Saturday, May 27, 2017

Year A, Ascension Sunday, Luke 24:44-53

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to proclaim two things to the world in Jesus name –
                                And Forgiveness.
These are the gifts Christ freely offers.
And as we ourselves have experienced these gifts, we are called to be witnesses, sharing with others our own experience that they may know, as we know, about the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.
But all this is harder to do, than it is to say.
The difficulty lies in our understanding of repentance and its relationship to forgiveness.
It all gets messy in the real world.
And it challenges our very understanding of the Gospel and everything that Jesus lived and died for.
Consider with me two examples of real life situations that we have struggled with as a Church.
The first is the whole matter of divorce.
40 to 50% of all marriages in our country end in divorce, and the rate is even higher for those in second marriage.
For many people, divorce is one of the most difficult things they will face in the course of their lives.  It can be a living hell to go through, and it affects not only the relationship between the husband and wife, but virtually every other relationship they are a part of as well.
Regarding divorce Jesus was asked if it was lawful.
Jesus response makes two things clear:
First, that from the beginning, God created us to be united together in marriage, the two becoming one flesh.  And he states “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. 
And secondly, he declares :
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Neither divorce nor remarriage are in accordance with God’s will. 
Or to put it differently, it’s not something God would wish on anyone.
Of course, very few among us want to experience divorce, either. 
But how do we respond as a church to those who are divorced?
What does it mean to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to those who have lived through the pain of divorce?
And given what Jesus says, can we with integrity as a Church offer our blessing to remarriage when Jesus explicitly calls such a marriage adulterous?
What does repentance mean for one who is divorced?
And how might we offer forgiveness to those who have faced this difficult and painful reality?

The second issue has been much more controversial for the Church in recent years, and as you might guess, it is the whole question of homosexuality.
Are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people welcome within the Church?
Some would maintain the traditional teaching of the Church that the Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is to be condemned.  They will point to a few passages in scripture, and from those passages will lift up words like “abomination” to describe homosexuality.
Having said that there are a number of things to consider.
First, though homosexuality was common  place in the Greco-Roman world in which Jesus lived, we have no record of Jesus ever saying anything about it, unlike divorce, which he explicitly addresses.
And secondly, it is identified in Romans, not as a sin in and of itself, but actually as the consequence of sin.
Questions abound.
Is being homosexual sinful in and of itself?
Or is it only homosexual behaviors that are sinful?
And probably the most important question, are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters anymore sinful than the rest of us?
We have always had gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in our congregations.
And as long as there were pastors, there have been some pastors who were gay, and in recent years since we’ve been ordaining women, lesbian.
The most recent controversy in our Church was over the decision to allow pastors in monogamous relationships to serve in our congregations.  After years of study and wrestling with this issue, we basically decided to allow it to be a congregational decision. 
This is the thing, and the controversy around the decision:
We know that all pastors are sinful, just as everyone is sinful.  None of us can claim to be righteous, if by righteousness we mean “without sin”.
The question that is debated though is if there is repentance. 
As with divorce, no one questions whether forgiveness is possible.  The issue is whether there is true repentance. 
What does repentance look like for a divorced person?
What does repentance look like for a gay person?
At issue in both these cases, and in fact in all of our lives, is what we mean by “repentance”.
There are two basic understandings of repentance.
Literally, “repentance” means to turn.  To change the course of one’s life.
One understanding is that true repentance means that we turn from our sin. 
If you want to be forgiven, the first step is to recognize your sin, and stop doing it.
Repentance means to stop sinning.
What does this understanding of repentance mean for one who is divorced?
True repentance in this sense would mandate that one seek reconciliation with one’s spouse.  And, if reconciliation is not possible, then one should live out one’s life single and not commit adultery by marrying another.
As far as the homosexual goes, repentance in this manner means that first one should one should first of all, do everything possible to curb one’s desire for those of the same gender, and secondly, refrain from engaging in any same gender sexual activity.  Celibacy, or marrying one of the opposite gender, are seen as the only options for one who is truly repentant.
The same sort of thing can be said for all sin, and for all of us, whatever our sinfulness may be.  Repent.
Stop your sinning.
Then, and only then, is forgiveness possible.
There is one major problem with this understanding of repentance.  It is not possible for any of us.
It might be easy, if there was only one thing to repent of.  For example, I did in fact repent of my drinking, and since that time, I’ve not picked up a drink.  But there are so many other areas of my life, of who I am, and what I do, that remain tainted by sin. 
Furthermore, if this is our understanding of repentance, what often results is that we can cause more harm than good.
For example, if a divorced person must seek reconciliation with their spouse, in order to be truly repentant, what becomes of their second marriage?  Do they have to divorce their second spouse, so as to be able to reconcile with their first? 
Or for example, should a gay or lesbian person enter into a traditional marriage?  How would you feel if you found out that your spouse was gay or lesbian?  Most of us would be deeply troubled by that. 
Our bondage to sin is so great, that even when we try to sin no more, we often sin all the more.
The other problem with this understanding of repentance is that if we were able to turn from our sin, we wouldn’t need forgiveness at all.

The second understanding of repentance is that it is a turning toward God.
We turn to God, to Jesus, to the only one who can truly forgive our sins.
To put it differently, true repentance in this understanding is to ask God’s forgiveness.  And in the asking, there is both recognition of our sinfulness, and a turning to God who alone can forgive us.
What does that mean for our ministry as a congregation?
I think it is this simple.
If someone walks through that door, they are turning to God, and are fully repentant. 
If someone kneels before the altar to receive Christ’s body and blood, they are turning toward the only one who can forgiven their sin, and are fully and truly repentant. 
It means that the divorced person who comes, has already come to true repentance.
It means that the gay or lesbian person that comes, comes as one who is repentant.
It means an alcoholic like me, comes with a repentant spirit.
Likewise for all our sins.
That we are here at all is itself, proof of our repentance.
And here in this place, we receive God’s complete forgiveness.  Then and only then, do we stand before the Lord as righteous people in his sight.
But what about our lives, do we just continue to sin and seek forgiveness?
The truth is twofold.
Yes we will continue to sin.  And God will continue to forgive.
But, forgiveness has a way of transforming the very fabric of our lives, in surprising ways.
Things will change.
We just never can predict exactly how.
All we can do is trust in the Spirit of God who brought us here in the first place.

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Year A, Easter 5, John 14.1-14, Many Rooms

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

Sometimes, what you need most of all, is simply the knowledge that you have a place to come home to, that there is someone there who loves you, and that once there, you will find peace to sooth your weary soul.
This is the incredible gift Jesus gave us.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
A place for you.
There are times in this life when we simply don’t seem to belong.
Later Jesus would pray on our behalf, as a people that remains “in the world” but not of the world.  We are as sojourners in a foreign land.
There are struggles.
Times when we feel displaced.
That there simply is not a place for us.
I have experienced those feelings from time to time in my life.
The first, I’ll share because this is Mental Health Awareness month, something our country has observed for more than fifty years, now. 
At the core of any mental illness is an experience of just not fitting.  We just don’t fit within the realm of normal human experience.  We don’t feel we belong.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
I have bipolar disorder.
Everyone experiences highs and lows in their life.
For a bipolar person these are simply more pronounced.
During the highs, the manic periods, there is a sense of invincibility, a feeling that everything is possible, a willingness to take any risk.  It’s an emotionally exhilarating time.  And yet it can be a very dangerous time.
For me, it was during these times that I was able to achieve some of my greatest accomplishments.  Most notably, when I got on a roll in my parish in Sandpoint I decided that senior housing was going to be the key to our congregation’s future.
Remarkably, I was successful.  All the stars aligned just right, and we were able to build an 87 unit senior housing complex.
15 million dollars later Luther Park was born.
I was so convinced about the merits of this type of ministry that I attempted to reduplicate the effort elsewhere.   About three million dollars were spent to purchase land in Boise for another project.  However, the economy collapsed, and with it, those dreams.
And with it, my mood collapsed as well.
I went from the highest of highs, to the lowest of lows.
The dark side for a bipolar person is depression.
It comes like a thief in the night, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. 
During these periods it was difficult to even get up, make it to the couch, and then sit there and be paralyzed, barely able to survive amid the burdens of the world.
My own experience was that during the worst of times I was incapable of sleep, though the early morning hours were times that brought some relief.  But then, like the San Francisco fog that rolls in every night, a wave of darkness would overcome me around 3 in the afternoon. 
Simple things became monumental tasks.
A shower was a major accomplishment.
For quite a long time, I managed to cope with the highs and lows of my life by turning to Scotch. 
A couple of stiff drinks tended to mellow me out during the manic times.
And though alcohol is no cure for depression, it being a depressant itself, it did help to the extent that during the melancholy of a hard night’s drinking, you just didn’t care anymore that you were depressed.
Of course, as you know, this resulted in my developing a major chemical dependency problem. 
As time went on, it felt more and more like I simply didn’t fit in this world. 
More than once I prayed “Into your hands I commend my spirit” and hoped that I would simply die.
Suicide might have been an option, but I couldn’t bear the thought of what that might have done to my wife, but especially, to my children. 
I could no longer work as a pastor, or anything else, for that matter.  There was an overwhelming sense that there was no place for me.
And then there is the promise.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
A place of belonging.
Sometimes, what you need most of all, is simply the knowledge that you have a place to come home to, that there is someone there who loves you, and that once there, you will find peace to sooth your weary soul.

The second experience I have is related to the political environment in which we live.
We have become so polarized as a country that depending on who is power, those with opposing political beliefs simply feel out of place, like sojourners in a foreign land.
I’ve had that experience quite a lot, in no small measure because I’m a liberal democrat that has lived and served in dominantly conservative, republican parts of the country.
I’ve even had people ask me how I could possibly be both a Christian and a Democrat.
I didn’t feel as though I belonged here.  I felt out of place.  Like this wasn’t my country.
I would suppose that those on the other end of the political spectrum experience the same feelings when the Democrats are in power and a liberal agenda rules the day. 
Sometimes, I feel out of place, not because of my political convictions, but because of my faith convictions.
We are Christians.
Peace and reconciliation are major themes of the Gospel.
And yet we are part of a country that boasts the most powerful and lethal military force in the history of the world.
That should make all of us feel a bit out of place. 
Like this is not our home.
Jesus is not a fan of nuclear bombs.
The God who created this world is not in favor of our destroying it. 
These are statements that every Christian should fully embrace, and yet to even speak them, seems radical.
How do we feel comfortable living in a highly militarized society, while at the same time worshipping the Prince of Peace?
Stangers in a foreign land.
Sometimes, what you need most of all, is simply the knowledge that you have a place to come home to, that there is someone there who loves you, and that once there, you will find peace to sooth your weary soul.

Sometimes what you need most of all, is a Mommy.
One of the things I regret about our theology and language about God is that we speak of God exclusively as the Father.
Fatherhood means many things to us.
And the reason we call God our Father is that Jesus did.
Actually, the word Jesus used was Abba, which does not translate as “Father”, but rather as “Daddy”.
But sometimes, what we need is not a Father, or even a Daddy, but a Mommy.
Roman Catholics have responded to this need in part with their devotion to the Virgin Mary.  She fills this need for a Mommy. 
Sometimes, we have a stereotyped image of a Father as the disciplinarian, the authority, the strong guardian and guide for our lives.
These are not bad things, but sometimes you need a Mommy.
When I think of a Mommy, what I think of most of all is a person in whose arms we always have a place.  I think of a gentle, caring, and compassionate love.
I remember with fondness, the image of children being nursed in their mother’s arms.
I remember the gentle lullaby.
But most of all, I remember coming home to Mama, as truly coming home. 

This is what is lost too often in our world.
We have no place to call home.
Much of our lives is spent searching for the very thing we had from the beginning. 
A place to call home.
A place where we are accepted, not because of what we’ve done, but simply because we are loved.
A place where we belong, even if we feel we belong nowhere at all.

Have you ever considered that this might be our most important mission in the world?
To offer a place to call home?
One other thought about a place called home.
Robert Frost shared with us the quote:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
In the Father’s house.
For me and for you.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Year A, Easter 4, Acts 2.42-47, 1 Peter 2.19-25, John 10.1-10, Psalm 23 Camelot

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.”

We heard in the first reading for today of that “brief shining moment” that existed following Pentecost.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
Questions abound about these early days in the Church’s life together.
Was this in fact the way that Jesus intended for all of us to live?
Is this what the Kingdom of God was supposed to look like?
They were a close knit community.
They shared all that they had.
Each of them was cared for according to their need.
They broke bread together, rejoiced in all the good that was being done in their midst, and, finally had the goodwill of all the people.
Was this what Jesus imagined for all of us who followed the way?

Or was this simply a passing fancy that was a result of their religious exuberance, which quickly faded from the scene as soon as the reality of life settled back in.
Was it merely a ‘brief shining moment’?
Historians tell us that one of the reasons the early Christians were willing to live this way is that they believed with their whole hearts that their time on this earth was very limited.  Jesus would return soon.  And when he returned they would be taken out of this world and enter into the Kingdom of God.
This belief resulted in their having little concern, for example, for material possessions. 
No need for a pension fund if Jesus is going to come and take you back with him to the Kingdom of Heaven very shortly.
That said, I cannot help but admire longingly this time in the Church’s life.
There was something about the generosity of Spirit that guided them.  “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
When we visited Russia we were asked a very difficult and pointed question.
“We have been told that there are poor people in America.  Is that true?”
“Well, yes,” we replied, “that is true.”
“How can it be that in a country as rich as yours, there are poor people?  We are poor, but we are all poor.  And what we do have, we share.  We don’t understand how your country can be so rich and still have poor people.”
they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Was this what Jesus imagined for all of us?
Or was this merely an idealistic notion of a community of faith that was not sustainable for the long haul.
We will never know because it simply didn’t last.
Jesus didn’t return immediately.
Christians had to settle back into the reality of life and day to day existence.
Giving still continued, but with every passing year it became less and less.
And sin crept in.

During this early time in the Church’s life it was said that the early Christians enjoyed the “goodwill of all the people.”
That changed.
By the time Peter wrote his letter to the Church the situation was much different.
Now the Christian community was defined by suffering. 
Peter writes:
It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
Perhaps it was precisely because Christians had tried to live such a radically different life that they were no longer enjoying the “goodwill of all the people”.
The world doesn’t like ‘different people’.
What we do know is that very shortly after the time of Jesus, Christians were driven out of the temple and the synagogues. 
We hear in Acts of the martyrdom of Steven, who was stoned to death for proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.
He was but the first of a long line of martyrs.
Suffering for doing right became the way of life for the followers of Jesus.
Now, instead of bearing witness to Jesus with the way they lived, they bore witness by the way they died.
What a contrast.
And throughout the history of the Church this has been and continues to be the story of God’s people.
At times we experience the goodwill of all the people.
At other times we suffer unjustly for doing that which is right.

Both of these experiences can be the consequence of following Jesus.
Today we also read that wonderful Psalm that is so familiar to all of us.
Psalm 23.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
These words speak of the good times.
The times when everything seems to be going just right. Green pastures, still waters, right pathways.
“I shall not be in want.”
And then in contrast to this David writes:
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Here we hear of the promise of how God remains with us during the darkest of days.
In fact, one of the realities of the life of faith is that often it is during the most difficult of times that Jesus seems most present with us.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus?

Does it mean living together in an ideal community of faith, sharing all things in common, rejoicing in the good life, and each receiving according to their needs?
Or does it mean taking up our cross and following Jesus, enduring suffering for doing that which is right?

The answer to that question is a simple “Yes.”

As we gather together as a community of faith, united in our love for Jesus and care for all, Jesus is there in our midst.
And as we experience the conflict of living in a world riddled with sin, suffering for doing that which is right, Jesus is there, suffering with us.
The Lord is my shepherd.
Leading and guiding us both in green pastures, and the valley and shadow of death.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Goodness and Mercy.
The blessings of good times.
The compassion of our God to sustain us through the difficult times.

This is what the life of faith is all about.
There will be good times.
There will be bad times.
Sometimes we will wonder how life could be any better.
Sometimes we will wonder if life could get any worse.
But God is there in the midst of it all.
Jesus will walk with us all the way.
And that is the hope that is ours.