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

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Sermon: Abraham’s faith, and our own

         Today, we read in Romans 4, Paul’s unique interpretation of the Faith of Abraham. He goes to the 15th chapter of Genesis and considers a timeline of Abraham’s faith…
he notes that the father of the faith, Abraham, lived centuries before the time of Moses and the giving of the Law.
         More than that, Abraham is made right with God, before he is even circumcised.
         In fact, Paul points out, Abraham receives the promise of God, on account of his trust in that promise. That he believed in God who gives life to the dead—that is, God gives a child to one who is impotent and one who is barren.
         And there Paul pivots.
Paul then points to us and points out that we Christians too receive the promises of God,
are made right with God,
because of our belief in God, who gives life to the dead.
That is our connection-point to Abraham—that is what makes us children of Abraham—Justification by Faith, apart from the Law or any work of our own,
is what connects us to Abraham’s faith.

         Now, as a rule I don’t read Hebrew Scriptures the way Paul does here in Romans—it often disrupts the integrity of the text—it doesn’t let Genesis be Genesis, or Jews be Jews.
         But, today, I’d like us to try on Abraham’s faith for size, and compare it to our own. Not to dismiss the Jewish tradition, or do any permanent damage to Genesis (not that it is within my paltry mortal powers to do so), but to hear the faith anew, to see Abraham’s faith, and our own, again.
         To hear the ways in which:
God claims Abraham,
Answers Abraham,
and stays in relationship with Abraham.
         To hear as well, of God’s claiming us, answering us, and staying in relationship with us.
Let us pray

         God calls Abraham out of Ur. He takes him out of the East and brings him to a new land in the West. Abraham leaves all that he knows—it’s stripped away from him… and as anyone who has moved a time or two knows, a new location calls for a new identity.
You get to recreate yourself when you move—people only know you from the time they lay eyes on you, you are something of a blank slate, a new person…
or as happens in Abraham’s case, God recreates him, presents him in a new place, a blank slate for God to write God’s blessings upon, that he might be a blessing to others.
Abraham can tell others, “Hi, I’m Abraham, and God sent me here.”… and that’s who he is.
         And then later, as we read in today’s lesson, God even erases Abraham’s name and writes him a new one
—he replaces the name Abram with Abraham—“You will be the father of a multitude of nations.” And Sarai, became, Sara, Princess—for from her will come nations and kings.
         See, their origin and their identity, are from God—that is part of the Faith of Abraham.

         We will also find Abraham bargaining with God, hoping to save a city, doomed for destruction. He is willing to call upon God again and again, pleading to God with prayers of intercession.
         We will also find Abraham unable to believe, and so will ask for a sign that God’s audacious promises are true.
And God responds, by cutting a covenant with him.
He takes some critters and cuts them up, and walks between them. In the ancient world such a thing would be done by both parties—signifying the consequences if this promise is broken
—but in this case God alone walks the bloody line—God alone agrees to pay the price if the promise is broken. God gives to Abraham this gracious sign of his promise to him.
         See, risky requests, pleading and proof of the promise—they too are part of the Faith of Abraham.

         Now, this whole relationship between God and Abraham gets started with a promise of Land in a particular place, Children by a particular woman, and Blessings… and with the noticeable exceptions that I have already outlined, the majority of the Abraham Story is Abraham endangering these promises… Abraham doing seemingly everything in his power
to lose his land,
to be childless,
and to thwart any blessings that might come his way.
         God promises Land, and Abraham leaves the land promised to him and lays low in Egypt and refuses to take land when offered to him.
         God promises Children, and Abraham gives his wife away to another man for marriage, not once, but twice.
         He tries to make his Servant, his Nephew, and his son by another mother, into his heirs
—instead of waiting for the promised son.
         He sends that first son off to die, not once, but twice. Then, when Sarah bears him a son after such a long wait, he takes the kid up a mountain to sacrifice him to the God who provided the child, who offered him the son.
         God promises blessing, and Abraham’s son Isaac was tricked out of it, and then Abraham’s one grandson gives it away twice, and the other steals it and leaves the land.
         In short, nothing.
Not one thing Abraham does secures the promises of God.
It’s only God’s constant faithfulness to His word
—only God keeping the relationship going
—only God protects the promise, and bears the brunt of its weight.
         God’s ongoing faithfulness—that too is part of the Faith of Abraham.

         Abraham’s faith involves:
Being claimed completely by God,
Calling on God,
Receiving a sign,
And ultimately it rests on God’s unwavering commitment.

         So too it is with us Christians
—all these things point to our own faith as well.
         We are claimed completely by God
…Hopefully we see clearly that our origin is from God, and hopefully we cling to the name we have received from God—that in Baptism we are made to be God’s Children.
         For that matter, one of the things we do when we take up the Cross, is we give over our multitude of identities and become identified with the crucified one.
         We call on God
…Hopefully we can follow Luther’s advice, and call upon God in every need, rubbing God’s promises in God’s ears, and interceding on behalf of our sisters and brothers, and the whole hurting world.
         We receive a sign
…Hopefully we are regularly fed with the bread of life
—Holy Communion
—a sign of God’s promise made solid for our sake
—a sign of God’s covenant with us
—of Christ broken to mend our break with God and with one another.
         Our faith ultimately rests on God’s unwavering commitment
Especially in this Lenten season, we recognize and repent of our threats to God’s promise. We trust not in our own merit, but instead in the merciful works of God.
In so far, as we are claimed by God
In so far, as we call upon Him.
In so far, as we receive a sign of promise from God.
In so far, as God’s ongoing faithfulness it our center.

Insofar as all that is true, we may say ours too is the faith of Abraham. Amen.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon: The Self-Binding God

        In light of the recent beheading of 21 Coptic Christians and the rumors of organ harvesting coming out of the region controlled by Daesh, commonly called ISIS here in the states.
         In light of the attacks on cartoonists and Jews now in two different countries, France and Denmark.
         In light of Daesh burning a Jordanian pilot alive.
         In light of the thousands slaughtered in Iraq and Syria.
         In light of the attempted Genocide of the Yazidi.
         In light of the beheading of Journalists and other foreigners.
         In light of the kidnapping of the two Bishops from Aleppo, now nearly 2 years ago.
          In light of all that, it’s worth considering again how these kind of things can be done in the name of God.

         Let us pray.

         When I first was reading the Bible on my own as a young kid, before I was firmly connected with a Church community or tradition, at night when I was supposed to be asleep, I would just randomly open up the Bible and read—this is how I rebelled against my parents as a 8 year old.
         Often times I ran into cool stories, Jesus getting the best of some Religious stick in the mud, or I ran into a cool proverbs that really made me think—it was great fun…
but sometimes I ran into some totally creepy stuff—The Book of Revelation, rules about menstrual blood, descriptions of situations when it is advisable to stone a person to death
—and the one that gave me nightmares for a good long time, was about the practice of Haram, the act of sacred destruction. When you conquer a village, take everything in it, both things and people, and put them to the flame.
Now, I would have read right past it, except it goes on and gives an example of when a soldier took some things and didn’t utterly destroy them. God gets mad at the people until the soldier is punished by joining the objects in the flames.

         And, if we get past the cute children’s story version of events we have about Noah—you know all those children’s arks with cute little Giraffes and Elephants and smiling Noah and family
—if you get past all that, the flood story is another one of those stories that could give a kid nightmares.
         Angels are boinking humans, humans are killing one another left, right, and center, so God flushes the whole experiment down the toilet.

         It must be stated that the first 12 chapters of Genesis are written as pre-history—essentially, “you’ve heard all these explanations of the world from other peoples, here’s a faithful reading of them, in light of the God we know.”
So, for example, “you’ve heard it said the god Marduke created earth by tearing apart a chaos dragon, well I say to you God isn’t a fighting God, God creates simply with his words.”
Likewise, as in today’s reading, “You’ve heard it said in the Epic of Gilgemesh, and elsewhere, that the gods were grumpy because humans are loud, so they tried to drown us all, and it was only because a human seduced a goddess that humans survived, but I say to you, the wickedness of humans brought about a just response, yet God was merciful and started again with a new covenant, a new relationship, with humans and the earth—God doesn’t give up on us.”
         So, when you read vast swaths of scripture it’s worth noting what they’re being written in response to… None the less, it’s gruesome, “all flesh cut off,” the deadly bow of God.

         And as you all know there are plenty of times when the faithful have not put down the bow.
         Because I believe it might be a useful analogy to help us understand what’s currently going on in the Middle East, I would like us to think back for a few moments to the period during, and immediately after, Luther’s Reformation.
         Before Luther, Jan Hus was burnt at the stake for offering his parishioners both bread and wine at communion.
         If Luther hadn’t been taken into hiding after his famous declaration at his trial, “Here, I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen,” that would have been his fate as well. Some early Lutherans were in fact killed in just such a fashion.
         John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, burnt Michael Servetus alive for not believing in the Trinity or in child baptism.
         Lutherans carried out the persecution of Mennonites.

         In general, Christians of all sorts took up the Sacred Bow against one another,
The Faithful were used by secular governments to further national ends,
and likewise, the religious used secular governments to further their religious ends.
         From 1555, when the Peace of Augsburg claimed to settle the question of religious persecution, until 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, almost 100 years—inter-religious war depopulated Germany, and killed, by some estimates, 12 million Europeans.
All in the name of God.
         For that matter, it wasn’t for another 200 years that, at the 1st Vatican Council in 1870, the Pope gave up his claim to secular power.
         Now this is just me talking, but it seems like one of the big questions for “The West” and all those governing authorities in our country, since the Iranian Revolution in ‘79, or perhaps the Lockerbie Bombing ‘88, or maybe the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, is this:
         “How do you navigate, and/or contain, the Islamic equivalent of the European Wars of Religion, in an Era of Globalization, Mass Immigration, the Internet, and Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
         Obviously I do not have a set of answers for you all, it’s way above my pay grade…
This is why we pray for those who govern nations, especially our own; they have an unenviable job.

         All of these acts of violence and destruction in the name of God, ought to be Anathema—denounced, condemned, and cursed.
         Because God puts down the bow. God binds God’s-self with a vow, that never again will God destroy the world, never again will God take up that bow.
Think of that, God limiting God’s self!

         This is the true story of the faith, it is the hope always on the lips of those who preach the Gospel
—that God favors mercy over justice. God limit’s God’s self, for our sake.

         During the season of Lent we’ll see this again and again in the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. God will say:
“Okay, I renewed all of creation after the flood… and that didn’t work for you all, so I’ll work through Abraham and his family.”
“Okay, you guys screwed that up too… I’ll lay down 10 basic rules for you all.”
“Okay, you’re still complaining in the wilderness… I’ll create a batch of miracles to save you from yourselves.”
“Okay, this still isn’t working… I’ll jam my covenant into your hearts, so you can’t find it to break it.”

And even then, it continues, until God sends Jesus, his son, who continually forgives us.
Even then, we kill him.
And even then, God provides for us, taking the death of Jesus as payment for all of our sins!

         And surely that would be enough, but God continues this trajectory of mercy over justice, as we read in that weird bit in 1st Peter.
         Christ descends to hell, preaching even to the Spirits bound in chains there! Jesus ripping apart hell itself! That’s the power of the Word of God.

         Think of it. If God tries to convert Djinns and Demons in the depths of hell, surely we can pray for the redemption of Daesh.
         In fact, a good place to start, might be to remind them, and us, of Noah’s words, as recorded in the Quran, the 71st chapter: “Ask forgiveness of your LORD. Indeed, He is ever a Perpetual Forgiver.”
         Yes, there is much violence done in the name of God.
Violence committed because God’s mercy is being ignored.
Yet truly, for the faithful, this is an impossible thing they do—to ignore God’s mercy,
Because God’s merciful acts are the linchpin of the entire story of Scripture.
God, merciful to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah.
God’s mercy shown in total, in Jesus’ righteous actions and words.
Jesus’ death, the ultimate act of self-limiting on God’s part.
Jesus’ descent to the dead to Harrow Hell and pull from the pit a people imprisoned.
And of course, that amazing act of God we prepare for, this Lenten season
—the Resurrection, which is God’s ultimate promise of mercy to us. Amen.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday Homily

Gather together sisters and brothers.
          Sing together psalms and songs of sorrow, dear people.
          Call upon the LORD God, cling to Christ the Savior of the World.
          Confess your sins, known and unknown.
          Be marked with the dust of your very nature.

          Come here, you lonely and abandoned ones.
          You quiet, you reflective.
          You, like David, who have been confronted with your sin, pinned down by a clarifying moment—struck dumb by your Sin revealed, confessing “I’ve seen the enemy and it is me.”
          You, like Joel, overwhelmed by the events of the world and your own helplessness in the face of it all. Found powerless, you do the only thing you can, you kneel in prayer, you search out the warmth of other people, so that sorrow might be shared, and overcome by community, carrying one another and bearing one another.
          Yes, come together in worship and fellowship, gathered together as the body of Christ as we prepare for the coming of resurrected Christ.
          Pray more deeply, in this season that has a chasm’s depth to it.
          Hold more loosely those things that you wish to grasp for
—for our Lord did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbled himself all the way to the cross.
          Give to those who ask of it, for all has already been given to you.
          Yet listen to the words of Jesus and the Prophets—heed them well. Do these things from the heart and for the sake of your neighbors.
          The Danger is we will try to practice piety in pubic in order to point to ourselves; we get caught on showmanship instead of sorrow for sin.
          This is the opposite of true religion; it’s the opposite of a true Lenten calling. Our actions are not for ourselves—they are to de-center ourselves… to catch us off balance so we are caught in God’s mercy.
          Hear the words of the Prophets—they are cries for repentance, not for public consumption, but as an act of restitution
—justice is not admitting a mistake and moving on, it’s admitting the mistake and making amends.
          In short, it’s not about you. It’s about love of God and love of neighbor—no big surprise there I suppose, we’re Christians after all

          Worship, pray, fast, and give alms, knowing that you will fail at it
—and in that failure you will find the dust of the cross upon your brow again
—you’ll find yourself at the feet of Jesus again
—you’ll find that a space in your soul has been opened, that God might sanctify you in your failure.

          As dear Brother Martin Luther wrote on his death bed 469 years ago today, “We are all beggars; that is true.”
That, that is what we find in this sacred failure of Lent
—we find ourselves dying and being brought back to life by the one who was so profoundly a beggar that:
He veiled himself,
He entered the darkness
He knelt down in the dirt and dust
—the ashes of this Wednesday.
Christ is found in them, Christ is found here.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Five Links 2

As I stated last time, one of the reasons Andrew Sullivan’s blog was so good, was that he commented on EVERYTHING (same reason St. Augustine was so good, but that’s another story). One of the ways he commented on everything was soliciting five links a day from one of his contributors. So, I decided that on an irregular basis I’d try my hand at commenting on five links. Without further adieu here they are!
Kevin Drum of Mother Jones mentions that Scott Walker, if he becomes the Republican Candidate, will be the most conservative nominee since Barry Goldwater. Then the article goes on to mention that Walker’s Midwestern nature hides this fact. That got me thinking about how folk in New Jersey talk about Chris Christie’s chances at becoming the Republican nominee. Essentially, they argue he’s quite liberal, but he’s Jersey tough, maybe even Jersey mean—and meanness can be confused with being conservative.
Think about that for a second. Walker, despite being very conservative, could get the nod because he’s Midwestern nice. Christie, despite being relatively liberal, could get the nod because he’s Jersey mean. Weird.
John Dickerson pointed to Vice President Joe Biden’s recent comment that the next Democratic nominee for president will essentially be running for President Obama’s third term. In other words, “If by third term you mean another 59 months of continuous job growth and falling unemployment, then yes, I’ll be a third term.”
Dickerson doesn’t think this is a good idea for Hillary, who he assumes will be the Democratic Party Nominee. He points out that voters almost always prefer the new to the old… just ask Al Gore about offering America an era of peace and prosperity, a continuation of the 1990’s. I suppose in that way Americans are just like the Athenians, we’re always chasing after something new (Acts 17:21).
Continuing to engage with “Obama’s Niebuhr moment” Douthat cautions conservatives from responding to the President’s non-nuanced reference to the Crusades with even more lack of nuance. Essentially Douthat argues that by rushing to answer the President conservatives have, “produced a lot of arguments that effectively whitewash Christian history, minimize the harge reality of pogroms and persecutions, and otherwise present fat targets for secular eye-rolling.”
So, LutheranCORE, a “reform” group within the ELCA that often times tries to convince ELCA churches to leave the denomination over our “liberal” stance on Gay folk, as well as our willingness to play nice with the Episcopal Church, did an epic troll. That is, no one was paying attention to what they have to say, so they said something really offensive in order to get attention—it’s the internet version of throwing a temper tantrum.
Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod recently wrote an open letter to the LGBT community in response to a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (the 2nd largest Lutheran denomination in the USA) school expelling a student for coming out of the closet.  His post was a pastoral letter addressing a local issue within the confines of his Synod where, because of that news, Lutherans were becoming synonymous with anti-gay bigots.
CORE responded, by issuing their own “Open Letter” to gay folk, in which they purposefully misread the ELCA’s statement on Human Sexuality, and state, on behalf of the ELCA, that gay people are in fact not welcome in the ELCA. They did so repeating key phrases and words so that their statement will pop up first when people look up ELCA, LGBT, and open letter… in other words, if there are gay people and their families hurt by Lutherans, who want to search out this open letter by Bishop Rinehart, they will instead find a letter of unwelcome.

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