Saturday, October 19, 2019

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


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

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

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

Saturday, October 12, 2019

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


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

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

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

Saturday, October 5, 2019

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


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

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

Saturday, September 28, 2019

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


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

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


Saturday, September 21, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 20, Psalm 113, Amos 8.4-7, Luke 16.1-13


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
The LORD makes the woman of a childless house to be a joyful mother of children. Hallelujah!
Sometimes God’s grace comes to us in very concrete ways.
I remember a member of my congregation in Thompson Falls citing this verse as her hope.  God hears the cries of a barren woman, and makes her the mother of children.
They ended up adopting their two children through Lutheran Community Services.
Karla’s brother and sister adopted our niece. 
Our neighbors and friends in Sandpoint adopted a son.
A colleague in ministry adopted a daughter from China.
For them, grace was a bundle of joy, a baby, perhaps an older child, but one to call their own and to love and care for.
What made adoption so special for them from a spiritual perspective was the experience of receiving from the Lord’s hand that which they could not conceive of on their own.
Grace.
Of course there is also great joy when we give birth to a child.
The delight is in the gift of a child, not in the means of delivery.
In Biblical times it was about blessings and curses.
God’s blessing was experienced in abundant crops, productive herds, and many children.
God’s curse was experienced when crops failed, herds of animals did not thrive, and when women were barren.
From Sarah onward, the scripture tells the story of one woman after another that was barren, yet by God’s grace, became the mother of children.
And in each case there is great joy.
Joy because of the gift of the child.
And joy because the curse has been lifted.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, becomes the song of every mother:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
This is part of a larger theme that runs through the scripture, namely, that God has a deep concern for the plight of the lowly, the poor, the outcast. 
Mary’s song goes on to say:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
It is the concern for the poor that is the focus of Amos’ words from our first lesson:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,  .  .  . buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Think about this for a moment.
We worship a God who is concerned about a childless mother, and a motherless child.
We worship a God who champions the cause of the poor and the outcast.
The God who called into being the entire universe, cares for the least of these, his children.
That’s grace.

We live in contentious times.
One of my observations is that whenever we seriously consider the implications of a Biblical faith for our daily lives, there are those who say we are getting “too political”.
But this is the thing:
God cares about the barren mother, and the motherless child.
God cares about the poor.
God cares about the outcast.
God cares about sinners.
God cares about refugees and immigrants, otherwise why would God say: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”?  (Leviticus 19:4)
So here is a question for you.
Are caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, lifting up the lowly, healing the sick, matters of faith?  Or politics?
And which comes first?
Does our faith shape our politics?
Or do our political convictions shape our faith?
That matters.  It says something about who is truly our God.
Jesus says:
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Is wealth a bad thing, then??
Well, if we are honest, wealth can be either a blessing or a curse.
In the Bible, wealth is often associated with God’s blessing, for example, when God blessed Jacob with much wealth.
But the accumulation of wealth is also seen as a great evil, for it so often comes at the expense of the poor.
One question to ask ourselves is whether our wealth is used to serve God and our neighbor?  Or do we use our wealth and power to oppress and subdue others?
God is in the business of lifting up the downtrodden.
And we are in the business of doing God’s bidding in the world.
That’s our calling.
To be God’s hands and feet in the world.
To do his work.

One of the most compelling and troubling things for me, is the realization that people will learn more about the God we worship by observing our actions, than by listening to our words.
Is our God a loving and compassionate God?
Well, do we act in loving and compassionate ways?
If we truly believe that God is loving and compassionate, then our own actions should bear witness to that.

There’s another side to these matters.
It’s not just about what we should do for others, it is also about what God has already done for us.
We are to love, because God first loved us.
We are to care for the poor, because God has first cared for our needs.
We are to feed the hungry, as we have first been fed.
We are to lift up the lowly, as we have first been lifted up.
We are to welcome the stranger, as we ourselves have been welcomed.

Day to day stuff.
We have been blessed so that we can be a blessing.
And therein lays the single most important question for each of us as we live out our faith.
How can I be a blessing to others, as I have been blessed?
I have been forgiven, can I be forgiving?
I have been fed, can I do the feeding?
I have been welcomed into this community, can I in turn welcome the stranger?
I have been loved, can I love others?
Can I be an ambassador of God, offering to others what I first have received from God?

This is not always easy.
On Tuesday, during our study, a man came into the church and requested money for gas and food.  And his primary concern seemed to be money for gas.
What I’ve learned over the course of my ministry is that we should never give out cash as that often enables drug addiction and other problems.
And so Tuesday, I didn’t give him any money, but rather offered him some of the food we had collected for the food bank.  He took a can of stew.
This is where we need to be shrewd.  What is wise?  What is truly helpful?
Caring for the poor is one thing, but enabling drug addiction by giving out cash is another.  That’s the struggle.
But the fact that offering assistance in a helpful way can be challenging is not an excuse for not trying to begin with.
And perhaps we have to allow for the fact that our assistance will be abused by some, in order for that same charity to get to those who really need it.
There is another side to this.  My colleagues and I were talking about the soup kitchen at All Saints Lutheran, and the criticism they’ve received that they are just feeding drug addicts and enabling their addiction.  Our response was that the reason we feed even drug addicts, is that a dead drug addict can never be cured.
That’s why we are to show mercy in all our charitable work.  Because that mercy may one day save that person.  And that is the work of God.  To save the lost.
It’s who God is.
Amen

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 14, Psalm 51.1-10, Luke 15.1-10, Come Home!


“Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home!
You who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.”

There is a reason you are here.
There is a reason I am here.
It is because, deep within us, whether we know it or not, we have heard the Lord call our name.
He calls to us, each individually, by name, and begs us, as sinners, to come home.
If you want to understand the Church,
                Understand, just that.
“Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.”

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Children of God?”
Perhaps you think of the basic goodness with which God created each of us.  There is a blessed innocence about a child. 
Pure.
Undefiled.
Or perhaps when you hear the phrase “Children of God” you hear it as a contrast.
Paul writes in Romans, the 8th chapter:
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.   For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
In this way, we understand ‘children of God’ as a status granted to us by virtue of our baptism into Christ Jesus.
And so it is a contrast, children of God, the redeemed, versus the rest who are not.
The Righteous. 
And the Unrighteous.
The problem with this understanding of “Children of God” is that we often equate our being a child of God with something we have done, and thereby, we deserve that status on our own merits.
There is another understanding of ‘children of God’, and that is that we are all dependent on the grace of God.
Paul writes in Romans, the 3rd chapter:
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.”
If the first understanding of ‘Children of God’ is that we are all created good;
And the second understanding of ‘Children of God’ is that some are good, and some are bad;
This third understanding is that we are all sinful, but forgiven, by the grace of God, as a gift.
Of these three, the one that is not Biblical is the second one.  Specifically, none of us are righteous on our own account.  If we are righteous, it is purely by the grace of God.

“Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home!
You who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.”

Why are you here?
Consider this as a possibility.
You are here, because God recognized in you a sinfulness that begged for forgiveness, and a brokenness that only grace could heal.
Maybe you are aware of what that might be.
Sometimes we are.
Sometimes we truly sing that song,
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T'was blind but now I see.
At other times we simply do not see, and do not understand, the nature of our sin.
But God does, and God calls us.
Have you ever experienced an illness, or condition, that you weren’t fully aware of until you experienced healing???
I think of numerous examples in my own life.
My eyesight.
It’s often not until I get a new prescription that I realize how blurred my vision had become.
Or my hearing.
It wasn’t until I received my hearing aids that I realized how much I was not hearing before.
Or my alcoholism.
It wasn’t until I stopped drinking that I realized how addicted I was to alcohol. 
The list could go on and on.
Sin creeps up on us, and gradually takes control of our lives, and we often do not realize it or the extent of it, until after we have been set free.
“I once was lost, but now am found
T'was blind but now I see.”

Martin Luther teaches us that we are, at one and the same time, saints and sinner.  The Latin phrase is simul justus et peccator. 
What that means is that we come here as ‘children of God’, each of us created in God’s image, and each of us, good.
It also means that each of us comes here as a sinner, needing God’s forgiveness, and entirely dependent on God’s grace.
And finally, it means that by God’s grace, we have been redeemed, and are now that child of God once again, that is precious and good in the sight of God.
All of this is God’s gift.

But do we believe it???
And do we live it???

The answer to that lies in how we treat others, especially the newcomer that comes to our door.
When someone new comes do we see in them, a precious child of God, who has come here, because in some way, somehow, God has brought them here for healing and hope.
We should imagine ourselves as being like an emergency room in the hospital.
People do not come here because they are well.
They come here seeking hope and healing, and the forgiveness of their sins.
And we are to receive them, as fellow members of the body of Christ. 
·         People in need of forgiveness as we are.
·         People longing for healing as we do.
·         And people whom God loves, just as he loves us.
Nowhere in there is there room for us to judge, other than this: we judge them to be equally under the grace of God as we ourselves are.
This is a sacred trust that God has bestowed on the Church.
A sacred trust.
To receive those God has called to us, and to be agents of healing, forgiveness, and hope.
One of the most powerful images of the Church for me comes from my experience of being in inpatient treatment for chemical dependency.
All of us were there because we were chemically dependent and sought healing.
But all of us there were also helping to heal each other.
Even the counselors were recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. 
When someone walked in, we’d all know that they had the same problem we had.  We knew this.  But sometimes the newcomer didn’t recognize it yet.  But they quickly understood.
And, also, we all recognized that we needed each other to help and encourage the healing that would be a key to our very lives.
This continued into the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  A bunch of broken people helping each other find wholeness.
That’s what the Church is:
A bunch of sinners helping each other experience God’s forgiveness.
And every time, even one sinner comes home, heaven rejoices.
Amen