Sunday, November 11, 2018

Praise the Lord!

              Praise the Lord, with my whole being—every role I have, from engineer to electioneer…
Every relationship I have—from child to parent to next door neighbor… may it praise the Lord.
              Praise the Lord in my work and my play, from the tips of my toes to the hair I once had on the top of my head.
Praise him like David in scandalous dance and divine ecstasy and like Mary in quiet pondering.
Praise with our hearts and minds, in the very depths of ourselves, even those recesses inside us we barely know.
              Praise the Lord, as well, with the length of my life.  From the first kick in the womb like John the Baptist to my last words, like Anna and Simeon—from nursing bed to hospice bed—as our whole life unfolds, being raised and raising others, sandwiched between generations in those middle years… all of it, may it praise the Lord.

              Trust God, not leaders in this world—they’re so human. Inconsistent, unsure of their own motivations, unaware of the consequences of their actions, and liable to get distracted. They won’t help or won’t do a good job of it… God help us! Don’t make of them an idol.
              They are so human, so mortal… what they begin they shall not end—did not David wish to see the Temple, did not Paul wish to preach in Spain—and yet they did not do so. All rulers shall die, their powers diminished, their projects unfinished.

              Trust instead in God— all else spins fast and does not hold, but we are held fast by our Father in Heaven, the Parent of us all. In God we are like a well-watered tree—fed and stable.
              Be rooted in God— your joy shall be complete—not happiness as such, but joy, that which transcends all that is bitter about our mortality—joyful even in sorrow and abandon—even in times of distress and at the end, there is rest and joy… journey done, return to God.
              Return to the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen—the one who is the beginning and the end…
that vast dome, sky, heaven, space, infinity
—that solid rock, earth, our precious home, we earthlings of the earth
—the depths, the sea, the chaotic waters transformed to nourish us and all creation
—every last creature, ameba to whale, breaths spirit,
everything is held together because the Lord is faithful.

What is the nature of this faithfulness, you ask.
              The Lord is faithful—he hears the groans of his people in Egypt, and exacts terrible punishment upon whole societies when they refuse to heed prophetic calls for justice!
              The Lord is faithful—Elijah, and the Israelites hungry in the desert, and those who receive the food we collect for them, and soon enough those who will receive food at our own Pop-up Food Pantry—all those who hunger are fed their daily bread, so long as we don’t get in the way and obstruct it.
              The Lord is faithful—God called his people out of slavery in Egypt, out of captivity in Babylon… Paul and Silas out of Jail—Christ freeing us from our captivity to Sin, Death, and the Devil.
              The Lord is faithful—Bartimaeus born blind, Paul blind and then he could see—may we all truly see, see the world in front of our eyes, in front of us to be loved!
              The Lord is faithful—Are we not bent down, or curved in upon ourselves, or just in need of some straightening up so we remember we’re human, we’re made in the image of God and ought to be treated as such.
              The Lord is faithful—In every age there have been people made right by God, brought into relationship with God—loved by God, empowered by God to love and serve their neighbors—from Adam to Abraham, Moses to Mary, Ezekiel to Zacchaeus.
              The Lord is faithful—Though Elijah tarries in a strange land, though Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, though Moses was forever a stranger in whatever company he kept, though the Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt, God always protected them.
              The Lord is faithful—He will always help the most vulnerable, Job declares himself righteous on account of his aid to them, the Law is laid down in the book of Exodus (they are to be protected!) and James says true religion is visiting them, the orphan and widow. 
              The Lord is faithful—God thwarts the evil plots and plans of Pharaoh and King Nebuchadnezzar and Herod, that slaughterer of the innocent—the wicked he shall bring to ruin.
              Yes, in all these things the Lord is faithful!

              And the Lord will continue to be faithful, continue to reign with Justice—the Kingdom of God will continue to be a reality, every generation shall know that He is God!
Praise the Lord!

Monday, November 05, 2018

All Saints Sunday Sermon

              St. Augustine—the North African Bishop and early church father most instrumental in thinking through the Christian faith—recollects, in his biography the Confessions, his experience of loosing his best friend as a young man. In his mourning:
-He avoided the places where they used to spend time, because it felt like the places themselves were expecting his friend to return, but he wouldn’t return!
-Augustine toyed with the morbid thought of dying, perhaps even killing himself, so that he might join his friend.
-At other times, reflecting upon his friend’s absence—how completely he’d been erased from the world by death, Augustine would become so afraid of Death’s grand and horrible power over mortals that he couldn’t keep from shuttering.
              In another place, Augustine wrote, “Make me good, but not yet.” That is, let me enjoy a reckless and wanton life until I’m a hairs breath from death, and then I’ll be good, so I get that check-mark next to my name, so I am on the guest list at the end.

              And these two extremes, name clearly edges we so easily lean toward.
They say Orthodoxy—right belief—is not about extremes, but about navigating extremes—the proper faith in Jesus Christ is not way over here, nor way over there, but instead the broad center.
              And that is true of the faith regarding death as well.
On one side—despair and anguish
On the other side—indifference and escape.
May it not be so for us—instead let us always be Embraced by our Risen Lord, called by name to be his disciples.
Let us pray

              There are a lot of different things going on this All Saints Sunday. Reading aloud the names of those who’ve died—remembering aloud, naming, making it real through ritual. Former members of Cross of Life, by joining St. Stephen you are making the closing of your former congregation all the more real, Barbara, we’re going to miss you. And that’s not even mentioning all those things going on outside our church doors.
              There is a lot of change, a lot of loss, a lot of chaos floating around here—in scripture the ocean or the seas are often stand ins for that churning and overwhelming uncertainty that pulls us down to the depths.
              Death is often described as the twin of those chaotic waters, a sort of sea creature consuming the world—at the end of the day everything will be consumed by Death, it is an unstoppable reality riding uncontrollable chaos.

              In the face of all that, an impulse toward despair and anguish is natural.
Like Mary we may mourn Jesus’ seeming absence—Jesus if you were here, these things wouldn’t be happening,
the very scent of death would be banished from our presence.
              We just throw up our hands and say, it’s too much, I am defeated.

              Or, we slide to the other side of things—indifference and escape.
              I can no longer count the number of mailers I’ve received inviting me to attend opioid addiction conferences—in the rural west and the inner city we’ve been numbing ourselves to the chaotic waters and that monster Death for a while—but now even the seeming placid suburbs are suffering—the first time I buried someone younger than me it was just a tragedy, but at this point it has become a pattern. It’s a response, I guess, indifference.
              And it isn’t just young people—care givers often fall in this same lane—indifference and escape—they call it compassion fatigue, you care for someone or a bunch of people for so long you just get kinda burnt out inside.
              Or think of what we sometime do within the church—we seek baptism as fire insurance, see Christianity as nothing more than a get into heaven free card. We see the life of faith as a means of escaping death and chaos. The service becomes a waiting room and Vince, what you’re playing nothing more than elevator music.

              In face of Death and the Chaotic Waters, Despair and Indifference, Anguish and Escape can be our wrong steps—the extremes we wreck into, because it feels like we’re being chased.
              But let me tell you about the broad middle—the center of what God is doing on our behalf. In the face of Anguish and Escape—God offers a loving Embrace. We listen for Despair and Indifference, but God calls us to be his Disciples.
              The chaotic water will not drown us, but will be still—will be replaced by a living water, a life giving water, streams shining and flowing from the throne of God to slake our thirst.
              Death, that consumer of worlds, will be swallowed up.
              God is making all things new, for God was, is, and will be among us.
              Think about Lazarus, he’s called out of the tomb—he escapes death—praise God!
But not only that, he is unbound and freed and follows Christ (is his Disciple) and shares with him a meal—the last supper, where Christ says “Love one another.” Where he is embraced by Christ, leans against Christ’s chest and is fed. And then, Christ goes and dies and rises—that we all might share in his eternal life.
              We’re all connected—connected together in the life of Jesus Christ.
              And we shape that for one another—we all have saints who came before us, sometimes it is those big ones, right
Christ shapes Matthew, who shapes Paul, who shapes Augustine who shapes Luther…
but just as often it is smaller,
grandma sang the faith into me (had a voice about like I do, but she sang it anyway),
the Smith family down the street brought me to Sunday School,
when I wondered if God was calling me to the ministry Pastor Sarah said “duh!”
              Right… if eternal life in Christ really means eternal it doesn’t just mean in heaven—though that’s quite a promise too—but its here and now as well—our life together, following after Jesus together, being continually embraced by Jesus through our siblings of the faith…
For that matter, I hope that in some small way God will use my life to do the same for other people…
I pray that we might be surprised to learn one day, maybe on the other side of the Jordon, that we were saints as well, leaving footprints in place so that someone found solid ground as a disciple, that we held others in the faith as we ourselves were held.
              I started this sermon with an Augustine quote—illustrating the two extremes we face when faced with death—Anguish and Escape, but perhaps this last one will help us to arrive in the middle where we together may follow Christ and be embraced by him as well.
“Christ departed from our sight, that we might return to our hearts and find him. For he left us, and behold, he is here.”

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sermon: Be Still and Know That I Am God

Be Still and Know That I Am God

A mighty fortress is our God, 
A true help in times of terror.
So do not be afraid
—in the face of human violence
—in a world going nowhere fast
Do not be afraid, for the Lord says:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”

Let us pray

In the face of human violence
Do not be afraid, for the Lord says:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
It’s incomprehensible
—this week there were attempted assassinations of two former presidents, a former secretary of state and a former vice president, and three members of congress (including two who may run for president)—along with some activists and national security officials. We were a hairs breath away from 2018 becoming 1968—the assassination of modern day MLKs and RFKs close at hand.
            If that wasn’t enough, on Wednesday there was the man in Kentucky who tried to do a repeat of the shooting at Emmanuel AME—but when he couldn’t get into the church, he settled on shooting two grandparents to death in a supermarket, because they were black.
            And if that still wasn’t enough, yesterday, out in Pittsburgh, a man attacked Tree of Life synagogue and killed 10 worshipers…
11 worshipers…
it just keeps going up as I write this sermon…
11 worshipers and wounded a bunch more, including the police who eventually stopped him. According to the man’s last social media posts before he attacked, he did so because Tree of Life would partner with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society(the sister organization to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services)—he deemed their aid of refugees as abetting an invasion of America.

In a world going nowhere fast
Do not be afraid, for the Lord says:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
            Can you believe it was just over a year ago that a man tried to gun down the entire Republican Congressional Baseball Team—it was the biggest attempted political assassination in the history of the country (until this week)—yet it probably took you a second to remember what I was even talking about
—these days, a year ago is so very long ago…
and here’s the thing that troubles me, by next year this time we’ll have forgotten about the horrors of this week
—attempted partisan bombings, a racist and an anti-Semitic shooting.
            It seems like we’re moving at such a pace these days
—pushing ourselves faster and faster
—but with no clear goal,
at least not one that I can see…
I think maybe we’re just rushing on…
because we’re afraid if we stop for a second
we’ll fall over and get stuck under our scooter…
or maybe ‘cause we’d be forced to stop and look at ourselves
—and we might not like what we see very much.
            So we collectively and individually just keep going, just keep doing, doing, doing—filling a void with, to quote the Bard, “sound and fury signifying nothing!”
            I know a family who start each month with a single day free to be together, and inevitably it gets gobbled up before they reach it.
            I know a man who wanted to teach his child about giving and being a good person, and told his kiddo they’d take a day that week to go to a local soup kitchen and serve
—three months later the child asked him why they never did it
He didn’t have an answer
—they just didn’t have time…
there were too many other things to do…

Hey Church!
Do not be afraid, for the Lord says:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
            It’s easy to say, “What do Jesus’ followers mean in John when they say, ‘we were never slaves to anyone’ when their founding story was the Exodus—escape from slavery in Egypt.”
            But we Church folk do the same thing
—the church so often mirrors the world
—we follow its frantic pace, acting without reflecting,
--sometimes we even ignore hateful viewpoints that undergird violence…
we do so in the name of being nice
… What I’m saying is the best way to catch someone is for them to never see the cage
—we often we do ministry by the world’s rules and we don’t even notice...
And we can’t win that game.
            Two ELCA congregations, one in Dunellen and one in Edison, are voting on whether to close today… and we have to be clear it’s not for lack of trying on their part
—these days, the world as it is, doing things that used to be automatic for a congregation, now take real effort
—just doing the day to day stuff of ministry, is hard,
and doing something special and well…
Well, it takes saving throws and sacrifice.
            Often times as a pastor, it feels like the world looks at me like I’m a buggy whip salesman in an automobile world (not a good feeling I assure you). And so often I respond by working myself sick, with nothing to show for it…
I’m playing the worlds game,
we’re playing the world’s game,
instead of trusting God.

Do not be afraid, for the Lord says:
“Be STILL, and know that I am God.”
            Be still… the root of this word is used 46 times in Hebrew Scriptures, it references everything from laziness, to going slack, to the day drawing to a close, to an angel resting its tired wings.

Walk with me on this:
Let your jaws unclench, 
Drop your shoulders, 
Open your hands up a little bit if they’re closed.
Be still… 

Be still church
Be still—we can’t work our way out of this—and that’s a relief.
Be still—let there be space for God to act.
Be still—don’t listen to the thrum of the world, but the calling of God.
Be still—hear the Spirit speak still.
Be still—it is not our church, but Christ’s Church

Be still world
Be still—take the time to untangle your disordered values.
Be still—so you can be aware of the things that matter.
Be still—the things that matter are rarely things.
Be still—you are human beingsnot human doings.
Be still—look where we’ve gone, even when it is ugly.
Be still—the whole world isn’t on your shoulders.
Be still—honor and be aware of the past and present, before you rush on to the future.

Be still O’ Violent Ones
Be still—please, be still.
Be still—let your hands go slack, so you can let go of your weapons.
Be still—weapons of the spirit alone avail at all.
Be still—for one little word subdues Evil.
Be still—start a journey out of hate.

A mighty fortress is our God, 
A true help in times of terror.
So do not be afraid
—in the face of human violence
—in a world going nowhere fast,
Do not be afraid, for the Lord says:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sermon: We Don't Do that Here

The Saloon doors swing open, the Big Gun Slingin’ Hombre steps inside, moseys passed the piano and up to the bar—and order a milk—the piano stops, conversation dies, some cowpokes instinctively reach for their guns—and then he adds “in a dirty glass,” and everything is okay again.
—Ordering Milk at a Saloon… we don’t do that here.
         Or think of Arlo Guthrie, he’s at the US Army Building on Whitehall Street in New York City, being inspected for the Draft, and sent over to the Group W bench—where they put everyone who is not considered moral enough to join the army, and the Group W crew want to know why he’s there, and he explains that he was once arrested for littering—and all the criminals step back and don’t want to associate with him, and then he adds, “and creating a nuisance”—and then they are okay with him again…
Being on the group W bench for littering—we don’t do that here.
         Or, in the last Avengers movie, the cadre of superheroes arrive in Wakanda and meet T’challa, the King—Bruce Banner, the Hulk, starts to kneel, but T’challa stops him, saying, “We don’t do that here.”
Bowing to the King in an egalitarian monarchy—we don’t do that here.
         We don’t do that here.

         We don’t do that here.
         One of the distinct features of Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus’ disciples are always reaching for Glory and power—and Jesus continually has to remind them, “We don’t do that here.”
         For the second time in only a few chapters the disciples make a run at being the best disciple
—being the greatest…
the Zebedee brothers come to Jesus and ask to be his right-hand men… and I can just see Jesus saying, “We don’t do that here.”
They have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of who Jesus is, what his ministry is all about, and what the Kingdom of God is…
it’s about humilityall the way through
—lasting the first and firsting the last
—noticing the unnoticed, protecting and cherishing the least…
not lusting after positions of glory, and patting ourselves on the back for getting the best spot and forcing your will on other people—even on God.

         The difference between Jesus’ attitude and that of John and James is so very wide
—Conservative columnist David Brooks, in his book “The Road to Character” writes of a jarring experience
—he was driving home one night and listened to a rebroadcast of a celebrity celebration of America’s victory in World War Two. For such a momentous occasion, and for an event squished full of celebrities and big personalities—the whole thing was understated, no one bragged or boasted, they simply were thankful. 
         Then Brooks went home and turned on the football game—one of the teams gained 2 yards—not a touch down, just a two yard gain—and the players and coaches and fans were falling all over themselves with self-praise and declarations of their gloryand greatness!
         Such a contrast of humility and hubris, such a difference between a country soberly celebrating the defeat of fascism and a sports team celebrating a gain of two yards
—the same kind of contrast as between Jesus and these Zebedee brothers.

         And they don’t stop there—Jesus tries to warn them off, “Really? You can drink the cup I’m being offered by God? You can be baptized to the same horrible calling as I’ve been called to?”
         Sure—they respond. Let us sup with our Lord, let us share in his glorious goal…
         Be careful what you wish for…
         Our Lord was referring to the cup he asks to be taken from him at Gethsemane—his Baptism, his calling—a calling that inevitably leads to the Cross…
         And so too will the lives of his disciples—martyrdom—dying for the confession that Jesus is Lord—and therefore all the earthly lords are not…
in fact, we can read in Acts 12:2 that this very proclamation—Jesus is Lord and you are not—is what got James and John killed by Herod.

         But I’m getting ahead of the story now, aren’t I? Right now James and John are asking for a very different type of life, of calling, of greatness…
they are looking at the kind of greatness that looks good on a Resume
—yeah, I interned under Jesus and then became his Secretary of State after he kicked out the Romans and crowned himself king….
But Jesus isn’t in the resume business—he’s talking about the kind of greatness you find at a Eulogy
—lives measured at the end, at that point it isn’t about your resume or your titles, but your relationships and how well you loved, who you served when no one was looking…
Yes, Jesus was talking about a Eulogy kind of life while they were talking about a Resume kind of life.

         And it would be easy to be like their fellow disciples—angry at their arrogance
—though I’d imagine the other disciples are secretly mad at themselves—that same inclination toward glory and power hubris over humility is in them too
(is in us too, I would add)
they just didn’t get to Jesus first… but we shouldn’t get angry with them or with any of our fellow Christians when they misplace their faith—when they chase glory or serve power
—instead we should see it as a joke, not an offense. What they are doing is like using a cotton swab to paint a barn, or shewing away a fly with a shotgun... they’re not enemies, just embarrassing themselves…
and anyway, we’ll end up doing the same thing sometime, and hopefully people will be gracious with us too.
         They just need to hear Jesus’ calling, saying, “We don’t do that here.”

         We don’t do that here—Jesus’ actions do not need, nor kneel to, nor uphold
power—at least as we understand it
or glory—at least as the world will give
or building up an empire or country or a kingdom
—it is about God through Jesus Chris righting the world,
reconnected us to the source of life,
bringing us back to God’s loving embrace
—Serving and giving his life as a Ransom for many

Atonement is the word we’ve put together in English to describe what Jesus is about!
-Freeing us from Powers that bind us
-absorbing the damage done by our own bad actions and intentions
-showing us how to love—loving us to death and beyond death to resurrection and new life!
That’s what we do here!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First

         I’d imagine some days Jesus got really frustrated.
         In the last few days he’d been hammering on one point and one point only
The First Shall Be Last and the Last Shall be First.
         He’d pointed to the humility involved. He’d confronted his disciples—they’d been asking who got to be first—who gets to be at his right hand and left hand once everything was turned upside down by Jesus. Who would be his Secretary of
State and Vice President? And he made them all tumble down with his answer
—The first must be least and last.
And as we shall see, when Jesus is enthroned at his right and left hand are two criminals dying on crosses with him.
         Jesus had been impressed with that humble confession—one I’m sure we all have uttered at time or two,
“I believe, help my unbelief.”
This pointed to a religious piety that wasn’t about being filled and being first, but about acknowledging our emptiness—a humility that allows us to say, “help me Lord!”
         And if that was not enough, he commanded the crowd to cut off hand or foot or eye, if it would keep them from the Kingdom.
If your leg would give you a leg up on the least and last—goodbye leg, right?
         And then Jesus noted whowere the last and least and how to protect them. He ruled against divorce, because divorce was being used to abuse women—used to leave them off to the side of society, to transform them from the least to even less than the least.
         And he proclaimed that children
—literally considered itsinstead ofpeople,
what’sinstead of who’s
—he proclaims that welcoming them is welcoming him
—that the act of blessing children—these little Last Ones, is the key to the Kingdom of God.

         Yes, he’s hammered home that the least and last are first in the Kingdom of God—and then this guy shows up.
You know the type, the one who sleeps through class and then asks everyone what the assignment was,
the one who didn’t study for the oral exam because believes he can BS his way through…
         He tries to schmooze and butter up the teacher, calling him good, and then asks for a repeat of the entire course up to this point, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Let us pray

         What must I do to inherit eternal life?
         He’s clearly not read the syllabus, or the cliff notes, or the Readers Digest edition, or even the Wikipedia page.
         None are good but God—in fact that’s the first half of the 10 commandments, all warning against idolatry in one way or another
—and the second half are about treating one another well
—love God, love Neighbor.
         Apparently, this man was quite the guy, he’d done the Love Neighbor thing well his whole life long—talk about humility.
         So Jesus says, “give it all up and follow me.”
Come to God, not with visions of completed commandments, your check-list fulfilled
—come to God destitute,
come to God empty,
come to God with the words, “I believe, help my unbelief” on your lips!

         Jesus gives him such a stark opportunity
—a terrifying opportunity.
“What exactly is keeping youfrom a full life in God now and forever? How may you be rid of it?” 
And the man is incensed and saddened, he saw what ailed him, and turned away…
God help him… God help us…

         Wealth can attach itself to us like a limb—we can love it just the same. It can metastasize onto us and hold us enthralled.
For the love of money we often make decisions that go against our best interest, against our own values and convictions, against the will of God.
         Think of ancient Israel. They had a stated value of valuing the lives of the poor and acting rightly, righteously, justly, but as Amos points out, they sold it all away for great houses and pleasant vineyards—but that wealth was fleeting, it was all stripped away.
         We don’t enter God’s presence with our wallets
—in fact, if you’re doing it right, no friendship, with God or neighbor or anyone, should be based on your wealth.
No, we come to God empty, crawling onto God’s lap like the children blessed by Jesus.
         We do not wear a garment of dollar bills in order to be present with God
—no we wear our baptism.
         When we reach that position that the disciples do, “Holy cow! Then who can be saved?”
When we’re emptiedlike that, recognizing nothing we do, nothing we have, saves us
—when we are, to quote the letter to the Hebrews, “naked and laid bare”
then we are able to see how God makes the impossible possible, how God saves us.

         And recognizing that radical dependence we have on God—we can run away like the rich young man
—or look around and see what it means,
-how it transforms our life,
-how it re-orders existence.
         The last and the least receive this salvation first, able to see the protection and blessings of Jesus in a way the wealthy and first cannot, able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven while the wealthy dither at the gate. The last and least are first!
In the Kingdom, those who claim the kind of authority and power only God the Father has, are gone
—don’t believe me? Look.
Look at Mark 10:29 and 30, you give up everything and get back everything, but with two changes
—you lose father and you gain persecution…
because you only have one Father now, the one revealed in His son Jesus Christ—in the Kingdom everyone is a sibling, even fathers to their children. 
—and that makes those who once saw themselves as God-like go after you and persecute you!
Inheritingeternal life means life looks different, isdifferent
—we inheriteternal life from God the Father,
our family is the family of Jesus.
Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

…But, perhaps I’ve written off that man who came to Jesus, sometimes called the rich young ruler, too soon…
because when you read Mark’s Gospel you find an unnamed young man at the Garden of Gethsemane following after Jesus. The young man has only one possession, a single linen clothing which he wears, and then when Jesus is taken away the Romans tear even that possession from him
—he runs away naked.
         And again, at the tomb in Mark’s Gospel, the two Mary’s and Salome find an unnamed young man alone at the tomb, clothing in a white robe.
         It is my hope, if not my conviction, that this is the same young man
—grief broken and repentant, giving away all that he had, chasing after Jesus, finding our resurrected Lord.
Transformed so that he too enters the Kingdom of God. Maybe last among a new family, but there, co-heir of God with and through Jesus Christ. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Blessing and Cursing

Blessing and Cursing

            “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.”
            Isn’t that always the way? 
Yes, a small fire warms the soul, but the moment it gets out of control—a forest fire.
            Or thinking of the storms these days, water is necessary for life, but it can easily endanger lives as well.
            The internet promises instant connection, and also makes us less and less connected with our neighbors.
Yes—"From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

“From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.”
There is a grave danger, Luther reminds us in his small Catechism, that from our mouth will come all sorts of lies about our neighbors.
Lies, simply put, not telling the truth about their actions—bearing false witness.
Or slandering them and destroying their reputation by lying about their character and conduct.
Or betrayal—making a promise to them with no intention of following through.
            Instead we ought to use our lips to defend them against the lies of others.
            We ought to speak well of our neighbor, and that means interpreting their actions in the best possible light…
            Don’t we all wish the same for ourselves?

            “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.”
            As the school year starts back up, Sunday school too, it is worth remembering that we can use our mouths for teaching.
            And yes there is a danger to teaching
—there are two sides to it as well, right
—when we’re considered the expert, or at least the person a little further along in our understanding and skills—it is important that we get it right, or if we don’t know how to do that we say “I don’t know.” Imagine that, admitting the limits of your knowledge—if only humility was commonly practiced by humanity!

            When we don’t do this, especially when religious leaders don’t do this, we create falsescandals… what do I mean by a false scandal? Our faith is scandalous, as Peter points out today, a Messiah who suffers, is rejected by religious leaders and killed—yes truly that isscandalous…
but when we misused our mouth—when we don’t know what we’re talking about, and still keep talking, we can cause trauma and terror, and vex the consciousness of our children and all those who we seek to pass the faith on to…
            For example, many are told by their religious leaders that you have to pick between religion and science… there are so many resources out there to help folk wrestle with the tension between the two, science and religion, written by Bishops and Biologists, some who are both…but when religious folk refuse to investigate and instead just encourage their flock to put away their biology text books and focus on Genesis, they are setting them up for failure.
            Or those religious leaders back in 2007, I know I keep harping on them, they had parishioners come in with loan offers, and instead of inspecting them and helping them figure out if they could afford the loans, or even better, telling them “that’s not my area of expertise” instead they simply told them that their religious faith had finally paid off and asked for 10% of the loan to go to the church—when everything went south during the economic collapse these folk all lost their faith, left Christianity.
            I’ve even heard of religious leaders who tell people recovering from addiction that their cravings will go away, that detox won’t be painful and hard, if they just pray about it some… then when these folk, left on their own, relapse, and their faith is injured, often beyond repair.

            Yes, the responsibility of teaching, especially teaching the faith, is enormous
—yet right teaching of the Gospel sustains a weary world… 
            It even… no… it especially, sustains the teacher…
telling that old old story,
being curious about it again,
learning it again,
firming it up,
firms up our faith every time we speak it,
pass it on…
it is sustenance for the soul…
it is confession itself
—an answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
            Answering that question
…perhaps it is the highest calling, the best use of our mouth, the ultimate blessingwhich we might speak.
            “Who do you say that I am?”
            Answered by Peter, getting ahead of himself—he confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, then backs up when he realizes what kind of Messiah Jesus is going to be. 
He grows into his answer.
He stumbles forward and backward into it, continuing to learn and grow in understanding, even as he grows into a leader of the early church.
            This last week in one of the Bible Studies we’re doing, “Making Sense of the Cross,” we wrestled with there being 4 gospels, four stories of the faith
—and one of the lenses we used was to think of it was confession—that each Gospel is a distinct confession, a distinct answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
-To Mark, just get the story out before you run out of breath,
-to Luke Jesus the good physician,
-to Matthew another Moses,
-to John the I AM.
            And so too with the three historical creeds—the Apostles, Nicaean, and Athanasian creeds—each a confession, an answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?”

            And so too throughout history:
            “Who do you say that I am, Augustine?” The restless find rest in you.
            “Who do you say that I am, Julian?” Because of you I know that all shall be well!
            “Who do you say that I am Luther?” You’re the one who redeemed me, the one I can trust, a mighty fortress.
            “Who do you say that I am Thurman?” When folk have their backs against the wall, you’re there with us.

            And so too today—that same question is put before us—it is called forth from our lips, our mouths prone to curses called to bless are called, despite their frailty, to confess… today, we are asked by Jesus Christ, “Who do you say that I am?”

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sermon: More Than Crumbs 2

More Than Crumbs

         He’d fed 5,000+ people with a few fish and some bread, he’d dealt with the fallout from that feeding—a sparring contest about tradition between him and the authorities from Jerusalem—they’d had a food fight about how to eat in a holy way and who was welcome and what was on the menu.
         Jesus refused to let them settle for crumbs
—he refused to let holiness be defined by external actions,
refused to bar people from table, and instead extended and expanded the table
—Jesus offers more than crumbs…
         Jesus offers more than crumbs…
         Sometimes I think Jesus is an introvert—he so often sneaks away from the crowd and the controversy for time alone.
In this case, he escapes to Tyre, a gentile city, far, at least ideologically, from the food fight he had just fought…
         But once there, he is forced quite quickly to consider again the ways in which he is widening the table, feeding with more than crumbs, offering a feast instead!
         He goes to this strange place, and is stopped by this strange woman
—she is culturally Hellenistic, he’s culturally Jewish,
she speaks Greek,
his first language is likely Aramaic,
she lives in the land of the Phoeniciansnow part of Roman Syria,
he is from the land of the tribe Naphtalinow Galilee, occupied by Rome.
         And yet her situation—her daughter possessed by forces beyond her control, she finds herself in the same situation that Jesus had just left back home
—folk fed crumbs,
people separated from holiness,
unclean and captured…
         The five thousand had followed him because he offered healing, holiness, and freedom.
The religious leaders had attacked him because they were chasing past holiness
—and now this, this little girl separatedfrom holiness, separatedfrom God…
         (And just so you know, that’s a classical description of hell—not pitch folks and fire… but separation from God)
         And the icky thing here is that Jesus initiallywidens this separation—he says, in effect, wait your turn… 
         More than that, he uses a common slur for non-Jewish people at the time—“Should I feed the dogsbefore I feed the children?”
         There is a plan, there is a timeline
—God’s Kingdom comes first to the Jews, and then spills over, trickle down holiness
         But she overturns this timeline, there is an immediateneed,
propriety be damned,
“even dogs get the scraps!”
         It hurts, she’s shaming our Savior! She’s turning over the time table
—the only other time I can think that this happens is when Jesus’ mother insists he does a miracle at the wedding in Cana even though he says he’s not ready…
         Isn’t that how it happens? Every soldier can quote that truism by von Moltke, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
         So too, the battle plans of the Kingdom of God, the expanding of holiness, like a water balloon, hits a sharp spot
—Sin oppressing a little child—
and God’s plan bursts open, grace everywhere, overflowing! This child, not a dog, a little childoppressed by Sin—is saved. Jesus is not hording crumbs, he is offering more than crumbs—the very bread of life!

         This whole situation reminds me of the start of Doctor King’s ministry in Montgomery,
E.D. Nixon a member of the local N.A.A.C.P. had bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and, at 5am, he called up the new Pastor in town and asked him if he would lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
King responded that he’d think about it… making any big decision before morning coffee is a bad idea.
So then around 6am Nixon called King’s best friend Ralph Abernathy, who also called King.
Then by 7am Nixon called King again, and he reluctantly said yes, to which Nixon responded, “Well that’s a good thing, I’ve already told 18 church leaders we’re meeting in the basement of your church, and it would have been kinda bad if you weren’t there at the meeting…”
         Sometimes things get out of order, sometimes plans need to be re-ordered
—sometimes even the best of people need a little push to put them on the path to which God is calling them
—sometimes these little Epiphanies, Ah Ha moments, have grand results
—when that happens all we can do is thank God for that!

         And, judging by Jesus’ actions after this healing in Tyre, he had an Ah ha! Moment.
“If,” I’d imagine our savior thought, “If I’m going around feeding multitudes as a sign of God’s grace—if there is enough for everyone…. Then there in fact is enough for EVERYONE, whether in Capernaum or Tyre or anywhere else.
         After this realization Jesus heads back close to home, but not quite home, he goes to the 10 Gentile cities—the Decapolis—and, like the crowd in Capernaum and like the lady whose daughter he’d exorcised, a man is brought to him
—have you ever noticed how often in the gospels a community brings a person to Jesus to be healed.
         In the ancient world health and a person’s relationship to God….
And health and a person’s relationship to their community was directly linked…
not too different from today really
just get sick and you’ll quickly see who your real friends are
—so there is something beautiful in all these stories where people bring sick folk to Jesus—they’re restoring the person to community even as Jesus’ healing will do the same…
Don’t you wonder how you can bring people to Jesus?—restore their relationships? Reconnect them to community?

         And Jesus does this weird wet willy thing, and returns this man’s ability to communicate… and by healing him returns him to community and to relationship with God.
Jesus gives him more than crumbs, he gives him healing and wholeness and return to relationship with everyone around him… what a feast.

         And all these non-Jews at the Decapolis see the healing and are asimpressed with Jesus as the 5,000+ who he’d fed. “He has done everything well!”
         Jesus has gone from his Ah ha moment to action
—following through on the promise of the bread of life
—the promise of the grace and abundance found in his heavenly Father.
         Just as in America, where we read in the words of the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We’ve come to say, “Well, shoot, not just property holding men, not just white men, not just men, not just people 21 and older,” as we continue to grow (in fits and starts, to say the very least—God help us) continue to grow into the promise present at our founding… 
so too, we find the promises and hopes of God,
that God is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
that God offers abundance,
that God looks at us and says, “It is good.”
we find those hopes and promises expanding out
—no one left with crumbs, everyone, all of creation, given more than crumbs, given the very body and blood of God-with-us, Jesus Christ—a feast that is surely more than crumbs.

He leads us, to not make the start of our relationship with him the ending as well.
He leads whole communities to care for hurting folk, to bring them to him.
He leads us to live beyond our current understanding of him.
He leads us to the glory and the depth of God’s promises.
He leads us to lean past the plans we have.
He leads us from separation to health.

He leads us from crumbs to a bountiful banquet…
He leads us to an abundant feast!