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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Video of Sermon: Follow Me Home


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon: Follow me Home

John the Baptizer, the one who was preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry and message, is captured.
His prophetic time as the voice calling out in the wilderness, is at an end.
         Which means that it is time to kick things off
—time for Jesus to act
—to call on those around him to repent, because they are now on holy ground
—Wherever Jesus is, the Reign of God is.
That is truly good news!
         So, Jesus goes along, and finds two brothers and brings them into his fold, calling on them to follow him.
         Two more seaside brothers, the Zebedees, are brought in, leaving family and vocation, to follow him.
         And sisters and brothers, I have some bad news for you—Pastors, by our very nature, can’t hear what today’s Gospel is saying.
Not being ordained actually helps you to hear what Mark is trying to say!
         Oh, we Pastors are fine with the first bit, in fact our understanding of grammar and Greek can help with discerning the whole “Kingdom of God” bit…
         But then, we come to those words, “Follow me.”
         “Oh,” we say, “Yes. Yes Jesus we do!”
         Yes, we follow you… we threw away our nets,
Yes we did! We gave up our professional credentials and licenses, we gave up our jobs—as teachers, nurses, computer programmers, and used car salesmen... all of ‘em,
yes we gave up our nets.
         Yes, we follow you…  we left our boats too.
We sold our cars and houses, we gave up our insurance policies and drained our 401Ks, we gave out our last penny, and loaded up on loans for this calling.
Yes we left our boats behind.
         Yes, we follow you…  we left father and hired hands,
and mother and country and colleagues and spouse. We ignored our children and studied non-stop for 4 years. We moved and moved and moved again—from Seminary to Chaplaincy to Internship to first call… we lived 100’s of miles away from anyone who we can call family,
and we submitted to the proposition that the calling by Bishop and by Congregation was not that of flesh and blood, but instead the very calling of Christ through the Spirit saying, “Come, follow me.”

         And so, we miserable clergy misinterpret, “Follow me.”
         We hear it, and look out at all of you, and back at our own experience of “follow me” and ask,
Why are the people in the pews, such defective Pastors?”
… because we can’t help but think that’s what Jesus means by “Follow me.”
That following Jesus means the particular path that is required of us.

         But, perhaps a better questions to ask,
perhaps one you all should keep in your back pocket, if I ever get insufferable and persnickety… and I’m human, so I will,
is this question, “Why are the Pastors such defective disciples?”
After all Jesus calls Fishermen, Tax Collectors, Assassins, and Fanatics, but no Religious Leaders.

         Because, we clergy cannot help but hear “follow me” in light of our particular vocation.
         And in so doing, we miss out on Jesus’ particular location.
         We miss the amazing insight—that Jesus is not simply saying “Follow me,” he’s saying to his disciples, “Follow me home.”
         Follow me home.

         Follow me home.
         We forgot that, with few exceptions, the majority of Jesus’ ministry is around the Sea of Galilee.
         Most of the gospel takes place around a lake that is 7 miles by 13 miles.
         This fishing for people thing that Jesus does—this good news about the Reign of God being near—happens in an area where everything is near-by.
         Think about that… from Plainfield in the North to Metuchen in the South, Iselen in the East and Boundbrook in the West—that’s it;
it’s in a zip code that Jesus is fishing for people.
It’s in an area code that Christ creates the rule of God.
It all happens in Jesus’ own neighborhood—he says, “Follow me” from his own home base in Capernaum… Follow me home
         The problem with Pastors, when we read, “Follow me” is that we’re too much like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab
—chasing after whales
—or perhaps getting swallowed up by them like Jonah.
         But we’re called to fish for people like Peter and like James. We are called to renew our In-State People Fishing License.
         We follow him in our own neighborhood and in our own homes. The Kingdom of God is near—it’s right there,
Jesus’ giant journey started small
—and shouldn’t we know that
—after all he tells us the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, it’s tiny and rooted in place, but it grows.
         The Kingdom of God is like leaven, tiny grit that makes it all grow…
         That’s why he calls us to follow him, home.

         Consider Simon Peter and his brother Andrew
—they already knew this man Jesus, he was a local like them
—Andrew, Simon’s brother, as we read in John’s Gospel, was a follower of John the Baptizer
—he likely already saw Jesus at his Baptism.
         And we imagine these men, they leave their nets, bobbing there in the water—it’s a lovely image.
         --Dropping the nets and follow Jesus never to see those nets again…
—but that’s too big picture, it’s not accurate.
         They’re still there in their neighborhood
—they likely pass those nets every couple of days
—they see them floating there, getting smelly with sea debris
—maybe their old friends complain because their nets are now catching on other people’s boats.
Or perhaps, and more likely, they take those nets and use them for a different purpose
—after all, that’s what they do with their boats, they make them into a floating pulpit for Jesus and ferry him from place to place in them.

         Or consider John and James
—they leave their father, but perhaps they still run into him at family reunions
—or when they pop back home to do some laundry or sneak a snack out of the fridge.
They still maintain relationship, just differently.
         For that matter, they likely meet the hired hands who watched them go to follow after Jesus.
 Perhaps they run into them when they come in to happy hour at the Grubby Gills Galilee Grill after a long day of discipling… perhaps they are met with the confused stares of those former colleagues. They have to explain themselves, and their faith, to their neighbors and friends.
         What I’m getting at here, is that the Kingdom of God is near, it’s right here…
we’re following Jesus in the everyday of our lives
—in our town,
in our neighborhood,
on the block or cul de sac we live on.
We follow Jesus among friends and enemies,
with people who know us at our best and at our worst!
         We’re following Jesus home.

         That’s why…
why I love watching our crew march in the Labor Day Parade
—watching the little bubbles of recognition in the faces of friends in the crowd,
the moments of eye contact,
that moment when they connect you to the Kingdom of God.
         That’s why I treasure Agnes’ description of walking her neighborhood with Pastor Clark, introducing them to the Pastor of her church.
         Why I try to check in on Katie’s Quilters every time they meet,
even though it’s inevitably after a 12-14 hour Tuesday,
—because seeing the non-members from town showing up and joining in the work of the Kingdom
—that’s worth pushing through to see.
         That’s why Pub Theology is in a pub-lic place, so when we pray the Lord’s Prayer at the end, everyone in the joint knows that the Kingdom of God has come near.
         That’s the thrust behind our Salt and Light project the Evangelism Committee is heading up, letting our neighbors know the blessing of God, which we have found in Christ Jesus.

         Yes, sisters and brothers, we’re following, thank God,
following Jesus home
—to our homes,
to our neighborhoods,
to those places and people nearest to us.
We are following Jesus home.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What made our ears tingle? The 3D’s. An outline of a discussion I lead with the Raritan Cluster

Below is a recap of a discussion I guided as Counselor of the Raritan Cluster—it might be helpful for others.

“To recap for both those who were at today’s Raritan Cluster meeting and those who were not:

We started off with the premise that those things “that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle” (1 Samuel 3:11) included the centralization of worship and government (vs. the Prophetic Bands and Tribal Judges tradition) and that the Israel that existed before Samuel was extremely different than the Israel that existed after Samuel. These changes were a mixed bag—God was no longer King, a civil war transpired, the Levitical Priests living outside of Jerusalem starved, Israel was more politically stable, etc.
From there we thought a bit about trends and changes we’ve experienced and where they may be going. What a before and after Samuel world could be for the ELCA and our congregations in particular. Here are the three categories we mainly looked at:

Disestablishment of the Church—Being a good citizen in America doesn’t mean being a good Christian in the minds of most people
--We’ve all ran into the problem of kids playing sports, this is a symptom of disestablishment; now being a soccer mom is just as much a sign of being a good American as being a Christian.
--Additionally, in the future this may change our not for profit tax status. Being taxed will shock us into thinking anew about being a community attached to a building.
--The good news is we no longer have to “play nice.” The Church is freed from the shackles of respectability…
--for example, when I first started Pub Theology one person asked, “What will people say?” “No one will say anything, being part of a church that meets in a bar won’t push you into society’s margins.” They followed up, “You might as well be in a brothel.” I was able to respond, “You know of a brothel in town? Point me in that direction, they need to hear about Jesus!”

Decentralization—Small groups of people without anyone in charge can now influence the world
--Two examples of decentralized systems would be Terrorist cells and the internet
--Thinking about what the internet does, in addition to being decentralized it is also semi-anonymous and depersonalized, which makes people crabby and hurtful… congregations are often non-anonymous and highly personal, that can be valued in an internet world.
--Decentralization often delegitimizes central authorities, these include: the Church writ large, Pastors, and denominational loyalty.
--It also gives us new mediums for preaching the gospel, for example small groups and putting sermons and songs on YouTube.

Demographics—America is changing both racially and economically
--Lutherans are often an ethnic club with a religious grounding… when we come to grips with the fact that there are no new immigrants from “the old country” coming, we can focus on what makes us uniquely Lutheran—hint isn’t not the Lutfisk or the bratwurst.
--The ELCA tends to draw members from the “Middle Class”… but in the last two decades what it means to be Middle Class has changed—less manufacturing jobs, more student debt, the necessity of two incomes, etc… the middle class is being squeezed and so is the ELCA… the time and money of middle class people is in short supply, the Church is lacking both of them. Perhaps this will allow us to take the cries of the poor more seriously, being that we are beginning to feel the bite of what they have for so long been mauled by?”

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Samuel Sermon

         Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. Visions were not widespread then, and The word of the LORD was rare in those days…
         Those days, those days after Moses had died, after Joshua and the Israelites had entered the Land along with the Tabernacle in which God resided. They had conquered large swaths of the Land.
         The 12 tribes each set out and settled in a place, they become a decentralized tribal confederacy—and that tended to work… for a time.
         They would laze and lounge on their own, each tribe as their own entity, for a generation—and in that time they would fall into sin, creating Idols and oppressing the least and the lost—in those days.
         Then a threat would come along, and chaos would reign, each tribe picked off one by one—divided they fell, only when united they stood.
         And so, in those days, when things got rough, when enemies would come and swallow them up tribe by tribe, they would call on the LORD, and the LORD would send them a charismatic Shofet—a Judge, and that Judge would rally the tribes together, like twelve fingers coming together and making a fist—and together they would restore justice and righteousness to the Israelis. He or she—yes she… have you heard of the Great Prophet-Judge Deborah?—the Judge, would defeat the present threat—and for a while all would be calm, the 12 tribes could get back to doing their own thing, separated again from one another… until they committed apostasy, and an enemy rose up, and they cried to God and they were yet again delivered from their enemy by a Judge.
         But in those days, by the time of Samuel and Eli, this ongoing cycle, Apostasy, enemy, asking for divine assistance, and the arrival of a Judge, was wearing thin.
It was winding down,
it was unsustainable.

         At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room, the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.
         Samuel—this little child, the apple of his mother’s eye… do you know his story?
         Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was teased and mistreated for being barren—and so badly did these barbs hurt, that she went out to the tent of God and prayed
—cried out to God in agony and ecstasy
—with so much sincerity and emotion, that Eli the Priest heard it and assumed it was the revelry of a drunk, and he tried to chase her out of his presence.
         But Hannah refused, and God did a new thing with her
—she became with child
—she bore little Samuel
—and she sang of that joyous birth a song that centuries later Mary would remember and sing as well, when she found out she too was pregnant with our Lord Jesus
—and out of thanksgiving to God Hannah gave Samuel to Eli, that very same priest who did not recognize her prayer.
         How special it must have been, for little Samuel, living there, next to the Ark
—next to the very footstool of God
—essentially a little kid camped out on God’s living room floor.

         Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!"
and he said, "Here I am!"
and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me."
         But he said, "I did not call; lie down again."
         Eli, the Priest of God had a history of this—just as he misinterpreted the prayer of Samuel’s Mom, Hannah, as drunken ramblings, so too, even in the very tent of God, where God lived—he did not stop and say, “Perhaps God is speaking to this child.”

So Samuel went and lay down.
         The LORD called again, "Samuel!"
Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me."
But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again."
         I would imagine little Samuel is starting to wonder if old man Eli is getting a little funny—and I would also imagine Eli is starting to regret letting this child live there in the temple.

         Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
         Visions were so rare in those days and the Word of the LORD was so infrequent that even there at the center of it all—as an apprentice to the Priest of all of Israel, little Samuel does not know the LORD!
         The LORD called Samuel again, a third time.
And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me."
         You can imagine, at this point Samuel is beside himself…
lucky for him, third time is the charm, because then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.
Therefore, Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

         Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
         Then the LORD said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
         Would it ever
—a new thing with this special new boy… things no pious man would ever dream, not a righteous woman would ever utter.
         Yet, happen they would
—God, in his Ark that Samuel slept near, would be stolen by foreign pagans
—God was Arknapped.
This would cause a crisis that collapsed the ailing cycle of judges and topple the priesthood and change the prophethood for good—everything different after Samuel.
Judges and independent tribes replaced by King Saul and a consolidated monarchy. Saul in turn overthrown by King David
—his son Solomon tearing down the tent and building a temple for the Ark of the LORD, a grand house for God.
A new kind of stability and a national strength.
         These things that will make all ears tingle
—are strange fits and starts of change,
no easy thing,
not even a good thing necessarily
—yet it’s what happened
—the reality that little Samuel was to presided over.

         On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.
         Do you know the horror? These boys who intend to inherit the Priesthood there at Shiloh
—they take the finest meat of sacrifice, giving their least to God
—leaving even less for the poor
—not allowing the poor to take the leavings from that temple barbeque as is required of them…
         And not only that
—the women who serve at the temple—that tent of God
—these priests, these Eli’s sons, force themselves upon them…
 God have mercy.
         Lord Acton was right, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
         “Therefore, I swear to the house of Eli,” said the LORD, “that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."

         Samuel lay there until morning
—a sleepless night to be sure. Blown away by a full-on experience of the Word of God,
but also, imagine his dilemma
—how to tell his mentor, this surrogate father, that the LORD was not pleased?
         When he could not put it off any long, he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli, how could he not be?
         But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son."
He said, "Here I am."
         Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you."
         So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.
         Then he said, "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."

         As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.
         In all those changes, when the fabric of society was shifting.
With Judges and tribal loyalties evaporating into the ether of Kingship.
With foreign aggression and civil wars.
With God’s very presence shifting from place to place.
         It was good that they still knew where to find a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.
It was good they knew where they could hear the timeless truth of God.
It was good that amongst the changes that made their heads spin and their ears buzz, they knew that God was still faithful in all of that.



Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sermon: Blessing and Baptism

Blessing and Baptism

         There is no way to miss the fact that we are now in Epiphany, the season where we celebrate the way in which Christ being with us, is continually made more fully known to the Church—the meaning of Jesus being with us, is an expanding realization, an ongoing surprise to us.
         We celebrate, on one hand, the Feast of Epiphany itself—the celebration of the Magi showing up at the Holy Family’s Home, seeing the infant Jesus and honoring him with those three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh—
We celebrate this joyous day by bringing a blessing to our own homes through the traditional practice of a Home Blessing.
         On the other hand, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, which too is a clear Epiphany celebration—Jesus’ Baptism reveals who he is—it’s spelled out plain “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
         So, to honor these two signs of this Epiphany Season, we will dwell on the two practices of Blessing and Baptism.


         You might remember that my first few years here I was blessing the heck out of things and people. There was a back log of worship furnishings that we blessed, and on top of that we kept inviting in groups of people—Bankers, Teachers, Council Members, Mothers, Father, (Pets), Doctors, Construction Workers, Food Workers, and so on—to be blessed. For that matter, we passed out home blessing kits to the congregation, as we will do this year as well.
         And, upon reflection, I think I may have done that without a whole lot of groundwork, without laying out a theological—or even practical—explanation for why we bless things.
         And, since nature abhors a vacuum, folk filled in their own meanings to what we were doing.
         So, I want to, be clear about what I understand us to be doing when we bless things and people.

         It should be stated clearly that we are not spiritually up-armoring thing.
         What do I mean by that?
         You might remember during the early years of the Iraq war IEDs—Improvised Explosive Devices—were taking out American Humvees left right and center. The solution was to up-armor them. Early on that meant affixing cinder blocks or cement to the underside of the carriages and modifying the windows, later it was done in much more sophisticated ways with factory made kits.
         We’re not adding some sort of extra layer of protection to a person or thing when we bless them.
         If you need proof of that, look no further than the Bees Randy takes care of. He brought in a picture of the hives when we did a blessing of the Animals… and within weeks of that blessing a bear came along and ate the bees.
         Of course several people have suggested it was in fact a table blessing…
But, the point is, we’re not weaving some sort of magical circle of protection around the new carpet, or our Teachers, or any of that. It’s not spiritual scotch guard.

         What we’re doing is dedicating the thing, or person, or pet, to a particular purpose. We’re pointing to its proper use, to it’s created intent. We’re asking that it’s goodness—the goodness God proclaims of it in that poem that starts Scripture—in Genesis 1,
We ask that that goodness might be manifest,
might become obvious.
         We don’t bless Carpenters in order to keep them from falling off roofs—while I concede of course not falling off roofs or ladders is part of God’s intent for that vocation, I believe a stable ladder may be more important than a blessed ladder
—mainly we are praying that the goodness of carpentry might come out more fully—that those for whom the carpenter creates can see God’s intention in that object
—to paraphrase Luther’s explanation of “Thou Shall Not Steal” the construction is done fairly and with good material, so no one is cheated, but instead done well for the safety of those who will use the structure.

         Likewise—I’ll send you off to bless your dwellings—houses, apartments, rooms, etc, today, in order that they might become Homes—that they might be as God intended them.
         Think on that, what makes a house a home
—our homes are shelter from the elements.
         They’re a place for privacy and safety—they can foster a healthy sense of self and family.
         They can also be a guard against overwork—they can secure our Sabbaths, being a physical barrier between our place of leisure and a place of work. (This is why working from home calls for an extra diligence to keep the two spheres separate.)
         Blessing brings forward the purpose of the thing so blessed—it calls it to be what it is—be Good as it is declared to be by God.
         And that’s a good place to start when pondering John’s Baptism as well—the Baptism of Repentance that we read about in Mark and in Acts
It’s a call back to that original blessing
—calling on folk to crawl back to the good
—to the blessing of being human
—of being created in the image of the living God.
It’s a rededication of the person to the task at hand.

         Of course, it’s worth asking why was Jesus then Baptized?
Did he need to repent?
Did he need to be called back to the blessing of God?
         Firstly, while it’s not recorded in Mark’s account of his Baptism, it is in Matthew’s—that the Baptism is done to fulfill all righteousness.
John’s job was to call all of Israel to Repentance—but even for a hard working guy like him, it would be all but impossible to chase down every one of his Kinspeople and Baptize them.
So, Jesus sort of stands in for his whole nation. Just as Paul sees Jesus as a second righteous Adam, in Baptism Jesus is a righteous Israel.
         Secondly, this Baptism is like a blessing—it’s dedicating him for a purpose—dedicating him as Messiah, just as Samuel dedicates—anoints king David in the Old Testament. Further more, he’s dedicated as the Beloved Son of God. He is revealed as Son of God. There’s certainly an Epiphany there…

         All that to say, John’s Baptism of Jesus is not the same as being Baptized into Jesus, the Baptism that Baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
         Our Baptism, the Christian Baptism, is different. It too points to creation, but not in a way that looks back—it’s more than a blessing. It’s a new creation—it’s looking forward.
         The voice of God is spoken through Scripture, the water is there, just as it was “In the Beginning” and in Baptism there the Spirit sweeps down and creates—enlightens us—declares us to be Children of God.
         And as we know from that start of Scripture, God speaks, and it is so, creation takes place.
Creation of a new Child of God, takes place in Baptism.
         The Spirit does more than just point back to the goodness, the blessing, of creation, but points forward and creates something new—creates a Christian.
         This is why we’re okay with Infant Baptism as Lutherans—we recognize that it’s not a matter of repentance, of some sort of blessing, it’s God’s action for us—it’s creating something new.

         Brothers and sisters, on this first Sunday of Epiphany, see as the Magi saw—the blessing of a child born to be King, who lives out the goodness of creation.

         But not only that, see a Child, Jesus the Christ, through whom we find ourselves to be part of the Family of God. A+A