.  Everyday.  An answer to prayer.

Another thing I’ve come to believe is that prayer is not a substitute for responsibility.
St. Augustine put it this way:
“Pray as though everything depended on God.
Work as though everything depended on you.”
Sometimes the prayer that we need is for guidance.  We need God’s help to determine what WE can do to combat the forces of evil in our world.  The struggle is that on our own we simply cannot agree on the answers.
I think one of the clearest examples of this is how we react to and respond to the violence that plagues our society.
·         Some suggest that if no one had guns, then these mass shootings would stop.
·         Others argue that if everyone had guns, then the shootings would stop.
·         God will probably have to help us through that one.  But our actions, or lack of action, will impact this issue and many others like it.

The final thing I’ve come to conclude, is that though suffering in one form or another will always be with us, so also will God be with us to lead us through this suffering.  The promise is that God will deliver us from suffering, not exempt of us from it. 
The clearest case of this is as we face our own deaths.
We are going to die.  That is true.
But God has promised not to leave us in the grave.
God’s final answer to death is not resuscitation, but resurrection. 
And so we live in a “Good Friday world” but with an “Easter faith”.  Death will not have the final word.
And for this reason, we do not lose heart.

May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Year C, Proper 24, Psalm 121:1-2, Help!

I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

I am struggling to preach on the texts for this Sunday.  Pray.  Do not lose heart.  My help comes from the Lord.  These texts seem to be saying to me that if we simply have enough faith, God will, without delay, quickly grant justice to those who call on him.  The same, I would suppose, could be said for those whose prayers are for healing, or peace, or.  .  .  

The problem with such a promise is how does it not turn on the faithful when their prayers are not heard, when justice does not come, when the battle is lost to a devastating disease, when in spite of our prayers our world  continues to be embroiled in one conflict after another.  In the starkest terms, how many of our Jewish brothers and sisters died in the holocaust with prayers on their lips?

And how many, then, come away with the conclusion that they simply did not have enough faith, did not pray fervently enough, or were in some other way inadequate and hence, God simply did not choose to respond to their request?

But this  morning, I'm also thinking about my experience in AA.  AA is founded on the principle that freedom from alcohol can be achieved, not by our own power, but with the aid of a "higher power".  There is a truth in AA that I hate to speak, but is witnessed to time and time again.  Failure to embrace the help that comes from a higher power almost always results in the failure to succeed in program.

Total submission and admitting defeat is the starting point.  When one recognizes one's own failings and powerlessness over alcohol, then that opens the door for God to provide that which we cannot achieve ourselves.  And however we might understand that, many of us can only look back with gratitude that God did what we could never do, which is to remove from us the desire and compulsion to drink.  This was my experience.  This is the experience of the bulk of those  who have been freed from the power of alcohol through AA.

To what extent do these same lessons extend to other problems that we face?  

On the one hand, I still find myself confronted with the reality that the faithful suffer, and die, with prayers for deliverance on their lips.  On the other hand I cannot abandon the belief that if we surrender entirely to the power of God that we will experience the grace of God.

Perhaps the key is that the experience of God's grace comes to us in oft unexpected ways.  

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Year C, Proper 23, Luke 17.11-19 “Attitude of Gratitude”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
If I could live my life over,
I would hope less,
And be more grateful.

There are two things that have dominated my thought patterns throughout the years. 
I tend to mull over the past, ruminating on all that has gone on.
And I tend to focus my thoughts on the future, and worry about what might be, or in my better moments, hope beyond hope for good things to happen.  No matter how good things are, I always find myself hoping that it will get better. 
The dark side of hoping that things will get better is that there is a sense that the way things are, is simply not good enough.
And to live in hope about what tomorrow might bring is to miss out on the opportunity to be thankful for what we have already received, today.

Today we heard again that story of the ten lepers.
All were cured.
Only the foreigner returned to give thanks.
But the other nine, where were they?

This text always used to be the assigned text for Thanksgiving. 
We had Thanksgiving Eve services.
And the thing was that, in contrast to Christmas Eve services, where the Church was packed, hardly anyone ever came out for Thanksgiving Services.  It was almost always the lowest attendance of the year.
And then, looking out at a near empty sanctuary I’d have to preach on this text.  Where are they? Are there not hundreds of people in this congregation, I would find myself asking.  Why is it that only ten or so people attend a Thanksgiving Service?
Are we so busy preparing for the Thanksgiving meal, that we cannot attend Thanksgiving Services???

I’ve already been asked whether or not we would have a Thanksgiving service here.
My response is “Would anybody come?”

One sermon I recall preaching speculated on all the reasons that the nine other lepers did not return to give thanks. 
·         Some of them actually did go and “show themselves to the priests”, and for that reason had not returned to Jesus.
·         Others had been so overjoyed at being cured they went immediately to find their families.
And on and on the list went.
There were many reasons the nine didn’t give thanks.
As there are many reasons that we do not give thanks as often as we should. 
The good news, though, I would always say, is that all ten were cured, even though only one would return to thank Jesus.  That’s grace.

Today, I realize that one of my struggles with being grateful, is that I am often too hopeful.

Hope is a good thing.
In Corinthians, Paul writes:
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Of all the gifts of the Spirit,
Hope is right up there with faith and love.

So why would I say that if I could live my life over,
I would hope less,
And be more grateful?
For me it all boils down to having spent too much time worrying about the future, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, that I lost out on the opportunity to simply enjoy today.
When I went through chemical dependency treatment one of the assignments that we had to do was to create a ‘gratitude list’.  Each week, for eight weeks, we were to write down five things for which we were grateful.
I didn’t follow the instructions.
I sat down and in about five minutes came up with forty different things for which I was thankful.  It was easy.
The main reason they had us write the list is that there is a saying in AA that a grateful heart can’t drink.  Drinking, AA recognizes, is very often the result of resentments and guilt about the past, or worries about the future.  If you’re truly grateful about all you have today, you won’t drink.

And yet, in the months and years that followed, I still tended to live more in hope, than with gratitude.  I still focused more on the future, than on the present.  I continued to worry more about what I did not have, rather than be grateful for what I did have. 
And because of that, life was a struggle.
But it needn’t have been.  Life was in fact, good.
For example, one of my biggest worries over the last four years since going through treatment was concerning our financial well being. 
The problem was that for the sake of my health, specifically to give myself some time to heal, I decided to resign my position, go on disability, and simply make getting well my top priority.  Well, that’s all fine and good, but even as I hoped for a better tomorrow, the reality was that we had lost a significant amount of income in the process.
I worried. 
A lot.
We’d just bought our home.  We had major mortgage payments to make.  And now, I had lost a lot of income.  How could we do it?  What would the fallout be?  Could we survive financially?
For all my worries about how bad it could be, I realized this last year that we were actually better off financially than we had ever been in our life. 
Gratitude has driven the fear away.  At least today.

As I begin working as your pastor, I must confess that there is part of me that is too quick to get all wrapped up in my hopes for the future, once again. 
This is how my mind works.
I have already counted the chairs in this room.
We have about eighty set up.
That means that we have the potential, according to Church growth specialists, to build up our congregation to the point where we average 52.8 people in worship on a Sunday morning.  Then, to continue growing, we will need to go to two services. 
Once we go to two services, then we will have the capacity to grow to an average worship attendance of 105.6 people. 
And that will be sufficient to sustain a full time pastor and full slate of congregational ministries.
Hope springs eternal.
And yet there is a danger of having too much hope.
We can spend all our time focused on the empty chairs, and hoping that one day they will be filled, and fail to be grateful for the ones that are filled today.

Beginning this week we will be having cottage meetings.
There is a twofold purpose of these meetings.
First it gives me a chance to get to know you.
Second, it’s an opportunity to share our hopes and dreams for Peace Lutheran Church.
One of the things that I realize now,
And I really believe this is true,
Is that none of the hopes and dreams that we might envision and articulate will be attainable, at all, if they are not rooted in a gratitude for all that we have already received.  

We will be centering our conversation on the passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus calls his disciples.  In that passage there is the simple statement “Come and see.”
“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
It was Philips excitement and gratitude at having found the Messiah that resulted in his saying “Come and See!”

One of the things I’d like for you to think about is this:
What are you so grateful for, here at Peace Lutheran Church, that you would be willing to say “Come and See” to your family, friends, and neighbors?
It’s hard to sell a future hope, if it’s not rooted in today’s blessings.
Or to put it differently:
We will never see the day, when we have an average worship attendance of 105.6 people per week, if we’re not grateful for the 25 that are coming today.
Gratitude, is what gives rise to true hope.
Hope without gratitude, is just wishful thinking.
The only reason we can hope for God to work wonders in our midst, is if we are already grateful for the wonders he has already done. 

We state that God's purpose for Peace is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.
To a certain extent, such a statement is a hope.  We hope that we will welcome, love and serve all.
But that hope is only possible if it begins with a gratitude for the manner in which we have been welcomed, loved, and served in this community.

A personal note:
I was afraid that I would never again be able to be a congregation's pastor.  Over the last four years, as I was gaining a foothold in my new life of sobriety, I was also diagnosed as being bipolar.  I worried about whether a congregation would ever trust me to be their pastor.  I disclosed to our council my health concerns,.  And rather than reject me, they welcomed me and asked me to serve as your pastor.

It is my deep gratitude for the manner in which you have welcomed me, that aloows me to be very hopeful for and confident in this congregation's ability to welcome others.

Gratitude gives rise to hope.
You don't believe me?
Come and see.


Year C, Proper 24, Psalm 121, Luke 18:1-8, Hedging our Bets

Nancy was incredible.  I met her when I began my Clinical Pastoral Education at Metropolitan Medical Center in Minneapolis some thirty years ago.  I had been referred to her by the nursing staff on the floor.  She'd be a good visit.  And she had just received the news that she was dying from cancer.  My expectations were set.

What I didn't expect is what I saw when I entered her hospital room.  She had taken it over and made it her own.  The walls were decorated with numerous calligraphy wall hangings of her favorite bible verses about healing.  On her bed was an Amish quilt.  On her side table were tapes about miraculous healing, tapes which she told me presented the case that healing was something any Christian could claim, regardless of the odds, if they just had enough faith.  She also went on to say that in order to insure that her faith remained strong enough (faith muscles, she called it), she banned anyone who did not share her faith from visiting.  The nursing staff had informed me that it was a miracle that she was still alive, it now being a year or so after having been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer.  But in Nancy's mind, the promise of a miracle was greater than that.  She hoped for a complete cure.  Unfortunately, she died a couple months later.

 I lift up my eyes to the hills; 
from where is my help to come?

My help comes from the Lord
the maker of heaven and earth.

There is a risk of faith.  If one, like Nancy, cultivates within oneself this incredible faith that God will indeed hear our prayers and come to our aid, and cure us even when we are riddled with cancer, then when that help doesn't come one must ask why.  In our lesson from Luke Jesus talks about our need to "need to pray always and not to lose heart."  Persistence pays off the parable seems to say.  Until it doesn't.

Even as she spoke of her faith muscles being strong enough to insure her healing, Nancy also shared a deep yearning for heaven.  "I just want to sing in that choir!" she blurted out at one point.  And she wondered about that verse that said we were neither married nor given in marriage in heaven.  How could it be heaven without her husband by her side, she wondered.  

What do we make of it?  It's easy to give God the credit when we are healed.  But about those times when we are not.  Does God bear responsibility for that as well.  One of the statements I've made numerous times is that we cannot pray ourselves out of our own mortality.  Simple fact.  

This morning what I'm wondering about a different take on it all.  I wonder if being truly healed is not about being free of disease, but rather about being fully alive even unto death.