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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon: Confession and Forgiveness

Confession and Forgiveness

         When Jesus criticizes the traditions of the elders
         When James waxes eloquent about forgetful hearers and gifts from above
         And when the Israelites Identity is being formed by Statues and Ordinances
         I can’t help but think about Confession and Forgiveness… confession and forgiveness.


         What’s Jesus on about today? Who wouldn’t want people to wash their hands before they eat? It’s one of the basic things you get taught as a kid, don’t touch the hot stove, say please and thank you, wash your hands before you eat.
         Jesus is not against this practice because he likes microbes crawling around on his hands, or because he, like a Chinchilla prefers a dust bath.
         No, he has two reasons for rejecting the practice. First He sees this ritual action as following an invented tradition, and secondly creating a division between holy and common things that ought not be created.
         The Pharisees were Popularizers, egalitarians if you will… they took the laws, many of them intended only for the temple, and brought them into the home—so that everyone was a priest, everyone was seeking holiness. In this case the people were told to emulate the priests ritual cleaning before the altar of God at their dinner table. And Jesus takes this to be a way in which human tradition has trumped God’s.
         Additionally, this ritual washing was a way in which people would move from their common every day lives into a holy portion of their life—their table and their home a separate place from the world outside of it.
         And this is not an uncommon religious impulse. Think of dipping your finger in the baptismal font to remember your baptism before going up for communion—you are ritually opening up a holy space as you enter into a holy meal.
         Or, think of the tradition of wearing your Sunday’s best. Putting on a certain style of clothing, not our work a day clothing, but Church Clothing—Holy Clothing for a Holy Time.
         Again, this makes sense, we’re opening up a space where we are more fully aware of God’s presence.

         The danger however, is that in these things we do, the sign of the cross, wearing our Sunday Best, ritually washing up to our elbows—we end up doing these things for the wrong reason.
         We end up doing them to hide what’s inside—if we can control the outward then we can ignore what is inside.
         James might compare this to looking into a mirror, looking away, and forgetting what we look like… the danger is we’re distracting ourselves from ourselves.

         There was a man who marched into a clinic and told them to run him through a battery of tests. He said “MRI my whole body, except my left foot.” Then he had them X-ray all of him… except for his left foot. Then an expert clinician examined every inch of him, except for his left foot.
         By the end one of the interns had to ask, “Why haven’t we examined your left foot?”
         And he responded, “Oh, well there’s something wrong with my left foot, but I don’t want to know about that.

         Yes, the danger is we end up hiding from what is wrong, leaving it’s image in the mirror, hiding it under our Sunday best, washing with water that which needs to be dealt with in community and by Christ.

         And that’s why I’m so glad we’re a Church that confesses. It’s almost an anti-ritual in which we take off our Sunday best and all the rest and appear naked before God. We confess a whole alphabet of intricate ways we offend both God and our Neighbor.
We abuse, betray, curse, destroy, envy, act foolishly and with greed, hate, injure, judge, kill, lie, murder, notice not our neighbor in need, oppress, profit unjustly, stay quiet when we should speak up, rig the game in our favor, sin, torment, utter falsity, act with vanity, will evil, stoke xenophobia, yearn for the good but do the evil, and lag in zeal.—Do those 26 cover everyone, at least a little bit?

         Yes, confession of sin keeps us from manufactured holiness. It helps us recognize with James that every act of goodness, ultimately, comes from above—it is a gracious gift from God. Every good act is from God.
         It’s like when you talk to city and suburban kids…some adults too I would venture—they think food comes from the grocery store. Perhaps packaged elsewhere, but it’s connection to earth, to soil and work, agriculture and irrigation, is lost.
         So too, when we put our trust in our own actions—whatever equivalent to washing to our elbows we come up with—we miss God too acting within us. The very struggle between saint and sinner, which follows us our whole life long, that’s all churned up by God. When care for Orphan or Widow trumps adultery or avarice—that’s ultimately from God, we maybe even cultivate the act a little—but it’s bursting on the scene, the fruit of it all, is from God.

         And recognizing that, these things we do—ritually and morally—become part of our identity—a badge to point to God. Just as Moses and the Israelites “heeded the statues and ordinances of God” so that people might look and say, “Wow, the God of those folks sure is close to them,” we too can wear grace and generosity as a marker pointing to God—even as we must remember it is not ours alone and comes from God alone.
         It points to our identity as a freed and forgiven people.
         It points to the reality of our forgiveness.
         Just as confession points to the ABCs of our brokenness, forgiveness points us to the ABCs of God’s grace.
         It points to a God who:
         Affirms, Bestows life, sent Christ, Destroyed death, Enlivens us all, Forgives continually, is Generous, Hates not anything He Has made, Invites us in, Justifies, shows Kindness, Loves us, Made us in His Image, Names us and claims us as His own, Opens the gates of heaven, Pours out mercy, Quells our doubts, Receives us as beloved children, Saves us, Turns us around, Ushers in the Kingdom, Values every one of us, Wills life, is exalted, is the Yes to all the world’s No’s, and renews our Zeal.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sermon: The End

I missed posting this sermon from a few weeks back, because I went straight from Church to Pinecrest where I taught "Smart People, Wise Faith."

         On this, the final Sunday in our summer sermon series “8 Question from the Pews,” we end with a rather appropriate question… or rather an appropriate request “Talk about what ‘the end’ means.”
         To do this we’ll:
1.   Consider two meanings of the word
2.   And look at what today’s gospel readings from the Gospel of Mark look like in light of those two meanings of the word

Let us pray.

The End.
         When we talk about it theologically, we often think about the book of Revelation, Millenialism of various sorts, the Late Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind Series.
         What all these things have in common is an assumption that the definition of “The End” we’re using is “The conclusion” or “Termination.” “Ceasing.” “Stopping.” A period or exclamation mark, as opposed to a comma or semi-colon.
         And this is probably what the questioner meant.
         They’re likely wondering what it’ll all be like when the earth ceases to exist, or this particular epoch, this particular time period, stops.
         Yet, I would suggest another one of the 7 definitions of “End” is worth considering when we look at scripture—the end defined as “Goal.” The end of something is its direction, where it is going.
         By way of example, our Episcopal brothers and sisters confess: “The Chief End of Man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
         So, instead of “The End” being a period, or point ending a line, it’s an arrow pointing toward a goal.

         Let’s consider Mark’s Gospel in light of these two meanings.
         A more literal reading of Mark’s Gospel points us toward the first definition of Endà “The Passing away of heaven and earth,” the evaporation of the world.
         In this reading Jesus is warning us that at some unknown time there will be a period of cosmic darkness, and the Son of Man—this figure from the book of Daniel, will arrive and we ought to look for signs and keep awake so we know when it happens and are not caught unaware.
         Some read this as pointing toward the destruction of the temple, or more commonly, as pointing toward the destruction of the world. In this case, they say, Jesus is telling us to look around and read everything as a sign, to be anxious for the coming cosmic thunderclap that will end it all.

         But let’s consider option B—the End as an arrow pointing toward a goal.
         To do this we can look more particularly at a pattern in Mark’s Gospel—his dealing with fig trees.
         Yes, Fig trees, it might seem a weird place to go into order to talk about the end—with a plant… but Jesus himself describes the coming of The Son of Man as being announced like a fig tree announces summer.
         So, let’s consider the Fig Tree.
         Jesus enters Jerusalem the first time, his humble act of riding a donkey, which proclaims the kind of Kingdom we are called to, is met with leaves galore—it at first seems that there is a fruitful acceptance of the Kingdom of God.
         But, at the gates of Jerusalem, just outside the city limits, back in Bethany, Jesus sees the truth, writ large on that small Fig Tree, there are leaves but no fruit, and so he curses it. As in Jerusalem, so too the fig tree, both unfruitful.

         Then he again passes the threshold between Bethany and Jerusalem and enters to see the Temple, and attacks it, turning tables expelling sellers, and mightily kicking out moneychangers.
         And again he returns to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, he sees this fig tree again, this time withered.

         Then, a third time, Jesus, in Jerusalem, declares that there will be a time of darkness in which the Son of Man will be reveled, he will be at the very gate of Jerusalem—at the threshold and his presence will be announced like a fig tree announces summer.
         Then Jesus encourages us to stay awake for the Son of Man, for he might show up at:
 or at dawn.

         Again, lots of people see this as Jesus explaining what it will be like when the earth ceases to exist… but, what if this is a goal he is describing? What if it describes his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and is telling us where we might find our Master?
         After all, on two previous occasions the events in Jerusalem paralleled the sign of the Fig Tree.

         The Son of Man is coming Jesus tells the high Priest—and then Jesus adds that, he, Jesus, is the Son of Man.
         We must keep alert, stay awake, to see him—look at the Disciples at Gethsemane, who fail to do so.
         That evening, the Last Supper, they meet the Son of Man in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine.
         At midnight those in power are judged by the Son of Man, even as they put him on trial.
         When the cock crows, Peter makes a fateful choice and denies the Son of Man.
         At dawn, the women meet the resurrected Lord.

         What if the point of talking about the end is not some deathwatch for the world, or a waiting for everything to be over… what if instead the end is a goal, to stay awake that we might experience again the saving story of Jesus Christ’s Life, Death, and Resurrection…
that we might trust in his resurrection,
recognize when we deny our Lord,
eschew the powers of this world that judge falsely,
meet our Lord in the Holy Meal of Communion,
be awake in prayer,
and confess to all that Jesus is our Lord.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon: Christmas in August

          You may remember back a month or so South Plainfield held it’s 3rd annual “Christmas in July.” Paintings of Olaf the Snowman from Frozen adorned shop windows, good old St. Nick made a surprise appearance… in general we as a town came together to celebrate some parts of Christmas in July instead of December.

          Well, today we have a similar opportunity. Today’s readings all point us to the basic, blood and guts point of Christmas,
that God has been born to us,
Emmanuel, God with us…
Christmas is about the scandal of particularity!
God made flesh, in a particular man, in a particular time, in a particular place.
Yes, today we read about the scandal of particularity—and in so doing we are celebrating Christmas again. Just as there was Christmas in July, today there is Christmas in August.

Let us pray.

          In order to frame the scandalous particularity we proclaim this day, let’s think briefly back to Christmas…
The stories we tell—Joseph and Mary and Angels and all the rest… and for that matter the stories about Rudolf and Red Rider BB Guns, and the time Uncle Hank embarrassed the whole family but made it up to everyone with a soulful ballad from the old country.
The songs we sing—the Christmas carols, the Choir gathered at the Old Danish home around Tom’s homemade wine, the hymn sing the Sunday after.
The Decorations—Advent Candles, Wreaths, Poinsettias, Trees with Tinsel, maybe torn down by little terroristic cats.
The meals—Turkey and stuffing, yams and pie and Figgie Pudding, Seven fishes the night before…

          Yes, the particularity of Christmas: Stories, Songs, Decorations, and Meals… So too the particularity we find before us today.

          The specific story of Joshua, remembering how God has acted, brought God’s people out of Egypt, protected them along their sojourn to freedom, defended them and brought them to a land that became there own.
          This is not some universal story of a god doing good things in general, but Our God acting against oppression and bondage, a special story for a special people—a particular people chosen by a particular God.
          The specific song of Psalm 34—a weird one, about God’s body parts—a God with eyes and ears, a face and an astonishing closeness. A God embodied in the world—yes Metaphorically, but a face that points to God’s closeness with us, eyes and ears that can hear our cries and see our lives!
          Not some God that steps away or does not care, but a God intimately involved and concerned with God’s people. God for us and with us!

          The odd decorations we wear upon ourselves—the very actions and attributes of God, putting on God’s truth and righteousness, his peace and faith, his salvation and spirit, holding tight to the very Word of God!
          Not some far away and far out deity acting in theory but not in fact… When God acts, those actions become so real that we can wrap them around us, the character of God so solid that it is our sure defense.

          That meal Jesus tells us about! The bodily-ness of it all, the icky intimacy of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood. A call to abide with him, to reside with him, to follow him all the way to the end.
          Not some Gnostic escape from the flesh, from the world in which we live, not a pie in the sky savior—but one you can sink your teeth into—literally… one who isn’t about escape, but instead about staying put where you are and finding life there with Him!

          So yes, in stories of specificity, songs sung about the face of God, decorations made from God’s actions, and a holy Meal of the flesh and blood of Christ, we are confronted with Christmas in August.

          And this means so much. God is with us in one particular human being, Jesus—and since then He’s been entering into our personal peculiar particularities every since.
          God’s story sanctifying our story.
          God’s song the tempo our life.
          God’s reality wrapping us tighter than swaddling clothe.
           God’s banquet in Christ Jesus’ flesh making us Holy and his blood making us drunk on his divinity!

          God in the newborn baby’s cry, the mother’s joy and the father’s worry.
          God with a toddler clinging to her uncle’s neck as they wonder at the meteor shower.
          God lazing in the sun, back to an old sad poplar, just taking in the goodness of the day.
          God with us hungry by a restaurant dumpster, waiting for the day-old-bread and bagels to be deposited.
          God in the hospital with a man quarantined and questioning the meaning of life.
          God joyfully smiling at the wedding banquet and clapping at the family reunion.
          God a solemn sentinel in the nursing home and a mourner when things fall apart.
          God entering into the thin places between heaven and earth, making holy the particulars of our lives.
          God, on this particular day, celebrating Christmas in August.  A+A


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

All The Books

            Greetings faithful readers, I just wanted to update you all on my latest book, Seeing with the Mind, Hearing with the Heart, make sure you all know the wide variety of books I’ve written that are available for purchase, and let you know the directions I’m hoping to go with future books.
            Seeingwith the Mind, Hearing with the Heart: A Thematic Bible Study on Luke by aYoung Pastor and a Not So Young Parishioner is a collaboration with one of my parishioners, Linda Nietman. I taught a 7-week bible study on the portions of Luke only found in the Gospel of Luke, and she suggested I turn it into a book. I agreed, on one condition, that she become my co-author. Linda and I alternate chapters, mine focus on what the text says, the bible study end of things, and Linda’s chapters focus on what the texts mean for you, a more devotional reading. In seven chapters we tackle a variety of themes, including Women, Wealth, Samaritans, Social Status, Persistent Prayer, and Repentance.
            Previous to this I published Silicon Soul, which is a Dystopian Sci-Fi novel set in a future where AI is out of control, Ayn Rand and her ideas are in ascendancy, and the Gospel must be read with its back against the wall (to borrow a phrase from Thurman). It was my contribution to National Novel Writing Month.
            Additionally, I gathered sermons from my Seminary classmates and stuck them into a little book titled Nine Sermons from the Lutheran Theological Seminary atPhiladelphia Class of 2011.
            Previous to that I compiled a Minister’s Prayer Book-esque Prayer Book entitled Read,Reflect, Pray: A Lutheran Prayer Book that focused on the seven central things of worship. I wrote it in response to my experience of becoming an Ordained person, you no longer get to lose yourself in worship.

            Finally, I published an expanded version of my M. Phil. Thesis about re-tellings of Genesis 22. Its title is An Uncomfortable Bit of Rope and Other Essays onthe Binding of Isaac.
            So, those are all the books I currently have out. Keep tabs on my Author’s Page.

            Now that my big summer projects are behind me, teaching a theology course for young people Smart People, Wise Faith, a Bible course Hidden Books and Heresies, and thinking through my sermon series 8 question from the pews, I’m starting to think through my next writing projects. (Drumroll please).

Christopher’s Medium Catechism—Every now and again I do an Ember Day like Luther did, where I preach on Luther’s Small and Large Catechism. What results is a medium length re-reading of those documents. So, once I’ve preached on the whole Catechism perhaps I’ll work them into a more formal thing in book or blog form.
The Bible We Don’t Read—A while back I defaced one of my bibles, cutting out all the pieces that are in the lectionary to see what’s left… there is a lot. So, I intend to carefully read through all the portions of scripture left out of the Revised Common Lectionary and write about the kind of faith found in those portions of the Bible.
A Project on Revelation—I’ve often thought, what did the book of Revelation sound like to its original readers? Did it sound like a 5th Gospel or a horror show? This will be a work that covers similar ground as The Rapture Exposed and Joy in Our Weakness but with more of a creative eye. So, perhaps a mainline response to the Left Behind series.
A Speculative Fiction Trilogy—Back in college I outlined a Speculative Fiction trilogy that covered some of the same ground as Silicon Soul. My plan is to write one of these for each of the next 3 National Novel Writing Months.

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Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sermon: “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”

         This second to last Sunday in our summer sermon series “8 questions from the pews” is a heavy one. The question is this: “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
         Part of me would simply like to respond with a time of silence.
         But, I think, today calls for confession and understanding.
         What can we say?
1.That the Lutheran tradition has within it a strain of submission to people in authority
2. a strain of anti-Judaism in it
Both of which make us complicit in the horror of the Holocaust.
3.      Additionally, there was also a portion of the faith that resisted Nazism, but it wasn’t enough and didn’t go far enough.

         Let us pray.

         One aspect of the faith going all the way back to our beginnings is that common question “How do we relate to the state and the society in which we live?”
         One tact is to take Jesus’ words “my kingdom is not of this world” to move all our concern in an otherworldly direction—to assume those things shaping day to day life here and now, are none of our business as Christians.

         Similarly, and this is more the norm for us Lutherans, is to follow Paul’s advice to the Romans—those in authority are there because God is the God of History, and therefore we ought to be good citizens of our country and not question authority.
         Lutheranism’s tendency to side with the powers that be, fits Luther’s life experience—when there were death threats by the Pope and other Catholic officials it was the secular princes who kept him from trial and death. The state kept him alive and the reformation afloat, and he rightly thanked God for that
—not knowing the kind of murderous totalitarianism that was to come.
(larger society)
         Now, Anti-Judaism is perhaps the original sin of Christianity. It was birthed out of that strange back and forth that lead to the cleaving of Judaism and Christianity.
Rome called on Jews to denounce Christianity as a new cult—an innovation and therefore not exempt from Emperor worship,
and the Roman Empire called upon the early Christian movement to denounce Jews as rebels to be expelled from Rome and Jerusalem.
The debates and stories Jesus told within the Judaism of his time and Paul’s description of “The Law” sounded much different coming from Gentile lips. It switched from being an inter-Jewish discussion to an antagonism from the outside.
Eventually Marcion, a Roman Christian, declared a separation between the “Jewish God” and the God revealed in Christ—and while he was condemned as a heretic, that did little to repair the widening breach between the two faiths.
         Supersessionalism—the idea that the Church replaced Israel and the New Testament replaced the 10 commandments—still haunts the Christian heart to this very day.
         In Nazi Germany this original sin was in full blossom—with wrongheaded arguments that Jesus was not a Jew and with renewed Marcionism—calling for the de-Judaizing of scripture.

         Similarly, the unfortunate words attributed to the crowd in Matthew’s telling of the passion, “His blood be on us and on our children,” has been used to justify all kinds of horrible things done to the Jews—Pogroms in Poland, the Inquisition in Spain
—the charge of “Christ-Killer” comes from these words.
In fact, so powerful a motivator were these words in past decades and centuries, that the panel on Lutheran-Jewish relations insisted, that “the New Testament … must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews", and that "blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people.”—that is why on Good Friday you hear me talk a lot about Judeans and Religious Officials when I read the Passion account instead of the traditional translation “the Jews.”
         But, let’s get a little more particular—what of Luther?
At the age of 40 he wrote a tract against Dominican abuses of the Jewish populous entitled, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” in which he writes:
“Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks—the crude asses—have treated the Jews in such a way that anyone who is truly a good Christian ought to become a Jew. If I was a Jew and heard such dolts and blockheads teach the Christian faith I would as soon be a wild boar as be a Christian.”
         If only he’d stopped there, but he did not. When he was 60, a few years before his death, he wrote “On the Jews and Their Lies” a tract so vile that even his closest friend Melanchthon said it “reeked of the Inquisition.”
         In it he maps out a “solution” for what he calls the “Jewish problem” in Germany—that Synagogues and Jewish houses ought to be burnt, Talmuds taken, Rabbis forbidden to speak, safe passage on highways removed, Jewish property confiscated, and Jews made to be serfs on German farms until they choose to self-deport.
         If this sounds similar to the Nazi “final solution,” minus the gas chambers—there is a good reason for it—Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were picked up quite whole-cloth by the National Socialists.

         There were however some Lutherans who heard the pseudo-Theological claims of the Nazis such as:
“The New Word of God is found in the History of the German People.”
“Jesus is not Savior but a Hero-Prophet for the Church just as Hitler is the Hero-Prophet of Germany.”
And “You may only believe in the resurrection if you believe in the resurrection of Germany.”
They heard these claims and took the entire Nazi program as an attack on the Church.

         When most German Church-folk were asking the question, “Should the Nazi controlled Church be more Calvinist or Lutheran?” There was a movement called the Confessing Church, who believed the Nazis should not control the Church and responded with the Barman Declaration, which we will confess together in place of the Apostle’s Creed in today’s service.
         One of those members of the Confessing Church, Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonheoffer, responded to the situation in Nazi Germany by entering into a conspiracy to kill Hitler and smuggle German Jews to Switzerland. In fact one of the last orders of the Nazi High Command before they lost the control of German was “Bonheoffer must die.” And indeed he was executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9th 1945

         I bring up these heroes not to absolve us, but to challenge us to hear God in the midst of societal noise and historical half-truths. Challenge us to hear the Gospel above the clangor of Culture, to hear always the cries of our common humanity.

         So, “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
         Christianity’s original sin Anti-Judaism, and Luther’s tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” are part of a train of thought that leads to Auschwitz.
         The Lutheran hesitancy to challenge secular authorities ensured that resistance to, or even questioning of, “The Final Solution” was limited.
         Finally, I thank God that there were some who tapped other veins of our tradition—Theology of the Cross and Scripture Alone—and in so doing resisted Nazism and the Holocaust.
  We mourn the majority’s inaction and wrong actions,
we remember the martyrs who died doing what was right,
and we continue to pledge to the 20 million victims of the Nazi regime, especially the 6 million Jews, never again.