Saturday, December 28, 2019

Year A, Christmas 1, Hebrews 2.10-18 Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“So what you preach on today, Dad?  Jesus?”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that from my kids on a Sunday afternoon.  It’s a safe bet.  Even when I don’t mention Jesus by name, to speak about God’s word is to speak about Jesus as the Word, and so he’s always the subject.
And if the sermon has anything to do with what God is doing, and I’d like to believe every sermon I preach does, it’s also then about what Jesus is doing, for he and the Father are one.
On Christmas Eve I explored Mary’s question, “How can this be?”, and shared that I believe the biggest miracle of all in the Christmas story is that through Jesus, that baby lying in a manger full of grace, God could bring salvation to all.  To all.  Not just to some, but to all.  A gift freely given.
If the question on Christmas was “How?” the question today, based on the Hebrews text, is “Why?”  “Why did he come? And What did he do?”
In answering the “Why?” and the “What?” of Jesus life the Church, the Bible, and Christian teaching has focused on three different  dimensions of Jesus’ life and work.
Each of these understandings is very different from the other, yet all of them speak to the truth of who Jesus is.  There’s not one right answer, but many right answers because each of them employs human analogies, none of which are sufficient to convey the mystery of God in Jesus.
And so, from three different directions, each image sheds light on Jesus, even if only partially.
They also work off each other as correctives.  By having three different understanding of the “Why?” and the “What?” of Jesus life it helps to prevent us from pushing any of these images too far. 
The three understands of Jesus are all present in the passage from Hebrews.  They are:
Jesus, our Brother.
Jesus, our Savior.
And finally, Jesus, Lamb of God.  That is, Jesus the sacrificial lamb that died to take away our sin.
Jesus, our Brother:
“10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” 13And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” 14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things,  .  .  .”
Jesus, our Savior:
“so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.”
And finally, Jesus the sacrificial lamb:
“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
And of course we know that when we speak of Jesus making the sacrifice of atonement, he speaks of the sacrifice of his own life.

When we speak of Jesus as our brother, and God as our Father, we are in a relational model, a family model, and the end game is an intimate oneness between all of us.
The ‘evil’ in this relationship model is separation and estrangement from God as our Father, and Jesus our brother, and also all our other brothers and sisters.
When we speak of Jesus as our Savior, the evil of which we are concerned is an evil that is beyond ourself.  It is an enemy that threatens to undo us.  It is that evil power that must be defeated, whether we speak of it as the devil or death itself.  The end game here is that we are freed from our bondage and slavery to these evil powers.
And finally, when we speak about Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, we speak of evil as the sin within us that must be atoned for.  Our guilt and shame are the problem.  Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice to atone for our sins and achieve forgiveness for us.
Well, what is true?
The answer is that all of these understandings are true, even though quite different.
Well, what is most helpful?
That depends on your situation in life.
If you feel lonely and afraid, like an outsider, then Jesus as your brother who reconciles you to your Father in Heaven and your brothers and sisters on earth will ring especially true and helpful.
If you feel under attack from evil beyond yourselves, including every form of earthly evil including our own mortality and death, as well as evil powers and principalities, then Jesus as our Savior will bring great comfort to you.
And if you are overwhelmed with your own failures, the Jesus the atoning sacrifice for your sin will bring you peace of mind and wellness.

We see all of these situations in life expressed in the Gospel lesson for today that speaks about Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt following Jesus’ birth.
When they were refugees who sought asylum in Egypt they experienced isolation from their family as they waited for the time when they might return home, once again. 
Both they and the people of Bethlehem were victims of the oppressive and evil reign of Herod, who sought to kill Jesus and did murder all those children in Bethlehem.
And finally Herod was guilty of a great sin and needed forgiveness.

In speaking of these three dimensions of Christ’s work, it is important to remember that whether we speak of Christ as our brother, or savior, or as the One who died for us, we are speaking of what Jesus did, not us.
It’s all about Jesus.
We talk about the Law and the Gospel.
When we speak about the Law, it is always about what we do or fail to do, and the judgment that results.  And rather than being found righteous, we will always fall short.  We stand condemned in the face of the Law.
On the other hand, when we speak of the Gospel it is always about what Jesus has done and Jesus did not fail.  That’s what makes the Gospel good news.
And finally, because the Gospel is and always will be the work of Christ, not us, we do not get to judge.  Period.  It’s above our pay grade.
We don’t get to judge who Jesus reconciled to the Father.
We don’t get to judge who Jesus set free from the power of evil.
And we don’t get to judge to whom Jesus offered forgiveness.
You see, all these things are the work of Jesus; it’s why he came and what he did.  For us to judge one another is for us to judge Jesus himself.
Let’s just pause and let that sink in.
If I ever say that you, or anyone else including myself, are not saved, I am judging Jesus as a failure.
I am judging Jesus.
That’s not something I’m qualified to do.
What we are called to do is not judge Jesus, but to proclaim Jesus and the work that he does.
Jesus reconciles us with God and one another.
Jesus defeats evil.
Jesus atones for our sin.
In the end, any judgment belongs exclusively to Jesus, not us.  Exclusively.
And should we ever fear that judgment, we need only remember that the judge, Jesus, is also the one who came to save us.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"All" Year A, Christmas Eve, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-14 [15-20]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
Dare we believe in a love so deep, so broad, so high?
A love so lavishly given that there is no one beyond its reach.
Dare we believe in a God who so loved the world that he would come to us, not in power and glory, but weak, vulnerable, and lying in a manger as a little baby?
Dare we believe in a God who would empty himself and become obedient even unto death on a Cross?
Dare we believe in God, at all?
And is that in which we DO believe, truly God?

There is something about the Christmas Story that we lose, after hearing it throughout our lives.
It is so familiar.  We take it for granted. 
And yet there is this question mark hanging over it, and that question, is the question of belief.
“How can this be?”
“Born of the Virgin Mary” our creeds declare.
Born of a Virgin, free from all sin, Child of God.
For many this is a stumbling block. 
And it certainly was for Mary as well.  “How can this be?”  She would ask.  “How can this be?”

That question, how can this be?, would not, will not, go away.
A census.  An unscheduled trip back home to Bethlehem.
And a make shift shelter among the animals in the stable.
The Word made flesh.
God incarnate.
And there was no room for him in the inn.  Just in a cattle stall.
How can this be?

Humble shepherds, asleep on a hill side.
Angelic messengers filling the night sky.
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
I haven’t personally seen an angel.  There are people whom I have known who have been to me, angelic.   Their words were of God.  Their love touched me.
But to look up and see the sky full of the heavenly host, praising God and shouting out for joy. . .
Nope, haven’t witnessed that.
What a contrast.
Shepherds and Angels.
The one so common, so ordinary, so everyday.
The other so extraordinary.  So uncommon. So “I’ve never seen anything like it.” 
How can that be?
I don’t know what is more remarkable.
That angels were present at Jesus’ birth, or shepherds.
How can that be?

They saw a star in the East and journeyed from afar.
Wisemen.  Magi.  Perhaps astronomers.  Certainly foreigners.
They came bearing gifts fit for a king.
The star led them.  The star led them.
Lost in the wonder of such a night is this simple statement, “the star led them”.
How can that be?
Again, I don’t know what is more difficult to believe.
That three wise men from the east would come to greet Jesus at his birth?
Or that they would do so at the beaconing of a star.
And how can a star, a real star, lead them to a place, one house in Bethlehem?
How can this be?
But for all the questions we might come up with, for all the things that challenge our sense of how things should be, it’s that first question that reasonates with me.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
Dare we believe in a love so deep, so broad, so high?
“O love, how deep, how broad, how high!
How passing thought and fantasy,
that God, the Son of God, should take
our mortal form for mortals' sake!”
Gathered around the manger this evening is not only Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men.
Singing God’s praises are not just the angels.
But every living thing as the whole creation shouts for joy.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
How can this be?
We struggle with this.
That God’s grace might cover all.

Our human nature demands that there must be winners and losers.  Some who will be saved and some who will not.  And that somehow, what we do, makes the difference.
But grace is of God, not of us.
Grace is about what God is doing in Christ Jesus, not about something we must do.
Anytime we talk about  what we must do to inherit eternal life we are no longer talking about the grace of God, and the salvation that God has created through Christ Jesus.
When we talk about what we must do, we are talking about the righteousness of the law, in which we, by our own actions become righteous.
But we cannot.
Paul writes in Romans:
"There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.  (Romans 3:10-11)
No one can do this.
That’s what the Bible says.
No one.
Yet WE say that salvation belongs to those who seek God.
That salvation requires our correct understanding and belief.
And that only those who repent and live righteously can be saved.
But the Bible says that since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;  they are now justified by his grace as a gift.  (Romans 3: 23)
“A gift.”
How can this be?
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
That is the most unbelievable dimension of the Christmas story.
That God so loved the world that his grace would appear in the form of the baby lying in the manger, and that through that one, small, vulnerable child, all might be saved.
But we can’t handle it.
Every time the Bible says “all”, we want to say “some”.
There will be some reading this sermon online that will scream out at me for even suggesting that Christ brought “salvation to all”.
The thing though, is that’s what the Bible says. 
The Bible.  God’s word.  Not mine.
Could it be that God’s grace is deeper, broader, higher that we can ever imagine.
And would Jesus be any less God if he was able to accomplish what the Bible says he accomplished, namely bringing salvation to “all”?
How can this be?
The miracle of Christmas, and of Jesus, is grace.  And love.  And God’s gift.
The miracle of Christmas is not about virgin birth, or guiding stars, or angelic hosts.
The miracle of Christmas is about the salvation of our God.
Two words to meditate on this Christmas.
And “All.”
When we grasp those words, we will grasp the marvel of God’s grace and love and salvation.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Emmanuel, God with us. Year A, Advent 4, Isaiah 7.10-16, Matthew 1.18-25

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
First on the docket this morning is the boarded up window in my office.
On Friday morning, one of our neighbors experienced a psychotic episode, came here to the church, and proceeded to break the window of my office and then use the shards of glass in a suicide attempt.
His family and the police were able to intervene and he was taken to the hospital to receive medical attention and a psychiatric evaluation.
We pray that he will receive the help that he obviously needs and thank God that he was not successful in his attempt to end his life.
It raises a broader prayer concern at this time of year.
For the mentally ill the holiday season is too often a living hell through which they must negotiate, and many are not successful. 
We struggle as a nation to figure out how to most effectively care for the mentally ill.  There are no easy answers.  For many people the right medications can work wonders, but even that is hit and misses.  Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of the mentally ill struggle to maintain their prescribed treatment.  Sometimes they can’t afford the meds, at other times they fall prey to the belief that they don’t need them anymore. 
It’s difficult for their family members as well.
You’d like to help them.  But often we don’t know what to do, and even when we do, help is not always accepted.
Our Church helps.
Lutheran Services in America, an umbrella organization that works on behalf of both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is by far the largest charitable organization in the country.
LSA has a total annual revenue of 22.62 billion dollars.
That’s over twice as much as the Salvation Army, United Way Worldwide, and the American Red Cross combined.
On the streets, we are known as “Lutheran”.
I make a point of sharing this because so often when we think about our Church we get caught up in all the controversies and issues that can divide us in these difficult times.  And there is a sentiment against “organized religion”.
But the reason we are part of this Church is very simple.
Christians working together can make a profound difference in the world.
Lutheran Services in America is one such example.
I hope that the individual who injured himself here on Friday receives this kind of help.

Now on to Isaiah.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
These words from Isaiah were a promise and a sign that he gave to Ahaz, the King of Judah.
Ahaz was afraid, deeply concerned because King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of the northern Kingdom of Israel had plotted an attack against the southern Kingdom, Judah, and its capital in Jerusalem.
Isaiah’s message to Ahaz was a simple one.
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.
He promised that in a short while, these two Kingdoms that threatened Jerusalem would be gone.
The sign that he gave Ahaz was this.
A young maiden would give birth to a child and name him Emmanuel, God with us.
And prior to that child reaching the age of accountability, knowing the difference between good and evil, which in Judaism was considered to be at the age of 12, these two Kings who threatened Ahaz would be no more.
As history played out, this is exactly what transpired, with Syria and the Northern Kingdom both being destroyed while Judah, the Southern Kingdom remained.

I decided while I was preparing my sermon this last week that this is a ‘new rule’, actually and ancient rule.
We might call it the Isaiah rule, or the Emmanuel rule.  Or perhaps even the Rule of 12.
The rule is:  “Don’t get your undies in a bundle over issues that will all be water under the bridge in twelve years.”
More succinctly “This too shall pass.”
Just as a point of reference, twelve years ago the first iPhone came out.
And it was almost twelve years ago that the housing market collapsed, sending the country into the great recession of 2008.
George Bush was still president.
We were still sending more and more troops to Iraq.
In 2009 the ELCA passed the resolution of human sexuality.
The Soviet Union Collapsed. . .
Actually, that wasn’t twelve years ago, that was a whopping 28 years ago, already, in 1991.  The first George Bush was president at the time. 
We could rattle off a long list of all the issues that dominated the news and our lives over the last 12 years.
Issues flared up.
They resolved themselves.
Bush the Second was president.  Then Obama.  Now Trump.
And in twelve years we will have had other presidents.  We will have faced other issues.
I humor myself with the thought that of all the events of the last twelve years, the introduction of the iPhone may have had the most lasting impact.
Isaiah’s word to Ahaz was simple.
God is with us.
All these issues that seem so overwhelming will pass, but God will remain steadfast and true.

This promise is picked up by Matthew regarding the birth of Jesus.
Jesus was born during tumultuous times when the Roman Empire ruled Israel.
The message of Emmanuel was the same as in Isaiah’s day.
All of the issues that threaten you will pass, but God will remain with you.
It’s an invitation to faith.
I remember a person saying once that before we get too upset about all the events of our day, just think about how many paragraphs that event will be given when the history of Western Civilization is written in five hundred years.
What remains constant is that God is with us.

This last week the House voted to impeach President Trump.
In all likelihood, the Senate, controlled by the Republicans will acquit the President, and like Bill Clinton before him, he will finish his term.  Possibly even get reelected, though the jury is out on that.
But in twelve years, all this political jostling will have worked itself out, our nation will still be here, and we will be on to the next, or even the next after that, President.
The issues that dominate FOX News, or CNN, will be forgotten in large measure.
The world will not have come to an end.
Life will go on.
Change will happen.
There will be surprises.
For example, who would have guessed twelve years ago that today you would be able to get it a car and let it drive itself down the road???  Tesla cars can do that.
When we look forward to the future there are many things we simply don’t know.  Actually, we know very little.
We don’t know how long we will live.
Or what triumphs and tragedies we will face.
We don’t know whether our country will continue to drift away from the Church, or if there will be a reawakening to matters of faith.
Will Peace Lutheran be here in 12 years?
Perhaps not.  But perhaps it may have grown beyond recognition. 
Will Otis Orchards still be a sleepy semi-rural community or will the housing development finally transform it into something quite unrecognizable?
Some of us will have died by then.  Some not.
Change happens.
But what does not change is the love of God for his people and the promise that he will be with us always even to the end of the age.
May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Year A, Advent 3, Isaiah 35.1-10, Matthew 11:2-11 Rejoice

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

How can we sing the Lord’s song, while we are captive in a foreign land?
How can we leap for joy, while our legs are still in shackles?
And what good news is there that could lighten the load of our suffering and oppression.
Two weeks ago Isaiah sang a song of peace.
Last week it was of righteousness that Isaiah wrote, of reconciling all creation.
And today Isaiah’s vision is of rejoicing and healing.
Isaiah goes back and forth.
Much of his message is one of judgment and stern warning about the disaster that was looming on the horizon.
The earliest writings of Isaiah come from about the year 600 BC, just prior to the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the deportation of the people into exile in Babylon.
But remarkably, even while the impending disaster is still on the horizon, he sings these songs of hope and rejoicing.
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.  .   .
10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
It’s a mixed message that Isaiah brings.
Imagine, for example, that Isaiah is speaking to a group of young recruits prior to being sent off to war.
As these soldiers hear the words, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” there are two messages:
1.       They will be blinded, lose their hearing, be wounded and lame, and be left speechless for the ordeal; and
2.       There will be an end to their suffering, and at that time, in spite of being blind, deaf, lame, and speechless they shall rejoice.
Or to put it differently, it’s like promising a young soldier heading off to Iraq or Afghanistan that they need not worry because the Veteran’s Administration runs hospitals all across the country they can be fitted with prosthesis when they get home.
In the years that followed, Judah was conquered and its people taken into captivity in Babylon for a generation.
Then Persia conquered Babylon, and allowed the people to return to Israel to rebuild the nation.
In Ezra we hear the story of the return from Exile and the mixed emotions surrounding that:
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:11b-13
They could not distinguish between the laughter and the weeping.
Again, it’s this mixed message that runs throughout Isaiah.
It’s like hearing that we will be healed, prior to knowing that we were even sick.
Our response is “Wait, what?”

To celebrate the coming of a Savior, is also to admit the reality that we need saving.
We live in interesting, troubling times.  Much like Judah during the time of Isaiah.  Or at least it seems like it.
On the one hand, we are enjoying a long period of economic growth and prosperity.  This began following the “Great Recession” of 2008 and continues to this day.
And yet even in the midst of our prosperity there are those who are sounding warnings, who speak like Amos did when he said “Alas, for those who are at ease in Zion. . .”
Some of those warnings come regarding the environment.
Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year old environmentalist activist, was named Time Magazine’s “person of the year”. 
The message that we hear from climatologists around the globe is that if we don’t act now, and decisively, there will be hell to pay in the future.
In the political arena, we hear voices of warning coming from all sides.
Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated with those people who were deeply concerned that our country had gone astray and was not so great anymore.
On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic candidates are working diligently at casting a vision for our country, their own version of what it would be to “make America greater than it’s ever been.”
The common thread weaved through the messages of both the right and the left, is that “all is not well”.  That in spite of the prosperity, all is not well.
Economically there is a disconnect.  On the one hand, the stock market is at an all time high.  On the other hand, wages of many Americans, especially in the lower economic brackets, are stagnant or even declining. 
Others would warn us about the sustainability of our healthcare system.  We have an incredible health care system, but the cost is an ever increasing issue.
Others would warn us about the overreach of government into our lives.
Still others would warn us about our country losing its status as the leader of the free world.
And all these warnings, warnings from every end of the social/political spectrum, come at a time of prosperity.
For all the warnings, life is good.  Or to put it in a Norwegian sort of way, it could be a whole lot worse.
But going back to the promises of Isaiah, that eventually there will be a time of great rejoicing, and the words of Jesus answering John the Baptist’s question, there is reason to hope and rejoice, but that will come to us after a period of great suffering.
During Advent, the whole point is that we look forward in anticipation of the birth of our Savior, and his coming again – but it is always with an acknowledgment that we NEED a savior.
On a personal level, we believe that the Savior has come and is coming to forgive our sins.
Good news.  Our sins are forgiven.  Rejoice.  Dance. Leap for joy.
But to get to that point of rejoicing, we must first deal with the reality of our sin and repent.
There is no point in celebrating the birth of a savior if we do not acknowledge our need of a savior.
That’s the two edge sword of the Gospel.

Likewise, when Jesus comes to us proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, we rejoice, but, only in as much as we also confess that the Kingdom in which we live is NOT the Kingdom of God.
In the Lord’s prayer we pray:  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Every time we pray that prayer we implicitly admit, confess, that the Kingdom has not yet come and God’s will is not being done.
And so we wait for a savior.
We long for Jesus.
And we wonder when, and how this world will be redeemed as has been promised.
The message of the Gospel is that it will be redeemed, and it will get better, much better, but that there will be times of suffering and great ordeals before that happens.
What we hope for is that we will be sustained by the love of God through those difficult times and be able to wake one day to the redemption that is coming.
And so we light the candle of hope.
And we look forward to the day of rejoicing.
And we trust Jesus.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Righteousness Year A, Advent 2, Isaiah 11.1-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.   Amen
Who do we wait for?
Who do we wait for?
The obvious answer for us during Advent is that we are waiting for Jesus.
But then a second question arises:  “What are our hopes, our longings, our expectations as we await his coming?”
Do we have any?
We talked about that last week.
“Neither shall they learn war anymore.”
To wait for Jesus is to wait for the Prince of Peace.
And our hope, our yearning, our expectation is that with his coming will dawn a new era of “peace on earth”, to quote the angel’s song at his birth.
And when those angels sang that song, they did not sing of heaven, but earth.
The hope, the promise, is that our lives here on earth will change as a result of the coming of the Messiah, and that we will one day live in peace.
Today, Isaiah invites us to sing a different song of hope.
It’s not just about peace, it is also about righteousness.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
What does it mean to us that Jesus will come to bring righteousness to the earth?
Historically and Biblically, there have been three different frames of reference through which we understood and talked about the faith.
And they centered around who we believed Jesus to be.
One understanding of Jesus’ work is that he is the Victorious King who has waged the battle against sin, death, and the powers of evil, and won.
In doing so we have been set free from the power of evil, free to worship him and live in his Kingdom.
This understanding of the saving work of Christ has been called “Christus Victor”.
A second understanding that has dominated our perception of Jesus’ work for centuries is that of the Righteous Judge and sacrifice of atonement.
In this understanding the power of evil is the moral failures of each of us, our failure to obey the law, and the various sins that we have committed that leave us condemned.
Righteousness in this sense is to repent of those sins, largely understood as immorality, and receive the forgiveness offered through Jesus’ atoning life and death, and then to walk in the newness of life, free from the sins that had dominated our previous experiences.
This understanding of Jesus’ work has been referred to historically as the classical theory of the atonement.  Jesus is the lamb of God who died to take away your sins.
There is a third way of understanding Jesus’ work, and I refer to it as the ‘Family of God’ understanding.
Every time we refer to God as our Father, we are thinking in this sense. 
The problem here is that we have become separated and estranged from God our Father.  We have wandered astray like the prodigal Son.  That is our sin.
And repentance is to return to the Lord our God.
The work of Christ our Brother is to guide us back through the power of his love into communion with the Father and one another.
Righteousness in this regard is reconciliation. 
It is being one with God and one with each other.
Isaiah envisioned this type of righteousness in our lesson for today.
When he speaks of righteousness being the belt around the Messiah’s waist, he doesn’t refer to a great cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil.
Nor does he refer to the sacrifice of Atonement, in which the Lamb of God is offered  up for the sins of the world.
Rather, he speaks of the wolf living with the lamb,
The leopard lying down with the kid,
The calf and the lion and the fatling together.
It is an image of the reconciliation of all Creation.

There is one phrase that often captures our attention and our human desires.
“he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
When we hear those words our thoughts go back to the understanding of Jesus’ as the Victorious King, and the wicked as those evil persons he has destroyed.
Here I am going to invite you to think about God destroying “wickedness”, not the “wicked”.
At least that is what Isaiah goes on to describe.
Our human nature is to desire that our enemies are destroyed.
To use the images from Isaiah, as lambs we desire a world free of wolves and leopards.
As calves we’d like a world free of lions.
As children we’d like a world free of poisonous snakes.
You see, we are locked into a way of thinking.
·         The powerful will dominate the weak.
·         The rich will exploit the poor.
·         The majority will run roughshod over the minority.
·         Violence will leave victims.
·         And every victory will come as the result of another’s defeat.
It’s a world view that cannot free itself from the understanding that life itself is all about winners and losers.
In this world view, righteousness depends entirely upon your own perspective and situation in life.
If you are the weak, the poor, the minority, or a victim of violence, then you hope for the day that the rich and powerful, the majority, and the violent bullies of this world are overthrown.
But if you are part of the privileged and powerful class, then your understanding of the world is quite different. 
Chances are then that you will view your actions as serving the cause of righteousness, not injustice.
I’m rich because I’ve lived a good life, and the poor aren't because they haven’t.
I’m powerful because I’m right.

In this sense, we live in a predatory world.
The wolves feast at the lamb’s expense.
But the redemption that Isaiah envisions is not that wolves and leopards and lions and bears and asps and adders will all be destroyed.
No, Isaiah’s vision is that “They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;”
It’s the lion and the lamb together.
It’s a world in which the snake will not bite, nor the human crush the snake.
There is a disconnect here between our human concept of righteousness and God’s.
As humans we tend to think of righteousness as the one way, as though the whole world will one day be lambs, and there will be no wolves.
But God sees a reconciliation of the whole Creation in all its diversity.
The bottom line:  People who are different from me will also be saved.
It will be “the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.”

Why isn’t this the case today?
Why is reconciliation so difficult?
There are two forces that are hurdles to be overcome in order for reconciliation to happen.
Appetite and Fear.
Lion’s have to curb their appetite for lambs, and lambs need to learn to not be afraid of lions.
Without that, both groups will envision the destruction of the other as the only way.

Who is this Jesus that we are waiting for?
Have you ever noticed that every culture tends to see Jesus as one of them and picture him accordingly?
In Japan, Jesus is depicted as being Japanese.
In Norway he has blond hair and blue eyes.
It’s a black baby that lies in the manger in Africa.
Lambs envision Jesus as a lamb, and lions as a lion.
But what if Jesus came to us, not like us, but in the image of those we most need to be reconciled with?
What if accepting Jesus as my Lord meant accepting those very different from myself as a brother or sister?
That’s what reconciliation is all about.
We cannot love the Father and hate his children.
To Love the Father is to love our brothers and sisters as well.
And no, it is not for us to destroy those who are different from us.
Jesus came to reconcile the world and has called us to be his ambassadors of reconciliation.
And so we wait and we hope for that day when the lion and the lamb shall all lie down together and be led by the child of Bethlehem.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Neither shall they learn war, anymore. Year A, Advent 1, Isaiah 2.1-5

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
I'm gonna study, study, war no more
I ain't gonna study war no more
Ain't gonna study war no more
I ain't gonna study war no more”

650 Billion dollars.
That’s more than the next seven countries combined:
China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France.
650 billion dollars spent on the military.
CNBC reported last year:
  • The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan have cost American taxpayers $5.9 trillion since they began in 2001.
  • The figure reflects the cost across the U.S. federal government since the price of war is not borne by the Defense Department alone.
  • The report also finds that more than 480,000 people have died from the wars and more than 244,000 civilians have been killed as a result of fighting. Additionally, another 10 million people have been displaced due to violence
To put that in perspective, the human cost of the wars that we fought in response to the 9/11 attacks has now exceeded 250 people, dead or wounded, for each person killed on 9/11.
Financially, what that means is that since 9-11 each one of us has contributed approximately $18,000 toward that war effort.
During that period of time, then, my wife and I together with my children account for $108,000 in spending on those wars.
On an annual basis, our government spends $2,000 on the military for every man, woman, and child.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah also says in Chapter 11:
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

There are many markers that Christians have used to determine “genuine” Christianity.
When the Roman empire required people to declare “Caesar is Lord!”, the early Christians refused and instead confessed “Jesus is Lord!”  This witness cost many their lives, and for a while defined ‘genuine Christianity’.
Throughout the first centuries of the Church one of the sources of division was the understanding about who Jesus was.
The Nicene Creed was adopted in 325 and amended in 381.  This creedal statement became the enduring marker of the Orthodox Christian faith.
The Bible.
All Christians lift up the Bible as God’s word.
But how we interpret the Bible, what passages are most important, what passages can now be ignored, and all sorts of similar issues divide us.
For many, the approach a person takes to the Bible defines whether they are a genuine Christian or not.

Similarly, social issues become defining for many Christians—what is our response to:
·         Abortion
·         Homosexuality
·         Poverty
·         Immigration
·         Healthcare
·         Justice
·         Gun control
·         Drug and alcohol abuse
·         And Civil Rights, just to name a few.
I had a college professor who once mused that all of the divisions among Christians today were the result of the questions they asked during the medieval period.
He said that it might make more sense to define denominations today based on their positions on these very important issues.
What is the true Christian Church?  For many people that is defined by the position that a Church body takes on these various social issues.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Although all of these things I have cited are important, today I’d like to lift up this issue from Isaiah.
An end, not only to wars, but to the education of warfare.
Imagine, for example, a world in which no one knew how to make a nuclear bomb, anymore.
Imagine a world in which our sons and daughters would not be sent off to die in a foreign land, fighting for a cause no one understands.
Imagine a world in which the government spent the tax dollars on programs such as healthcare, as opposed to the military, because it cared more about healing than killing.
Imagine a world in which no country would seek dominance over the other because they all submitted to the reign of God.
Is peace impossible?
And for people of faith, is there a disconnect between living in a land that considers itself to be founded on Christian principles, BUT which at the same time maintains the most lethal military force in the history of the world.
It’s the name of our congregation.
Ironically, our congregation was founded in part due to some conflicts within the other congregations in the Valley, back in the day.
A while back, someone commented online how ironic it was to see “Peace” and “Lutheran” in the same name.
We have become known for our struggles and the controversial issues we’ve dealt with.
What got lost in all the debate and the fall out was the official position that we could be one in Christ even as we disagreed on these issues.  It was called “reconciled diversity”. 
It was an effort to lift up ‘Peace’ as the defining quality of our Church. 
It didn’t work very well.  Many people left because they disagreed. 
Peace among Nations.
Peace among congregations and Churches.
And peace between people.
It all starts with that last one.
Can I so love my neighbor that I can give up any desire to prevail in a conflict and instead seek to live in harmony and peace?
If we are ever going to experience peace among all nations, first we will need to learn how to live at peace with our own families.
A marriage ought not to be a war zone.
A brother, a sister, is not an enemy.
Children ought not to revolt against parents and neither are parents to dominate their children.
Not learning warfare anymore begins at home.
It’s learning instead the way of Peace, of Shalom.
And peace is not just the lack of conflict, but healing and reconciliation. 

One of the most important things is to realize that "Love and Peace" is not just some “hippy” ideal of kids on pot, but the vision of God himself for our world.
When I consider the prospects of Peace in our world, I both despair and hope.
I despair because we simply cannot seem to break our addiction to the making of war. 
The United States has been engaged in military conflicts 93% of the years since its founding.  There have only been about 20 years total that we were not involved in any military interventions and wars.
That causes me to despair of any hope for peace.
But the other side to that is that peace begins with me.
I have learned over the years that I do not have to resort to conflict, I can choose peace instead.
If I have been wronged, I can choose to forgive.
If I have experienced hatred, I can choose to love.
I can seek healing and reconciliation, not vengeance and retribution.
That gives me cause for hope.
But more than that, much more than that, is the promise of God.
God promises us that one day he will bring peace to the earth and reconciliation to all people.
I may despair of the possibility that we humans will ever learn to live in peace, but God promises that that day will come, not because of our efforts, but because of his.
And so we wait.
And we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Gathering, Year C, Christ the King, Jeremiah 23.1-6, Luke 23.33-43

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
At the heart of our theology there remains an incongruous fact.  Kings don’t belong on crosses.  And to see in that suffering and dying in the most degrading way the redemption of the world is to see a whole different reality from what would be natural and expected.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to death declared “This is the King of the Jews”.  In doing so he was likely mocking both Jesus and the Jews.
“Here is your King, naked and hanging from a cross.”
And adding to the incongruity of it all, we, as a matter of faith, believe that it was there on the cross that Jesus achieved the final victory.
That condemned to die, he destroyed death.
That just when all seemed lost, the lost were found.
That in response to this unforgivable sin, crucifying the Son of God, all sins were forgiven for his sake.
None of that makes sense and yet it is the very core of our faith. 
And nothing is more central to the message of Jesus, than the “Kingdom of God”.  That was his proclamation.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”
And with those words on his lips Jesus set about the work of gathering God’s children into the fold, like a shepherd gathers the sheep, that they might live forever in the Kingdom of God.
And following his death and resurrection Jesus would send his disciples out to the four corners of the earth to gather people from all nations.  It is work that continues to this day.
When we declare that our God given purpose of our congregation is to “welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community” we are setting ourselves to the task of Kingdom building.
I was reading this last week some observations about the differences between the conservative church bodies and the liberal ones.
In today’s highly polarized climate, you can tell whether you are in a liberal church or a conservative one by the way they describe themselves.
This person went on to observe that if the church emphasizes that “All are welcome” it is a liberal church.  Meanwhile, conservative church bodies often describe themselves as “bible believing” which often times translates to believing certain passages of the bible, more than others.
In this regard, though I certainly believe the Bible, I’m unapologetically a liberal Christian for I do believe that all are welcome, that Jesus came to save all sinners, and that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
At the center of this message is the recognition that when we say “Jesus is Lord” and declare that the “Kingdom of God is at hand” we are making an absolute claim.
Jesus is the only Lord.
He is not merely a king among kings, but the Lord and ruler of all.
His Kingdom extends, not only to the end of the earth and includes all people, but to the farthest reaches of the universe.
And for you, this King died.
But not just for you alone, but for all he died.

If Jesus is King at all, he is King of All.
We live at a time when the world is fractured and divided.  Animosities run high. 
When I was in Russia one of their observations of us as Americans was that we wondered why the world doesn’t like us, but it was clear to them, that we didn’t even like each other.
Well there is just no getting around it, we live in polarizing times.
Judy shared an article with me from CNN in which the author talked about just how polarizing our society has become.  His basic point was that not only are we divided and diverse, but we are becoming more and more segregated as a society.
People are moving, and liberals end up in certain communities and conservatives in others.  The red states are becoming redder, and the blue states are becoming bluer.
His point was that as we become so segregated, the conservatives all talk to themselves and become more and more conservative, and the liberals likewise entertain themselves with the notion of how far to the left they can move.
And we grow farther and farther apart.
The divide is deep.
And the divide is real.

And yet for all the differences, there is one Lord and Father of us all.
If we believe in the Kingdom of God;
If we believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life;
Then when we encounter another person, even if they are vastly different from us, our assessment should be that “this too is a person for whom our Lord did choose to die.”
Recognizing that, that around the globe and throughout our communities and our families are those for whom our Lord died, we are to go about the business, the Lord’s business, of gather them in.
One of my favorite hymns is by Marty Haugen:
“Here in this place new light is streaming
Now is the darkness vanished away
See in this space our fears and our dreamings
Brought here to you in the light of this day
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken
Gather us in, the blind and the lame
Call to us now and we shall awaken
We shall arise at the sound of our name

We are the young, our lives are a mystery
We are the old who yearn for your face
We have been sung throughout all of history
Called to be light to the whole human race
Gather us in, the rich and the haughty
Gather us in, the proud and the strong
Give us a heart so meek and so lowly
Give us the courage to enter the song

Here we will take the wine and the water
Here we will take the bread of new birth
Here you shall call your sons and your daughters
Call us anew to be salt for the earth
Give us to drink the wine of compassion
Give us to eat the bread that is you
Nourish us well and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true

Not in the dark of buildings confining
Not in some heaven light years away
But here in this place the new light is shining
Now is the kingdom, now is the day
Gather us in and hold us forever
Gather us in and make us your own
Gather us in, all peoples together
Fire of love in our flesh and our bones
Fire of love in our flesh and our bones

Another hymn, familiar to us all sings the same message:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
There is nothing more radical about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, than it's radical inclusiveness.
And that is neither a liberal or conservative agenda, but a God thing.
It was not a liberal that died for all.
Nor was it a conservative that so loved the world.
But rather the Lord our God, crucified and risen.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, one of our Lutheran pastors writes:
“Matthew once said to me, after one of my more finely worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions, "Nadia, the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it." Damn.”
― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

If I might be so bold as to add something to what Nadia said, it would be this:
That not only is Jesus on the other side of a line that we draw between us and others, he is working to erase that line and tear down that wall. 
In the book of Revelation, there is a vision of the Kingdom of God and the holy city Jerusalem.
One of the things that is described is the great wall that will surround the City.
But it also speaks about the gates.
Popular mythology talks repeatly about St. Peter at the gate of heaven, deciding who gets to enter and who does not.
But in Revelation, in the description of the holy city Jerusalem, there is one sentence that is truly insightful:
Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.
The reason they will never be shut is because God’s entire purpose is to gather us in, not to shut us out.
Jeremiah writes:
It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back.
These words of Jeremiah may refer to God’s gathering his people together and bringing them back from their time of exile in Babylon.  That’s the historical setting.
But it also speaks to the end of time and the Kingdom of God.
God will gather his people from the four corners of the earth, and then, unite them under his gentle and loving reign as King.