Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sermon: Another letter of Paul to St. Stephen Lutheran

Dear Sibblings in Christ,
         For three chapters in my letter to the Romans, I struggled, twisted and turned, tried to articulate and express what God was doing with his people.
         I struggled so mightily because the whole thing, God’s merciful acts for us, is so mysterious and unexpected.
         I struggled as well, because I was writing to a mixed community—both Jew and Gentile; one that had experienced turmoil on account of the persecution and expulsion of the Jews in Rome… for 3 years the community had been solely gentile, the Emperor had removed all the Jews from the city, including the Christian Jews in that congregation—and by the time they returned the dynamics there had shifted, relations strained.
         I struggled, because that question weighed so heavily upon my soul—what of my own kinspeople? What of the people from whom Jesus Christ came, whom God adopted, made a relationship with, gave the commandments to, who rightly worshipped God and held tightly to God’s promises. What, I asked, is God doing in relationship to his people? Who are his people? How does God’s mercy and God’s majesty play out?

         I struggled with it, and still do.
         But this I know. I know that at least I, Paul, embraced God’s law without the Spirit, and in so doing condemned what God was doing through Jesus Christ.
         I persecuted the early church;
I witnessed and aided the stoning of Saint Stephen;
I called cursed that which God had blessed—truly I had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
         And I did so because I clung to holy words “cursed is the one who hangs upon a tree,” I held to them so tightly that I squeezed the holiness right out of them. I couldn’t see Jesus holding out his loving arms to all people from that cursed tree!

         And I worried that my people had done something similar, that some of
-Our cultural practices,
-The boundary markers created to keep our communities safe,
-Emblems of Identity held dear, so the dominant culture couldn’t crush the covenant God made with us…
That these things had become a stumbling block.
That these same fences keeping corruption out, were now keeping God’s mercy confined,
Keeping those who desperately needed the salvation of Jesus, from receiving it.

         And it is hard to talk about these things, these days, because my words are sometimes been used as ammunition by anti-Semites to injure my people—the Jews.
         In fact, I think the only honest way to hear my words is to apply them to your congregation or synod or denomination or religious tradition.
         The only honest way to hear my words about my people is to sincerely assess:
your own cultural practices,
your own boundary markers,
your own emblems of identity,
your own fences,
your own fanaticism.
How have they held back God’s work—the reconciliation of the whole world?
How have they stifled the Spirit and called cursed, those things which God has blessed?

         For example:
         I have heard that 300 years after my death Christianity tied itself to Rome—that being Roman and being Christian became part of a single cultural package—and then Rome fell and nearly took the faith down with it.
         I have heard of Christian churches that lock their doors during the service, because they are afraid of their neighbors—they literally fence off those seeking the freedom of Christ.
         I’ve even heard of some Christians that so associate their faith with a meeting of people in a building, that they forget that being a Christian is a lifetime of ongoing repentance, everywhere, not just for an hour on Sunday.

         I encourage you to think of the fanatics, fences, emblems of identity, boundary markers, and cultural practices of your faith that might be getting in the way of Christ.
         Those things—are, at the end of the day, all human attempt to Resurrect Jesus, and to incarnate God. They are works of humans, that are for not.
         After all, you must know that God already came in the flesh of Jesus,
and death has already been overcome by Christ
—the resurrection, the incarnation, they are God’s to do, not yours!
         These things are already done. All we can do is trust it to be true
—trust that God’s got this.
         All we can do is get out of the way and watch God at work in the lives of people with whom we wouldn’t expect God to act
—listen to the good news that God has acted for us and not against us
—for all of us, against no one!
God’s merciful reach is bigger than our boldest imagination!
God is always merciful.
It’s all a gift, a calling, a promise, and it is all-irrevocable.
God is faithful and God’s promises are unbreakable.
         How this all come together—it is ultimately a great mystery—the mysterious works of God—and even as it is a struggle to speak of it, or grasp it in our minds or hearts, or express it ourselves,
it is so marvelous!


Monday, August 14, 2017

Sermon: Be Not Afraid

Be Not Afraid
            (Disclaimer, I preached with barely an outline on Sunday, so this is somewhat of a recreation of what I preached on Sunday)

            There is a famous quote out there that you must preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. I go back and forth on that one, and often lean away from it—with the fast paced nature of the News, and how ephemera it all is, everyone has latched onto a story as the most important thing—only to turn to something new the next day—to tie scripture to such ephemerae can minimize God’s Word. All that to say, that’s not the foot from which I lead—but this week, the news, the week we’ve had—it is enough to shake you to your core.

            Here at St. Stephen and in South Plainfield, Pastor Charles Mingle—who had been Pastor here for 26 years—died, leaving this congregation, and frankly the whole town in shock.
            Not only that, North Korea and the United States have been playing a horrifying game of Nuclear “Chicken.” It’s enough to put anyone on edge…
            And then, yesterday down in Charlottesville, Virginia, Nazis and Confederates—White Supremacists gathered to show their strength. Counter-protestors, including clergy I know, went down to show that the Nazi’s message of hate does not represent us… that there is a better message for the world… and soon enough the clergy there were attacked, and then one of the white supremacists drove a car into a pack of the counter-protestors, killing a woman and hospitalizing another 19 people.
            To all of this—I have but one message “Be Not Afraid.”
            This is a message from God we find throughout scripture… From Genesis, where God makes a covenant with Abraham to the book of Revelation where God gives assurance to the persecuted early church—Be Not Afraid.


            Did you know that if a conflict was to re-erupt on the Korean Peninsula 100,000 people would die in the first 15 minutes? Or that finding and securing North Korea’s Weapons of Mass destruction would require 200,000 troops occupying that country? Or that in the event of a nuclear exchange at least 10 million would die?
            Were told this is the price of being a nuclear power—of real-politik—of being a super-power.
            We’re telling a story that 100,000 people are chits, 200,000 people poker chips in a giant game, that 10 million people are the price to pay for the great game.
            It’s a scary story—inevitably it makes you ask—what about me? How un-important am I? What am I worth, if 10 million are expendable?
            But to this, Jesus tells a different story—“Be Not Afraid.”
            He comes to Peter, out there on his boat—in the midst of tumultuous waves and fear, he doesn’t abandon Peter. He comes to him, because he cares of him, he cares for Peter. And that’s Jesus’ story—the Christian story—it’s the meaning of the incarnation and the salvation we find in Christ. God shows up, in human flesh—shows up for us—more than that—dies for us—that we might have life.
            God cares that much for us, for we are beloved children of God, we are made in God’s image.
            That means 10 million dead—it is marring the very face of God. 200,000 in harm’s way—endangering the image of God—100,000 Beloved Children of God killed.

            Or—Think of Pastor Mingle—one man—yet infinitely precious in God’s sight. God would have died for him alone.
            So many praises and accolades were laid at his feet at the funeral, but it was Charlie’s son, Phillip, who summed it up best—none of those things mattered, what mattered was God’s grace, that God entered into a relationship with him, simply because God chose to—God loved him… that alone mattered.
            And in the face of 100,000, 200,000, 10 million dead as acceptable losses, it is worth knowing God does not lose a single one, but loves every one!
            Be not afraid, for you are made in the image of God and beloved of God.

            Be not afraid, as well, of you neighbor.
            These people who marched in Virginia—they did so for the sake of white supremacy—some even explicitly states they were there to make America a White, Christian, Nation.
            They saw their calling to sew division—to separate peoples, even by force.
            And it must be stated there is nothing Christian about such actions—instead there is only sin in it.

            (As a side note, I get asked why Muslims don’t condemn ISIS, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda. I often point them to instances where violent representatives of Islam DO condemn these extreme and violent people… to which they say “Well, why don’t they stop the terrorists?”
Well, I can respond today—how did you stop these White Supremacists down in Virginia? Running people over with cars, no matter the ideology, is an act of terror. How did we Christian stop these people acting in our name?)

            To these awful acts and evil ideology—people like Bishop Bill Gohl of the Delaware Maryland Synod and Rev. Lura Groen who went down to Virginia and protested against white supremacy—respond no! There is no division—there is no room for hate, love your neighbor.
            Paul writes of making no distinction—that No One who believes will be put to shame… that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved… sometimes we get caught up on believing and calling—but Paul’s point was that his own scriptures could not be used as a sword to divide, but instead a call to unity, a reminder that it is all about God’s grace—it is never ours to divide.
            There is no division, no distinction—not on race, not on gender, not on any particular part of who you are, save that God loves you—that God is gracious!
            Within Christianity there can be no division, only love of neighbor.
            Be not afraid of your neighbor.

            And you see, all of these things in Virginia were happening while I was with my cousin Harley and his daughter Kaitlyn playing tourist in New York—We were riding this water taxi to the Statue of Liberty while I was getting these updates from my friends who were down there via social media—Bill and Lura—and it seemed like things were getting worse and worse, inching toward violence. Coke bottles filled with concrete thrown at clergy while they prayed, people beat with brass knuckles and sticks.
            I felt disconnected, kinda alone even as I was surrounded by all those people in the City.
            I felt kinda like Elijah, who cried to God “I, I alone remain.”
            He believed his whole country had committed apostasy and worshipped the false god Ba’al.
            To this God responds, “Be Not Afraid, you are not alone… there are 7,000 who refuse to bend the knee, who maintain faithfulness… you are not alone.”

            There on that boat, isolated, seeing these pictures of 1,000 of Nazis with torches marching—I got to feel despair, “What can I do?” Who can stand against violent men on the march?”
            Then we reached our destination—Lady Liberty—engraved on her plaque:
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

            Lamp lifted for the sake of neighbor…
            Be not afraid, you are not alone. There has always been a section of America’s soul seeking to do the right thing. There have always been people open handed and loving—holding out a massive torch to shine a light for those in need—shining a light of liberty and liberation.
            A light that drowns out all those false lights, those fake suns, tiki torches eclipsed by a true light.

Be not afraid—you are not alone.
Be not afraid—of your neighbor.
Be not afraid—you are made in the image of God.

Be not afraid!
Amen and alleluia.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sermon: There is a free lunch

         There are all kinds of altruisms out there that we use so often that we forgot their origin, meaning, and context,
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”
“The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win, you are still a rat.”
And… rather on the nose today, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

         This phrase, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” originated in the common pre-prohibition era practice of offering a (often heavily salted) “free lunch” at bars if the patron bought a beer. The bar owner expected to recuperate the money spent on these lunches with the profits made in beer and repeat business—in that way the “free lunch” was, in fact, not free.
         There was an illusion of it being a free gift, but there was a hook, a catch, ultimately, you paid for it.
         To this God replies, “Oh every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
         God replies, “There is a free lunch.”
Let us pray

         There is a free lunch.
         Not though, in the first instance, for Isaiah’s kin. Their parents perished when Jerusalem fell—they were taken to a strange land, taken down to Babylon as captives, kept for a generation—until in despair they sang such songs as the 137’s psalm, where they mourn:
“By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?”

         Yes, they toiled there
—they were used by their captors,
cut off and kept,
held as a ransom against their brothers back home. Maybe even told what a good deal they were getting—they had food and maybe a bed—in exchange for iron in their soul and around their neck—there in Babylon, separated from land and loved ones, slaving away in imprisonment.
         A hard salted form of a free lunch—at the end empty.
         To this Isaiah speaks a liberating word, taking that sorrow psalm from down by the rivers of Babylon, mingling in a hymn of hope, transforming their situation into one of liberation—salvation: “Oh every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!”
         There is a free lunch! Life is granted on account of God’s heart—God’s ongoing faithfulness—that’ll truly fill you up!

         There is a free lunch.
         Not though, in Rome or its territories. In the Empire, there was a well built up system of fidelity
—a patron-client relationship, they would call it.
         The Emperor was able to control the Empire, the same way the Mafia controls neighborhoods, and get rich quick pyramid schemes take advantage of employees.
         The Emperor would gain the fidelity—the loyalty—of the aristocrats and the wealthy by handing out government and religious positions to them.
         The aristocrats in turn kept control of the soldiers and the mid-level bureaucrats by handing out titles and land holdings.
         From there smaller gifts were given to citizens, and peasants, and finally slaves
—this last group received the momentary joys of cruel entertainment and a little nourishment to quiet their empty bellies in the form of “bread and circuses.”

         In this way loyalty was bought from above, and in this way gifts were not gifts, but burdens and bribes.
         There could be no relationship amongst equals, because everyone was racing to the top,
trying to do anything to have leverage over others,
trying to be a patron instead of a client.
-In such a system, bread became that which was not bread,
-and the circus, that which does not satisfy.
         To this too, Isaiah speaks, “Oh every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!”
         There is a free lunch!

         Just look at Jesus.
-He could have, insisted the crowd follow him, on their knees.
-He could have, dolled out miracles as chits to be cashed in for later favors.
-He could have, kept the crowd there—increasing their hunger—in order to auction off 5 loaves and two fishes to the highest bidder.
         That’s how Rome would do things.
--But he does the exact opposite!
         No salted food for the sake of sales here
—only salvation
—only a truly free meal.

         There is a free lunch.
         Not though, here.
         Here, where people on their death-beds ask, “Was I good enough?” in a million different ways.
         Here, where we are so quick to judge others as wanting and failing—so that we might be built up in comparison.
         Here, where we act like food and healing are only for those worthy of them, and where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

            Here, it would be wise to cling Luther’s famous prayer:
-“Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it.
-I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.
-I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent, that my love may go out to my neighbor.
-I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether.
-O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.
-In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have.
-I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.
-I am a sinner; you are upright.
-With me, there is an abundance of sin; in you is the fullness of righteousness.
-Therefore I will remain with you, of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.

            Cling to it, knowing that to all our emptiness, weakness, cold heartedness, doubt, poverty, and sin God replies, “Oh every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
            To all our hungers, God replies, “There is a free lunch.”