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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A letter to the Galatians of New Jersey

Then I preached this:

Dearest siblings,
            I write this letter leaning on a single question that I pray that Christianity will continue to wrestle with, even long after I, Paul, am dead.
            “Who occupies you?”

            In case I’m being obtuse, or a certain level of rugged individualism has clogged your ears to what I’m asking, let me try to state my question a little more clearly
—Who occupies y’all?
Or maybe, “you’se
or “You’uns”
or “you folk
or even just “the congregation?”
            While every individual is precious, and that truth must not be lost
—our life together as Christians, as the body of Christ, is of utmost importance to my question today “Who occupies you?”
            I pray that the ages will not neuter my question, tame it, make it into a question of private morality or some sort of spiritual hobby.
            Because this is about all of us,
how we live as freed people,
how we are Christ for one another.
            “Who occupies you?”
            Have you noticed there is a vicious,
going on?
In the seeming plainness of our lives there is a war going on.
This power holds us down,
has occupied the lives of so many,
has enslaved so much of the world.

            In my letter to the Galatians, I called this occupying power,
this enemy,
“The Flesh.”
It saddens me to hear that many have taken this word to deal with human bodies,
and has led some people to feel great shame for being an embodied human being.
This was not my intent,
in fact if you read my letters carefully you will note I make a distinction between The Flesh, this thing that has pulled one over on us and has captured us,
and The Body, which is part of the good human thing we’ve been created to be…

            So, perhaps I could come up with a way to re-name this power, for all your sakes, so that you might more easily understand what I’m saying,
            What then shall I call it?...
            This occupying power is Sin.
            This occupying power is Self-obsession.
            This occupying power is Neighbor-Destruction
            You get my point now, don’t you?
            We are occupied by, self, by being turned away from our neighbor and fixated on MEEEE!

            That’s what I mean when I say “we are occupied by The Flesh.”
That’s what I mean when I say that The Flesh is at war against us, intends to take us prisoner, and enslave us.
“Who occupies you?”

            Like any occupation, there are those who resist. Those brave groups of people who fight back, who escape, who will not cooperate with the enemy, no matter what.

            One way of resisting, a force used to combat the occupation, a good one, a godly one even, is The Law.
            Yes, The Law,
a set of rules we can follow to stop hurting our neighbors,
to quit seeking after selfish things,
to resist Sin,
resist the Flesh.
The 10 commandments,
the stories of God’s acts for God’s people,
community rules,
at their best basic, the rules governing society,
are put in place to restrain evil and make good neighbors.

            I repeat, The Law is a good solution, even one given by God.
            Yet it, like us, has been enslaved by the Flesh, infected even, not allowed to act as it ought.
            It’s proper use is to help us love our neighbor, but it can be made to be exclusive and can keep us immature.
            The Law creates insiders and outsiders,
those who follow it, and those who do not,
and that separation has a way of coming back at you like a boomerang.
You start defining yourself as not a lawbreaker,
and soon enough you are defining yourself as not your neighbor
—soon enough you build a wall between you and your neighbor and you start to care about only those on your side of the fence of the Law.

            Isn’t that wild, the very thing that is supposed to help you love your neighbor, can be tricked into making you hate him!

            Think of those disciples of Jesus who enter into a Samaritan village, the village of a people who keep a different law than they do
—and these disciples, people who’ve been toddling after Jesus like a flock of ducklings behind a mamma duck
Even they wonder if they should ask God to destroy the village!
After all it’s not their village,
it’s not their people!
Not their laws…
Yes, The Law, both scriptural and secular, transformed by The Flesh, can create exclusion.
            It can also keep us immature,
it’s like a helicopter parent who won’t let us grow up.

            Think of it, there are many ways to love your neighbor,
fixating on a single way,
because it’s the rules,
can make you miss out on all kinds of good ways to show God’s love to people.
            Take something as simple as tying your shoe. When you first learn the rules to tying a shoe you learn the rhyme:
Over, Under, Around and through,
Meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.
            But if you repeated that song every time you tie your shoes for the rest of your life
you’d get funny looks at the office,
and for that matter,
you’d never learn a double knot,
or that knots can hold together hammocks and sails and many other things, not just shoes.
            So too, learning from The Law is wonderful,
and regular refresher courses are great reminders of how to love our neighbor,
but if it is the beginning and end of the way we love other people,
 we’re missing out!

“Who occupies you?”
            The good news is that there is another way to fight the Flesh.
            Christ has freed us, and we hold onto this freedom and resist the power of the Flesh,
by being captured by one another.
            Get that?
We’re going to be captured by something, so it is imperative that we are captured by each other, captured by the love we share with one another.
            Every other option ends up with us eradicating each other.
            This loving way
—bound to one another in liberty
—is the way of the Spirit, the way Jesus continues to move us into freedom.
The Spirit liberates us and puts us to the work of loving one another.
We can be occupied by The Spirit, instead of The Flesh.

            “Who occupies you?”
            When we look at our life together, do we see the Spirit or the Flesh?
            We’ll know, at least in part, by the fruits that we produce.
            Are we as a community: sexually exploitative, spiritually suspect, a public embarrassment, and a fractured family?
            Or, are we as a community filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control?

Together we struggle against sinful-selfish-neighbor-hate—the Flesh.
We resist it with The Law, but find it wanting.
We cling to the freedom given to us by Christ by clinging to one another in the Spirit of love.

            Let us live in the Spirit,
let us carry out our life together under the guidance of the Spirit.  A+A


Sunday, June 19, 2016

"All people are created in God's image" a sermon in response to the shootings in Orlando and Charleston

(again, I preached without notes, so I said something like the following)

I began by reading Bishop Eaton's letter:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
"So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them." Genesis 1:27
We are killing ourselves. We believe that all people are created in God's image. All of humanity bears a family resemblance. Those murdered in Orlando were not abstract "others," they are us. But somehow, in the mind of a deeply disturbed gunman, the LGBTQ community was severed from our common humanity. This separation led to the death of 49 and the wounding of 54 of us.
We live in an increasingly divided and polarized society. Too often we sort ourselves into like-minded groups and sort others out. It is a short distance from division to demonization. Yesterday, we witnessed the tragic consequences of this.
There is another way. In Christ God has reconciled the world to God's self. Jesus lived among us sharing our humanity. Jesus died for us to restore our humanity. God invites us into this reconciling work. This must be our witness as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The perpetrator of this hate crime did not come out of nowhere. He was shaped by our culture of division, which itself has been misshapen by the manipulation of our fears. That is not who we are. St. Paul wrote, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ" (II Corinthians 5:17-20).
Our work begins now. We need to examine ourselves, individually and as a church, to acknowledge the ways we have divided and have been divided. We must stand with people who have been "othered". We must speak peace and reconciliation into the cacophony of hatred and division. We must live the truth that all people are created in God's image.
 This morning your churchwide staff came together to mourn and to pray. We prayed for those killed in Orlando and remembered the Charleston Nine killed only a year ago. We prayed for the family of the shooter, for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and for our Muslim brothers and sisters who now face the threat of retaliation. And we prayed that the Prince of Peace will bring us to the day when we stop killing ourselves.
Your sister in Christ,
Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”

“All people are created in God’s image”
Because all people are created in God’s image, Luke writes about Christ crossing over to the other side, to be with the Gerasenes—crossing over to a people different than his people in Galilee, crossing over to them, they who too are created in the image of God… Yes, the earliest followers of Jesus, spent a lot of time crossing over to the other side—finding people created in the image of God where they would not expect it!
Heck, look at the Acts of the Apostles, the whole thing is one big catch-up game, the Disciples, the Apostles, catching up to the Holy Spirit, who continually goes and reaches the other side and dwells with people the Apostles didn’t realize were made in the image of God!

“All people are created in God’s image”
This is echoed in Paul’s words written to the Galatians.
Some scholars call this section the earthquake of the antimonies—what does that mean right? It’s two apposite categories which together make a whole… for example Jews and Gentiles—in Paul’s time those two categories would encompass the whole of humanity—you were one or the other…
Until, until Paul recognizes Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as shaking the very foundation of these antimonies… in Christ there are no longer Jews, nor Gentiles. In Christ we are no longer Slave, or Free. In Christ we are no longer male and female. And this list can grow—we can affirm In Christ we are neither black, nor white. In Christ, we can affirm we are neither gay nor straight… yes, in all people, ALL people, resides the image of God!

As I intoned this morning to start the service all of Psalm 22, God explicitly enters into the image of humanity in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, who cried the cry of dereliction from the cross—My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
            Yes “All people are created in God’s image” so fully, that God joins in our cries, joins the cries of those caught in the horrific and the tragic…
Christ’s cries joined our own in Orlando at The Pulse one week ago.
Christ’s cries joined our own in Charleston at Emanuel AME one year ago.

“All people are created in God’s image”
--Let us honor the image of God found in The Pulse and in Emanuel AME by lighting a candle for each one of those who died in Orlando and Charleston.

(As we lit the candles Tom played “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”)

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Student Debt, EMU Edition

At this point I probably don't have to point out to you all that I'm the poster child for Seminary Debt.
Well, I've been asked to participate in an "EMU" (Excellence in Ministry Unleashed) event, and one of the things they asked me to do is block out an average month of spending.
Well, some good news, after nearly 5 years of fiercely fighting with my student/seminary debt (I owed $80,000 then, now I owe $17,000), it now only accounts for 13% of my spending, and has fallen to number 4 in the categories of things I put money toward (please note EMU use different categories than I did in past charts)!

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sermon: “Do you see this woman?"

Sermon: “Do you see this woman?

(I preached without notes, so this is approximately what I said this morning)

            Jesus’ question, “do you see this woman?” echo forward in time, and ought to shake the dust of time and cultural baggage off our shoulders, even today.
            Yes, “Do you see this woman?” today, this week.
            This week in which a woman has becomes the pledged nominee of a major party here in the US for the first time.
            It might seem like a time to spike the football, that everything is alright—that the woman is seen.
            But this is also the week in which the Lutheran Church in Latvia has barred women from ordination after 41 years of ordaining them.
            For that matter, this is the week in which we’re confronted by the Stanford Rape Case—a man raped a woman—and according to the rule of law he ought to be jailed for a minimum of 2 years—instead he was given 6 months—and then those 6 months were downgraded to 3.
            And there is a history to all of this—it’s like that sage of the south, William Faulkner opined, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”
            Yes, our past interpretations of the scriptures of today weigh heavily upon our present and upon Jesus’ question: “Do you see this woman?”
            Let us pray

            Now, when we read the story of Bathsheba and David, we have a Cecil B. DeMille, Hollywood-ized understanding of it—we read it as essentially a romance…
            But that is not the reading most scholar and other close readers of the story take from it. No, it is pretty clear that David raped Bathsheba, that “The thing David had done” that kindle’s God’s wrath, is rape.
            After all, just read the story—David’s men took her from her home. Took her to the Palace. Took her to David’s bed.
            Just read the story—Her husband is gone. Her husband is a foreigner living in a foreign land. David is king! Head that power differential!
            So, yes, David raped Bathsheba.
 The good news, such as it is—is that means we receive a prophetic word about rape!
            The prophet Nathan tells us a story, about rape.
            He describes Bathsheba’s sexual relationship with Uriah as growing together, the intimacy of eating and sharing a drink, a lamb laying on a bosom… yes, Nathan describes a woman as a farm animal, and that’s a problem—but still, hear the power of the metaphor he’s going for!
            An ongoing, sharing, closeness—sex within such a bond, as the part of a larger relationship.
            Then he describes David’s doing—rape—the consumption of the other—eating, devouring, killing, the little lamb.
            Quite a contrast—right? Rape is to sex as intimate care is to greedy slaughter.
Thus says the prophet Nathan!

            And, when I think back through my 5 years here—I think one of my most faithful acts happened this last Maundy Thursday… to be clear this is one of those hindsight things—I didn’t realize how faithful it was in the moment.
            As you know, we have the first communion kids come up for their feet to be washed on Maundy Thursday… but (name redacted) didn’t want me to touch her feet.
            Now, my initial inclination was to say, “tough, that’s what we do, and we don’t have time to argue…”
            But, I decided against it—I respected this little girl’s wishes.
            And thank God. Think of it, she learned that it was okay to say no to a male in authority with power—that her body is her own!
            She learned, right here in church, that no means no.
            That’s a deeply faithful message, and I hope and pray we continue to teach our boys and girls—and our adults too… that no means no.

            Additionally, there is the strange gospel reading this morning—we read chunks from two chapters—and again there is a history there…
            In the 500’s Pope Gregory the Great fused chapters 7 and 8, in order to define Mary Magdalene… as a prostitute. His line of “reasoning” went like this:
The woman in chapter 7 is called sinful—women are sexual, so clearly her sin was that of prostitution… and look, the first woman mentioned in chapter 8 is Mary Magdalene… so clearly Mary is a prostitute.
            But think of the other ways she could have, should have, been defined—Mary who stayed with Jesus at the cross—Mary, the first witness of the resurrection, the first proclaimer of the faith—think of it—if women weren’t preaching, weren’t witnessing to Jesus—we wouldn’t be here right now, we wouldn’t know that God raised Jesus up—Christianity literally wouldn’t exist without the witness of women!
            And while we’re on women, take a look at the second lady, Joanna. This here isn’t the only time she’s mentioned—Paul at the end of Romans, name-check’s here. He writes: “Greet Andronicus and Junia”… Junia being a Latinized way of saying Joanna “my relatives who were in prison with me”—the empire wasn’t in the habit of arresting woman, clearly Joanna was clearly a rabble-rouser for Jesus, “they are prominent among the apostles” Yes. Paul calls a woman an apostle—someone who knew Jesus both before and after the resurrection.
            So, a woman apostle and the first preacher of Christ—both women… both women who join the disciples with Jesus as he does his Jesus thing, preaching good news to the poor, healing the sick, freeing the imprisoned, and so on… Right there, women leaders of the pre-church!
            In short, when we shake off some cultural dust, and listen to what our scriptures tell us, how they continue to speak to us today
—we receive a prophetic word about power and sex from Nathan, a scriptural description of sex vs. rape. To a judge who would declare rape a youthful indiscretion, and a culture that thinks that’s okay, Nathan says no, and Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?”
            We also are reminded that women have been in leadership of the Christian Church from the beginning, we wouldn’t exist without women—the male domination of the Church is not a function of the faith, only of culture and our own myopic vision. To churches and bishops who would stifle the calling of the spirit upon the lives of women, the Gospel of Luke says no, and Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?”
Amen and Alleluia.


Sunday, June 05, 2016

Jesus and the Widow

Look at it,
it’s like a battle scene out of a sword and sandal epic,
or maybe this years crop of super-hero versus super-hero movies.
          They’re lined up there, a whole crowd of them coming out of Nain, and a second crowd of them entering in.
One group mourning, wailing at the woe of it all
—mourning the death of this only son.
One group overjoyed, smiling and stunned by this savior they follow
overjoyed by the life of this only son of God.
          There, at that gate, they stand, recognizing one another the way you recognize yourself in the mirror
—hair parted on the opposite side, ring on the wrong finger
—so similar, yet not the same.
          There they stand, facing one another
—like some chemical equation, their mixing changes things
—a reaction that reveals something about God!
It reveals the depths with which our God cares for us.
It reveals the length to which God goes to save us.
It reveals the breadth of Jesus’ prophetic actions.
Let us pray

          The two crowds begin to intermingle, becoming one, and immediately Jesus steps through it all and looks, and sees…
This woman, This widow.
This woman, This mother of an only child.
          And he is moved.
          Moved in the belly.
          Moved with that compassion that rises up in a person.
          Moved with a godly passion that identifies with the other person so much that you can actually call it suffering with them!
          He feels that widow-hood. A woman without her husband in a world where women are so devalued…
A woman who has lost the love of her life on top of it all.
          He feels that only-child-mother-ness. A woman without not only her husband, but also without her son, her only son, a woman with no male.
A woman who has lost her very heart, this son of hers.

          Think of the position she is in
—alone in the world in a unique and troubling way.
Alone with the weight of the world pressing against her.
          My God!
          That’s one of the great things about the incarnation—God with us in human flesh
—God is moved by this…
the heart of God breaks for her…
God feels for those in need in the gut!
          And Jesus enters into this woman’s life, and orders her to do an impossible thing:
“Don’t cry.”
          What kind of order is that?!?
          I think I’d be offended by it, if I was her…
except that it’s Jesus,
it’s God incarnate,
who can fulfill the words of Isaiah, “I will wipe away the tears from every eye.”
He performs this prophecy right there.
He demonstrates how deeply God cares for us, right there!

          And then, he turns from her to this body,
this only son,
on a coffin cart.
And he touches it!
          Touches the body.
          Jesus, touches the body.
          In a world of purity laws, a world in which the forces of death and the forces of life are so distinctly segregated,
he touches this body.
          He’s defiled himself with this action…
          Imagine that,
God contaminated by Death,
the Creator of Life, allowing Death to pollute him…
That’s how much God loves us!
          And, if that wasn’t enough, Jesus defeats Death itself…
for this man,
this only son,
sat up,
and spoke,
and was returned to his mother.
          The spigot of her sad tears is turned off,
switched the other way,
switched to tears of joy!
God will go through death itself, to save us!

          And the Crowd—together, those who came with Jesus and those who were leaving with the Widow,
together witness all of this, and respond by declaring “Oh, my, this one is a prophet!”

          “This one is a prophet like Elijah!”
          Elijah, who we read about in the first reading.
          Elijah, who was known for the wonders God worked through him.
          Elijah, giving life to a widow’s child.
          But there is a second prophet lurking in their mind as well, the prophet par excellence Moses.
“This one is a prophet like Moses!”
          Moses, the great suffering prophet.
          Moses who intercedes on behalf of his people.
          Moses who stood in the breach, for his people.
          Moses who doesn’t enter the promised land, so that God’s people may do so.

          Yes, Jesus acts for us with prophetic, life giving acts. Jesus also acts for us by prophetically giving his life for us!

          For those who are so down and out that they’ve been turned inside out
          For those defiled by death.
          For all of us who, at one point or another, find ourselves in that line of mourners
          Trust that God, in Christ Jesus, has entered into the mix, crossed the line
—every barrier!
          He has become enfleshed,
become human,
that his heart could break for this woman,
comfort her,
bring her boy back through the very muck of death.
through Jesus,
God crosses into our life,
 is so moved,
is so compassionate,
that every tear will be wiped away
—that resurrection and new life are on offer here.

Yes, when the joy of Jesus is mixed with the many movements of the human heart
—God’s care, salvation, and prophetic will are won for us. A+A


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon: Confession and Wrap-Up

Sermon: Confession and Wrap-Up

          As we arrive at the end of our 6 week sermon series on Luther’s Small Catechism, we arrive at one of the best kept secrets of the Lutheran Church—Confession.
          Now, of course we regularly confess collectively on a Sunday morning, but we in fact can go beyond that, we also have a tradition of individual confession.
          So, today, I’ll briefly consider confession:
·       Why we ought to do it,
·       what sins we ought to confess,
·       and how we ought to confess them.
          Then I’ll conclude with a brief wrap-up of these last six weeks in Luther’s Small Catechism.

          Why should we confess?
          One of the things many of the ex-Roman Catholics among you muse about,
like to tell stories about,
is confession.
          I’ve heard on several occasions about going to Private Confession to Confess sins week in…
and week out…
and pretty quickly the well runs dry—you don’t have any particular sin to confess, so, in order to satisfy the priest, you’d make things us.
          “Oh, sure, 6 lustful thoughts since breakfast… I was wroth at the crossing guard… I envied my brother his backpack”—things like that.
          This is not unique to our time, Luther too dealt with this bad practice of, essentially forced, confession. He responds to this abuse by insisting that confession ought to be voluntary. You ought to go to individual confession, when a particular sin troubles you.
          We confess in order to ease our conscience,
to escape those things that are eating away at us.
Those things pushing us away from a faithful abundant life.
We confess because something keeps us up at night, because a sin has become like a rock in our shoe and needs to be removed so we can again walk well.
          What sins should we confess?
          On one hand, we ought to regularly confess in a general sense that we are sinners…“we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” right?

          But, we ought to confess particulars too.
          Firstly, as I said before, we ought to confess those sins we can’t shake, those things which are troubling us and we feel compelled to cast off.
          Secondly, we can swing back to the beginning of this sermon series, the 10 commandments—and use them to reflect upon our lives and find places where we’ve fallen short.
          In fact, as on the first Sunday of this series, the ushers will be passing out Examines at the end of the service to help you reflect upon your life in light of the 10 commandments.
          Finally, we can reflect upon our particular roles, and how they may expose us to particular sins. For example, Pastors, counselors, and the like take various oaths of confidentiality, so the 8th commandment is often a harder one for us.
Likewise, a job like soldier or policeman, where adrenaline and split second decisions are necessary, might make you more susceptible to breaking the 5th commandment.
For that matter, imagine all the stresses being a parent puts upon the soul!
          All that to say, there are particular places we fall short as human beings, and we ought to acknowledge them.

          How should we confess?
          One of the greatest parts of being a protestant pastor is that the spiritual life of the congregation isn’t all about me
—lay folk have an equal inheritance and responsibility. This goes for many aspects of our life together
including confession.
          While we do have a particular order of individual confession and forgiveness (Page 243 in the Cranberry Book)
—and I as the pastor would happily hear any of your confessions,
While that is all true, I’m not the only person you can turn to. Look around you, all these people you are with are people you can also take the weight of your sins to, people who can help you bear your burden well.
          Because, there are two parts to confession. One is your naming of the thing which troubles you
—you can do that with fumbling lips and halting voice, that matters not.
          What does matter is the second part
—that you are forgiven!
Our actions may be imperfect, but God’s response
—the declaration of your forgiveness
—that’s perfect,
 that’s God’s actions for us.
God is gracious,
does hear your confession,
and does forgive you.
God’s grace breaks though whether it is declared by me, the Pastor, or any of your sisters and brothers in Christ.

          Confess because you are moved to,
confess those things most troubling to your soul,
confess knowing God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and will forgive you all your sins!
In conclusion, we’ve now spent six weeks at the root of our Lutheran Faith—at the heart of it all.
          We’ve look at the 10 commandments, where we are reminded of our need, and our desires for false gods.
          We’ve looked at the creed, where we are told who the True God is, who meets those needs.
          We’ve looked at the Lord’s Prayer, where we find out how to address this God of ours.
          We’ve looked at Baptism, where we hear how we are adopted by God.
          We’ve looked at Holy Communion, where we receive ongoing grace from God.
          And finally, today, in Confession, we learn to live in light of God—as sinners being made holy.