The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon: Matthew's Gospel

          Last I left you it was Christ the King Sunday and we were turning the page on the Gospel of Luke. Now, we’re a week into Advent and one Sunday into the Gospel of Matthew.
          While we’ll occasionally veer into John’s Gospel, and even make our ways into Luke’s once or twice, from now until the end of November we’ll be heavy in Matthew’s gospel.
          Make no mistake, each Gospel
—while focused on telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and making the case that it is Good News
—each Gospel has a different tint to it, makes the case in a different way.
          And since we’re going to be enmeshed in Matthew’s Gospel, we might as well know what we’re getting into; we might as well hear clearly and concisely Matthew’s Gospel.

The Kingdom of Heaven is coming.
Gather together.
Be ready for it!
It will reveal our true natures.


The Kingdom of Heaven is coming. Gather together. Be ready for it! It will reveal our true natures.

The Kingdom of Heaven is coming.
          The Kingdom of Heaven—a funny way to say God’s reign, or God’s rule. That God’s presence will be felt in a unique and powerful way.
Again and again, Matthew points to examples in the Old Testament of God acting—being present, ruling
And insists that is happening as well when Jesus is around. Jesus’ presence is God doing a new thing—acting in a heavy and unignorable way.
          God has acted as recorded in Hebrew Scripture and is acting in Jesus.

Gather together.
          More than any other Gospel, Matthew is concerned with community. His Gospel is the only one what mentions the word Church, those assembled, in the original Greek, Ecclesia.
The natural response to God showing up in Jesus is to gather, or maybe better said to “be gathered” because it is almost a compulsion, we hardly have a choice in the matter.
Matthew gathers a boatload of stories Jesus tells of:
people invited to banquets and gathering there,
fish gathered together in nets,
sheep and goats gathered in flocks,
wheat and weeds gathered together after the harvest.
          When the Kingdom comes, people gather.

Be ready for it!
          The Kingdom nears, how can you help but stretch your neck to see?
How can you help but prepare when:
You’ve been sent an invitation
or called by your shepherd
or asked to light the way for the coming bride and groom?
          The Kingdom will change everything, be ready for that change!

It will reveal your true natures.
          This is the big one for Matthew. When the Kingdom arrives it shows you for who you really are, and the effects of the way you’ve lived.
Sheep may no longer claim to be goats, nor goats claim to be sheep.
We can no longer pretend rotten fish or weeds are good fish and wheat.
The chaff in all these examples will be burned away.
          Just so, Jesus’ presence reveals who is who. Who is living in line with the Rule of God and who is living in another way.
          The most obvious example of this that at one point in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus berates the Scribes and Pharisees…

          And before I go any further it is worth remembering Matthew is writing as a Jew to fellow Jews about the Jew Jesus. One of the verbal ticks in Matthew’s Gospel that ought to be unsettling to us all, is that Matthew’s Gospel is the one that most clearly attacks Pharisees, Sadducees, and Judaism writ large.
          He does this because he and his community have been booted out of the Synagogues and declared heretics. He’s hurt, his own religion and people have said he’s not one of theirs. And he lashes out.
          If you ever want to hear someone’s dirty laundry described in the worst of terms—talk to their ex.
          All that to say, this Gospel has been used to justify horrible acts of Anti-Semitism from the destruction of Roman Synagogues all the way back in the 300’s to medieval persecutions during the black plague and the crusades to Luther’s Anti-Jewish writings and the Holocaust to actions by present day Neo-Nazis.
          With that said, Matthew describes the teachings of the Pharisees and the Teachings of Jesus in stark terms, as two very different ways of being.
          He says Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees
who talk well, but act poorly,
who are collectors of titles,
superficial, hypocrites, who major in the minors, and ignore the Kingdom of Heaven as it dances on the very tip of their nose.
          At the same time,
blessed are those who live to reveal the Kingdom of God in all they do—they are salt and light. They are centered on God’s actions in all that they do.
Their holiness is not for show, but instead is done in secret.
          In Christ’s presence these two ways of being will be exposed and separated
—outside of Christ, it is never clear who is who and what is what
—who are sheep and who are goats
and no one has room to judge.

          Matthew’s Good News is that
Jesus is coming,
gathering us,
calling us to prepare,
and he will show us all for who we are.

          Look at today’s lesson.
John warns that the Kingdom is coming, recognizable to Isaiah and all the prophets who have experienced its power!
They gather, the people from all around, including Pharisees and Sadducees!
They prepare with a Baptism of repentance.
They are reminded that the fruit they bear will indicate the kind of tree they are. Good trees kept, bad trees burnt. Wheat stored, chaff burnt. Their nature revealed.

          A stark thing, this Gospel of Matthew, but instructive too, this Advent season.
Like him, we trust the Kingdom is coming.
We gather together a mixed body of saints and sinners.
We light candles and focus on anticipating the kingdom, preparing for its coming.
We dare wonder what will be revealed.

Matthew’s Good News is that
The Kingdom of Heaven is coming.
Gather together.
Be ready for it!
It will reveal our true natures.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sermon: Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom

         Today, the last Sunday of this liturgical year, as we end the time we’ve spent reading through the Gospel According to Luke and are about to turn the page and spend a year reading Matthew’s Gospel.
         Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, wrestling with what Christ’s Kingship means.
         Wrestling with it because we get this exalted description of Christ’s Kingship found in the letter to the Colossians—
-The Invisible God made Visible,
-The One Upon Whom thrones, dominions, rulers and powers depend,
-The Head of the Church.
         Wrestling because we also find this same king holding court with criminals, the cross his throne.

         Somewhere between these two realities of who Jesus is as King—lofty and laughed at,
we find ourselves in his presence.
         And, in this place, we become vulnerable, but so deeply loved. Humbled and in the presence of a ruler so strange he is strung up with us.
         Then we, like the second thief,
we can do nothing other than ask, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
         Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom
Let us pray

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
         Because the visibility of God you offer me, seems still invisible. We do not see you in the stable, we do not arrive with those unstable, or at least unwelcome, Shepherds.
We do not give room at the inn or go beyond the rumors about your strange family—Joseph and Mary, quite a scandal there.
The audacity of your forgiveness, we assign it to God and assess your healings as blasphemy.
When you hang out with the wrong type of people, we say there could be no Godliness in such association.
We choose to ignore you when you enter Jerusalem because we expected a war horse, but we got a donkey—because the donkey... (Makes all the difference).
We look at cross and see only God’s abandonment.
I cannot trust that you came here for me, in flesh and in real time, that I might have life eternal.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom
         Because beyond your blessed body, and my ignorance of it, I also miss everything else!
I cannot believe all that is, seen and unseen, is a gift, from God.
I am given every opportunity to say thank you, and I instead say no thanks, and ignore my neighbor on top of it all…
No, ignoring them would be better, I grow to hate them, often over petty things. It’s like I’m starving and a feast beyond compare has been served, and I’m fiddling with the butter packet and do not notice the wonderful meal before me.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom
         Because, I’m part of the Church, above me is the Head, the Lordship of Christ, I get to be a disciple, to follow after you.
Yet, I am the body, and choose to follow my appetites instead of the Mind of Christ. My eccentricities and limited view of the world gets in the way.
There is a whole community here
—one spanning space and time, yet today I’d break it for a moment of petty retribution.
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdomwhere God’s fullness is revealed. Where Emmanuel, God with Us, is obvious.
Where stable birth and Mary’s song—God’s in that.
Family Tree and Temptations—a God sighting.
Where when a woman speaks or a Samaritan of any sort is present, they are found in the gentle protection of Your wings.
Where Sabbath is for liberation, Repentance is regular, and Prayer is persistent.
Where poverty, wealth, or social standing do not bar thy gates.
Where entrance is costly, and utterly free.
Where your Holy Spirit moves me to trust in your gift of eternal life, for I do not have the power to do so on my own.
Yes, Jesus, remember me.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdomwhere this creation I take for granted is recreated and I are unable to live any way other than in utter awe!
Where resurrection overflows everywhere! The great yearning this broken world has suffered under is at an end, it bursts forth with Joy at the new life you give us, give it, make of all that is—new life!
Where thankfulness is always at hand.
Where I can love my neighbor.
Where I can fully pay attention to all the grace you have given, this wondrous world on offer.
Yes, Jesus, remember me.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom... you body, the Church… remember us here!
Where we are no longer beheaded, instead head and body work as one. The ideals of Christ and the actuality of your Church—are in sync.
Where your work of reconciliation is recognizable to those of us here together,
And also to those who hear of us second hand!
That this will be a place where breaches of relationship are repaired.
Where we hold one another to account, and also help each other to attain justice and receive mercy.
Yes, Jesus, remember me.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
         So often I do not see your presence, be present with me.
         It is hard to be thankful sometimes, give me eyes to see your wonders and lips to praise you for them.
         Your Church falls short of our high calling, call us by name and make us yours.
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Hate Crimes aren’t a Partisan Issue

            You all know I’m kinda a partisan hack. The Iraq War radicalized me and this blog, which up until July 5th, 2003 was simply a place where I posted religious thoughts and poetry. I railed against the Bush administration for 5 years, worked my first election in 2004 when I thought the Democratic Party’s mediocre candidates, John Kerry and his philandering VP, could steer America in a better direction. I bought the Obama hype hook line and sinker, and kinda still do. Before this election I gave 3 reasons why I supported Hillary over Trump.
            So, you know on a visceral partisan level, I am sad blue lost to red. Steelers beat Ravens, Oakland beat Denver. And if that was all this was, who cares, right? Then people out there protesting are like sports fans whose team lost the game.
            But there is something else that is going on that goes well beyond partisan politics, and I hope most Republicans and Libertarians would agree that American needs to stand-up against. In this first week after the election—Wednesday to Wednesday—the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there were 437 instances of harassment based on race, religion, country of origin, gender, etc. This compares to an average from 2013 of 114 instances a week (to be clear I don’t know how best to compare how the FBI and the SPLC label these things). That’s almost a 4-fold increase!
            This uptick in hateful acts is so noticeable that our Bishop wrote a letter addressing this issue, first to the clergy, then passed it on to everyone in the New Jersey Synod. Here is an excerpt:

“Regardless of who you or your parishioners voted for, we all must denounce this behavior. As the body of Christ, we are called to stand with those whom God loves and claims as God's own cherished children. We are called to speak out when we witness acts of hatred. We are charged to eradicate racism in all its forms, welcome the refugee and immigrant, and work for justice and peace in all the earth. There is no place for bigotry in our church… We need to risk our own safety in order to step up and tell them they are wrong. We need to examine our own prejudices and biases and confess our own sinfulness. By our actions, we will witness to the truth as expressed by Bishop Desmond Tutu: "Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death".”

            And before we think this is just another media freak out. Two quick personal stories.
1. A couple who are friends of mine are wondering if they should go home for Thanksgiving to Upstate New York, because there have been 3 anti-Semitic incidents in their home town, and they wonder if they and their children will be safe.
2. There was an incident between a server and a customer at Trolley Car Diner right next to my seminary in Philly—a common hang out for Seminarians and a great place to get ice cream in the summer.
The incident is a she-said-she said kind of thing (here, here, and here are 3 different stories about the incident). Post-election a customer came in with Trump gear; the server said snide things she shouldn’t have said. The owner of Trolley Car disciplined the server.
The next morning the same customer came in again. The customer said she was “checked” by the server. The server and owner said the customer purposefully snuck up behind the server and when the server turned around from her table she accidently bumped into the lady.
Then, Jack Posobiec, the Special Projects Manager of Citizens for Trump, showed up and tweeted to his 60,000 followers that they needed to do something about Trolley Car Diner. Since then the owner of Trolley Car has received so many death threats and the building arson threats, that they had to disconnect their phones. Some of these threats have been explicitly anti-Semitic, for example, referring to the owner’s last name, “'Weinstein,' eh? Interesting name. Very oven-worthy."

            So, I’m saying this simply, these attacks are wrong.
            They go against the faith of Jesus Christ.
            They go against, as well, the highest values of our society.
            Winning, or losing, an election never justifies hate, never justifies violence.
            Those who would use the election of Donald Trump as a platform for peddling the dead and deadly ideology of white supremacy are wrong.

            To those of you who are inclined to these evil deeds, listen to the President Elect himself. Stop It!

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon: Bad News, Good News

Bad News, Good News

          I would encourage you all, in this coming week, to find someone who you disagree with politically (not your Pastor, by the way), and exchange smart-phones, or tablets, or computers, or whatever you use to look at your Social Media.
Take a look at the stories they read, the pictures and comments they are exposed to.
I imagine they will be the complete opposite of what you see and are exposed to.
Is it any wonder that for the first time in our nation’s history every state that voted for a Republican for President also voted for a Republican for Senate and vice versa with Democrats?
Is it any wonder that on a whole no one split their ballots this year.
It’s like we’re not breathing the same air,
singing the same songs,
or living in the same realities.
          It’s sort of like that famous picture of a duck… or is it a rabbit?
The same reality can be seen through two very different lenses.

          And so too the Word of God
—it is Law and Gospel
—When Lutherans read the Bible we experience it as a two edged sword. It kills us and makes us alive. As is said so often it “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.”
          God’s word afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.


God’s Word afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
          Think of fire—it’ll warm your house, or burn it down.
          Or, this “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” Malachi speaks of as he warns his people, people returned from Babylon and already growing complacent, warns them about their impurities. The Day of the Lord will be an oven, burning up everything and leaving nothing.
          Yet, this “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” is also the sun around which we circle, giving heat and light, allowing all things to grow.

          I think of those horrible forest fires we get out west—everything is burnt, the underbrush swallowed up, trunks blackened
—and strangely it is necessary.
Pinecones only sprout seed when heated in hellish inferno. Growth can only occur when all is burnt.

          Or think more carefully of Malachi’s message—impurities in metal are removed in flame, and the sores and sickness of a wound can only fully heal when exposed to the open air.
          We can only see our savior when we’re face to face with our sins—only in our deepest need can we find redemption.

God’s Word afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
          You’ve been saved by Jesus acting on your behalf—no work of yours can win salvation—he is the Resurrected one and shall Return. Wait for the Lord!
          Not a bad message by any measure
…though I think we can all agree here today… by the mere fact that we are here today… 2000 years later
—the nearness of Christ’s return that Paul preached has more to do with personal accountability than chronological immediacy
—in other words, the Return of Christ should encourage us to measure our actions in light of Christ present with us, not throw us into unhelpful speculation.
          Would you really do that to someone else if Jesus was looking over your shoulder?

          “Wait for the Lord.” Not a bad message
—but a message badly heard by the Thessalonians.
Some in the community appear to have thought, “Gee, Christ is coming, I’ll just wait around and do nothing—nitpicking the people in my church who work hard, and I’ll even live off their work.”
          This of course doesn’t work, for if Christ acts on our behalf, how can we not act in imitation of it, not for salvation, but out of gratitude? “Do not weary of doing right!” Paul proclaims.
          Think of the meaning of those words for the people who were nitpicking and not participating—weary, I’m afraid of being weary.
          But think too of what those words meant for the nitpicked
—don’t be weary,
what you are doing is right!
In the face of all the obstacles of being a Christian in the Early Church,
persecution by the government,
factionalism within the faith,
a painful split with Judaism,
in the face of all that do not weary in doing what it right!

God’s Word afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
          Look at all this grandeur, one of the greatest edifices upon the earth—the temple in Jerusalem
—a Religious Disneyland at times
—nothing will be left.
All these great things you helped put together will be ended, destroyed.
          If you are faithful all that awaits you is:
the lure of leaders who are not leaders,
wars, insurrections, geo-political rivalries,
natural disasters and man made disasters,
horrifying sights you would never have expected in your wildest dreams,
arrest, persecution, betrayal by friends and family
—you will be exposed and have to explain your faith in Jesus.

          That sounds horrifying, right? This is affliction without comfort!
We wouldn’t want to live in such interesting of times, we’d hate for this to be our lot in life—even less so the reality for our Children.
No gospel there, right?
          Except that was exactly what the early church was facing.
-The Destruction of the Temple, the center of Religious Life, at the hands of the Romans.
-Violent revolutionaries claiming the same title as Jesus.
-Infighting between Emperors,
Mount Vesuvius exploding killing everyone in Pompeii and covering everything within 750 miles with ash.
-Famines throughout the Empire that shaped birth patterns for a generation,
-Formal and informal persecution—led by soldiers or led by peasant with pitchfork—neither very nice.
-Christianity seen as unfriendly, unsocial, and against family values.
-Christians drug before people in power, forced to repent of their faith, or at least explain it, often at the edge of a sword.
          Yes, I believe to those afflicted Christians…
Being advised to trust Jesus’ message and testify to it.
Being reminded that their stand, in the face of opposition, was faithful.
Being turned from terror.
Being reminded what kind of Messiah Jesus is.
          To those afflicted Christians these words are utter comfort.

God’s Word afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
          As for us, in our highly polarized country, so many sure of their positions, firmly entrenched, unwilling to see the other side, confident to the point of idolatry and dehumanization
—We duck people and rabbit people
—if we are honest with ourselves and with our God,
Humble enough to each entertain, as I suggested last week, the hardest of ideas that “maybe I’m wrong.”
We ought to pray for ourselves and for our kin, that God will afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sermon: The Election and Eternity

There were two brothers, not always the best of friends, but they usually got along okay. They owned a garage together, did brake repair, emissions testing, oil changes, stuff like that.
Whenever a customer would come in for custom and detail work, whichever brother was there would do the job and keep the profit.
Well, one of the brothers started to tell customers to come in for that type of stuff when his brother wasn’t around, so he’d get the work.
I’m sure you can imagine what happened next, the second brother eventually caught on, and it all blew-up.
They sold the garage and never talked to one another again,
they became enemies.
When the first brother died the second didn’t even attend his funeral.
It was a shame for the whole family.
And today, as we consider Jesus’ blessings and woes, his call to love our enemies and do to others as we would have them do to us
—on this All Saints Sunday,
only a few days before the election,
I would like to preach to you about The Election, and Eternity. The Election, and Eternity.
Let us pray

“Blessed are the poor, hungry, weeping, hated. Cursed are the Rich, Full, Laughing, Loved.”
This here is Luke at his most basic level, the Good News of Jesus brings reversal.
As little Mary sings at the beginning of this Gospel, her child will topple kings from their thrones,
the lowly will be blessed,
the proud will be scattered,
the hungry fed,
the rich left empty.
Yes, a Gospel of reversal.
Immediately before Jesus’ sermon here, he heals the crowd. Those most vulnerable, the possessed and sickly, meet Jesus in a profound and life changing way. And there is something to that…
when we’re in need, we are more likely to notice Jesus doing something.
When vulnerable, we’re more likely to embrace transformation. Truly, the poor, hungry, weeping, and hated are uniquely blessed when they encounter God’s riches, fullness, comfort, and embrace.

Additionally though, there is something profoundly jarring about these blessings and curses. They make us do a double take,
ask what blessing means,
what our own lives do to bless or curse the vulnerable.
Make us wonder if we’ve prioritized the wrong things, and what we thought were curses are blessings and what we thought were blessings are curses.
If we have any idols sitting in our back pocket, things we’re absolutely sure of, that aren’t the promises of God, we lose them here. Jesus’ words shake us and make us say those very uncomfortable words, “maybe I’m wrong.”
          I think about fighting with a pastor when I was in 4th grade and just read the whole bible, all on my own with no help from anyone
—I insisted that the most interesting book in the Bible was the book of Job (wrong)… and I wouldn’t let him correct my pronunciation—I knew it couldn’t be the book of Job (right)…
maybe I’m wrong—a little humility goes a long way.
          Maybe I’m wrong about riches and poverty, fullness and hunger, mourning and joy, maybe I’m wrong about loving and hating!

          And, while he touches on that last one, love and hate, Jesus pushes the case, “Love your enemy…do to others as you would have them do to you.”
          Some, the stereotypical Lutheran Theologian, might simply throw up their hands at this command—it is impossible, thank God we’ve got Jesus and he saves us, because loving our enemies is just another command we can’t keep.
          Others focus on these commands as a means of Jewish resistance against Roman occupation. They point out turning the other cheek means your attacker will have to hit you in the way that acknowledged you as of the same social standing as them, a Roman Citizen.
They point out that a Roman Legionnaire was allowed to ask for anyone’s cloak, but if they took your shirt they would be disciplined by their commanding officer...
and these historical insights aren’t without value, they point out how you can resist violence without becoming violent yourself—no small feat.

          But, if we hold onto this command—love your enemies—it can transform relationships, it can end enmity
—it can ideally make the idea of enemy itself, disappear.
If you refuse to return evil for evil and do your best to remember the other person is a Child of God, you will be changed.
Maybe—and of course we know we cannot change other people, only our reactions to them
—but maybe, they too will be softened and transformed by the changes you makes in yourself, their experience of a you as a person who refuses to see them as enemy.

          Humility and transformed relationships
—the ability to say “maybe I’m wrong” and ending the very idea of enemy…
that’s powerful stuff… and important to hold onto as we consider The Election and Eternity.
          Let’s be frank—we all, as a congregation, a town, a state, a nation, will have to live with one another after Tuesday, election day.
There will be winners and losers in this election. And, because this election has been going on since the end of the last one, losing will sting profoundly for one side, and victory will be exultant for the other.
I hope, we as people whose Lord preached these head turning blessings and woes, we Christians, can be humble about it—be willing to look at all the volleys of partisan arrows slung in this endless campaign, now at rest, and in the clear light of day say of some of our most hyperbolic of claims “Gee, maybe I was wrong.”
          I’m being very intentional about calling some of these arguments this election cycles arrows—it’s like we’re at war. It’s like we’ve become enemies, instead of simply citizens debating about the best way to govern our nation for the next 2 to 4 years.
I hope and pray we Christians can model the way of our Lord
—how to refuse to see the other as enemy, and act in such a way that they might see the same.
I can only imagine—what the cloud of saints who’ve gone before us see, how humbling the view of this world is from eternity.
I can only imagine—the reconciliation that has taken place between those who were once enemies, but now at the throne of grace are transformed, free!

          I wonder, I imagine, I hope, that those two brothers, separated over money, separated by death
—I hope when they meet one another again, they’ll see clearly, the fallibilities they both brought to the table and meet humbled,
meet as well, reconciled, their relationship transformed.

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