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.

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.
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.

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. 
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.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Is it worth it?, Year C, Pentecost 13, Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Luke 14.25-33,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Make a choice”, Moses said.
“Choose life!” he declared.  And if you do, you will reap the benefits of God’s blessings and have a long prosperous life.
“Make a choice”, Jesus said.
“Choose to follow me!” but before you do, know that it may cost you everything that you have, even your own life.
There is no more pronounced contrast than this.
Moses is urging us to “choose life”.
Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to “choose death”, as we follow him on the way of the cross.
We are here because we want to follow Jesus.
But his words challenge us to the very core of our being.
1.       “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
2.       “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
3.       And finally, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Our family.  Our life.  Our possessions. 
What more could Jesus possibly ask of us??
What else is left?
Just let that sink in a bit.

Wouldn’t you rather follow Moses than Jesus?
Moses promises God’s blessings and prosperity.
Jesus warns us that following him means giving up everything, including our lives.

One movement in contemporary Christianity today is called the “Prosperity Gospel”.
I quote:  “The prosperity gospel is an umbrella term for a group of ideas — popular among charismatic preachers in the evangelical tradition — that equate Christian faith with material, and particularly financial, success. It has a long history in American culture, with figures like Osteen and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, glamorous, flashily-dressed televangelists whose Disneyland-meets-Bethlehem Christian theme park, Heritage USA, was once the third-most-visited site in America.
A 2006 Times poll found that 17 percent of American Christians identify explicitly with the movement, while 31 percent espouse the idea that “if you give your money to God God will bless you with more money.” A full 61 percent agree with the more general idea that “God wants people to be prosperous.”
“If you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.”
Ok, I have to confess that I don’t know if that is actually true.
What I do know is this.  If you give your money to God, as in the Church, God will bless ME with more money.
I mean, “Hey, Joel Osteen is worth millions.”
I can be very crass about this.  But the point is a bit more subtle than that.
A lot of us would like to believe that if we are faithful Christians our lives will be good and prosperous.
Even Karla’s mom and dad, who were hardly followers of Jim and Tammy Faye, would share their own experience of making the decision, early in their marriage, that they would tithe everything that they had.  This decision came one Sunday morning when they had one dollar to their names, and were thinking about what they could give as an offering that day.  They decided to give 10 cents, and throughout the rest of their lives gave 10 percent of everything that they had.
Their believe was that by doing so, they were trusting in God to provide, and also, they believed that because they did so they always had enough.
I admire Karl and Becky’s faithfulness.
I really do.

But this understanding of the tithe and the blessings that we will receive for our faithfulness is an Old Testament concept.  It’s roots lie with Moses’ teaching, not Jesus’ teaching.
Moses said to give ten percent.
Jesus did not let us off so easily.
“Give everything.”

Here’s a question for you to consider.
“Does following Jesus and doing what he commands, make you in the least bit uncomfortable?”
If it doesn’t, are you really following Jesus?
Jesus said:
1.       “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

But you know what.  Even as a pastor I have to admit that my family comes first.  If I’m honest.  If I’m truly honest there is very little in life I would be willing to commit myself to if it got in the way of my relationship with my wife and kids, and especially my grandchild, Jasper.
Jesus said:
2.       “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Truth be told, I’m  more concerned about having my health insurance paid for than giving my life on the cross. 

3.       And finally, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

OK, so maybe this is a “three strikes, you’re out” thing.  I’m not interested in giving up all my possessions.  I’m interested in securing my retirement, making wise financial decisions, and doing everything I can to insure that Karla and I will have enough during our retirement years.

Jesus is a radical.
Christianity, however, has become domesticated and tamed.
I remember a statement made by one of the members of Agnus Dei, Karla and my home congregation in Gig Harbor, WA.  At the time, this member was shopping around and had attended one of the mega Churches in the community.
“I feel good when I leave there,” she said.  “I feel good.”

Is putting Jesus before your family a good feeling?
Is putting Jesus before your life a good feeling?
Is putting Jesus before your money a good feeling?
No.  Probably not.
Again, I go back to my own struggles as a pastor.
We have a purpose statement, that we as a congregation have adopted and recited for many years, now.
“God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.”
That statement speaks to the radical nature of Jesus’ love, and often I’ve referenced it in my preaching and teaching here.
But do I really want to push the issue?
Welcome all.
Love all.
Serve all.
Locally and globally.
We have domesticated and tamed Jesus’ radical message, and one of the ways we have done so is to subtly change that “all” to “some”.
Yes, we “welcome, love, and serve”, but only some, and we pat ourselves on the back for being ‘pretty good’, even if we are not perfect.
The problem with welcoming, loving, and serving all is that it might cause conflict with some of our own brothers and sisters in faith, it might put us at risk, and it might affect the bottom line.
In other words, if “welcoming, loving, and serving all” means that we might lose members, experience risks, or see our offerings decrease, we would prefer to change that to a more palatable “welcome, love, and serve SOME”.
Case in point, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has tried to live out that command of Jesus to ‘welcome, love, and serve all’ and the result has been conflict, numerous conflicts.
I was struck this last week by one of the comments on our Facebook page.
“How ironic,” the person wrote, “to see ‘Peace’ and ‘Lutheran’ in the same name.
It was an obvious reference to the conflicts we’ve experienced as we sought to welcome, love, and serve all.
But is it worth it??
That’s the question.
It is worth it?
Is following Jesus worth the cost?

That’s a question each of us will have to answer in our own lives.