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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon: Testimony!

         Have you ever thought about the question mark before?
It’s this little hook,
almost a shepherd’s crook.
The question mark is a powerful tool, as are the questions that precede it.
They can shepherd fuzzy thoughts into concrete ideas and actions,
they can pull away the curtain on someone’s bluff
or deepen understanding between people—which is one of the keys to a good relationship.
It can even, make our witness to the faith more focused.
And, I think it is worth taking out those trusty companions to the question mark—the journalistic questionsWho, What, Where, When, and Why, as we consider today’s Gospel.
Let us pray

Who:                  In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist could rightly be re-named John the Testifier, or even John the Pointer, though that might be impolite, since as our moms taught us pointing leave multiple fingers pointing back at us,
… or for that matter, “John the Pointer” might confuse the issue and we’d send him to the American Kennel Club as a new breed of Gun Dog.

         Either way, what I’m saying here, is that John points to Jesus
—the Gospel is not about him,
it’s about Jesus.
The Who of today’s Gospel, and of the Gospel writ large, is Jesus!
         John points to Jesus and declares multiple times that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! And yet, John points out, he did not know him.
         Jesus—who on Passover, when the lambs are slain, is slain on the cross at the exact same time as they are slaughtered
—Jesus is the Lamb of God, the one who God has sent to bring a great Passover for all peoples, coming to you and to me, as he came to John and to the whole world, though we did not know him, he knew us
and makes himself known, giving to us the power to become Children of God
—born not of something as fickle and meaningless as flesh or blood, or will—but instead born of Grace and Truth.
         And so too Andrew
—dear Andrew,
whenever we see him he’s bringing someone to Jesus

… Now, Pastor Torrance, don’t you love those Andrews in our midst?
At St. Stephen we’ve recently had new folk attending, and they’re still not so acclimated, Thank God, to the culture of St. Stephen, as to feel weird about inviting people
almost every new face I’ve seen since our 60th anniversary has been invited by one of these Andrews! People deeply glad to point to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who has entered into their life and they wish to share him with others, they wish to point to Jesus.

What:        I love what Jesus does with this question today:
What are you looking for?”
         Sit with that a second, “What, are, you, looking, for?”
         Imagine being asked that question without any ulterior motive
—no one trying to sell you something when they ask that kind of question…
just, wanting to know.
         What’s your goal?
         What values are propelling your forward?
         What’s the end of your race looking like?
         What’s the trajectory of the rocket you’ve launched?
         How does your story end?
         Is the play of your life a tragedy or comedy, or something else entirely?
         “What are you looking for?”

         And this isn’t just a question for individuals…
It’s a question being asked by our church,
by our nation,
in our political life and our personal life…
I think there are a whole lot of people aching for an honest assessment of that question…
and I don’t want to get into the weeds here, but I’m just so glad that it is Jesus who asks it of us.
Only from his lips can such an existential and heavy question leave me with anything but anxiety.

Where:      These disciples of John answer this beautiful and challenging question of Jesus with their own question:
“Where are you staying?”
Not the best translation, try, “Where do you dwell?” or even better,
“Where do you abide?”
         “What am I looking for, Jesus?”
         Believe me I’ve looked, my eyeballs binging every which way.
I’ve wandered and I’ve waited. I’ve perused all things worth pursuing, as well as many things not,
I’ve even at times persuaded myself that I’ve gotten to where I am going,
but then I met you, with your piercing question mark that doesn’t allow for such self-deception,
and now,
Now, I want nothing to do with what came before.
You are God’s Lamb,
our Passover,
the Pre-Existent One upon whom the Spirit Rests,
the Son of God and our Teacher.
I’ve rushed about looking for rest,
for a place to lay my head,
to find that which satisfies and sanctifies,
and I was restless, until this very moment, for now I have found you, and rest in you, and wish to abide with you wherever you may go.
         Come and see you say? Then open my eyes and lead me on, Precious Lord!

When:       4pm Israeli Central Time. That’s when Andrew met Jesus.
         At first it might seem like a very specific throw away detail, but its not. This was the moment for Andrew
—when it all came together,
a moment he’ll never forget.
         Think of where you were on 9/11,
or when Challenger blew up,
or when King and Kennedy were assassinated,
or when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
         Or, on a more positive note
—remember that exact moment when you fell in love,
or figured out what you were going to do for the rest of your life,
or broke through a barrier you never thought possible!
         Meeting Jesus was a moment Andrew would never forget.
Why:                  By the time we get to why, I think this question mark of ours, has transformed into something else.
What was once hunched over, has straightened its back up, and become an exclamation point!
What was once mere question, has become testimony
—even the question mark points to Jesus! Testifies about Jesus!

         Why do I point to Jesus?
Because he is the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World.

Why am I left speechless when asked, “What are you looking for?”
Because the compass of life is listless,
life’s ambiguity is too great,
without the north star of Christ the story of life so easily become just one thing happening after another.

         Why do I ask where my Lord abides? Put simply, I am restless until I rest in him!

         Why 4pm?
Because I want to tell you about that dear and particular moment in which I found out Jesus found me!
-I encountered Jesus at the Font of Baptism.
-He was there at the communion table where I trusted again, yet strangely for the first time, that priceless promise, Jesus For You!
-I fed my neighbor in need, and in so doing, was fed with the Bread of Life!
-As I went and crossed boundaries, I found Jesus on the other side.
-In fellowship with fellow believers, I found what it meant to love my neighbor.

Yes, these questions focus our witness to the truth and grace of God,
they call out of us the exclamation of testimony!


Thursday, January 12, 2017

My letter to Rep. Pallone

Dear Rep. Pallone
            I am a 33 year old man with Pulmonary Atresia with Ventricular Septal Defect. I am one of the first people to survive this condition passed age 3 or so. In fact, I’ve been told it is the audio of my heart that medical students listen to in order to know what we sound like.
            I am writing this to you as a letter of encouragement, please continue to stand for the 57 million Americans with pre-existing conditions and all those who need good laws in order to have good healthcare.
            I’ve been blessed, I was covered under good insurance as a kid, because my mom worked for the Department of Defense, the VA, and NATO and they made sure my pre-existing condition was covered. Now days, I am a Lutheran Pastor and I have insurance through the Church, I’m happy with it, and because it is a national plan connected with a national Church, it will follow me from congregation to congregation. But, I know not everyone with a pre-existing condition can be a Lutheran Pastor.
            On top of that, there was a period of time during seminary, before the ACA was passed, when I was covered by inferior insurance. I’d been told, when purchasing the insurance, that my heart condition was covered (they wanted to sell me the policy, right?), but when I went for my every-other-year heart check-up I received a $10,000 bill, nothing covered because everything to do with my heart was “pre-existing.” $10,000 was 80% of my income that year (I was a Vicar at an inner-city church in Baltimore). I had to plead poverty once I found out my insurance company would not cover it.
            It is a painful and embarrassing thing to skip out of paying what you owe. Everyone in the hospital was gracious once it was clear what had happened and that I wasn’t trying to pull one over on anyone, so it sort of worked out that time.
            But, these days, I only pay 10% of my income for health insurance as Pastor of St. Stephen here in New Jersey, because I have good insurance. I am happy to pay my fair share, and so glad that no one discriminates against me based on this condition I was born with.
            I have to admit, I am deeply afraid for my fellow pre-existing condition folk, that this protection will be taken away if the ACA is repealed. I hear Trump’s point person plans to replace the ACA with a non-taxable savings account and the ability to transfer insurance across state lines. Neither of these will do anything for the 57 million of us with pre-existing conditions. Maybe it is just my Lutheran sense of Sin with a capital S, but I am damn sure if companies are given back the right to discriminate, they will.
            Please understand me, I want to pay my fair share. I want to do right by my doctors who keep me alive. The ACA gives folk the possibility to do that—the alternative doesn’t.
            Again, thank you so much for fighting for me and the 57 million.
Chris Halverson

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Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sermon: The Church is the Multi-colored Wisdom of God

         Friday was Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season, the time when we celebrate the coming of the Magi to Jesus bearing gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrr.
         This act itself, is interesting, some countries celebrate it in a Halloween type fashion, sending out kids to neighbors dressed up in beards and robes to receive pieces of fruit.
         But, this story isn’t really the point—some chaps, probably Persians, following a star and finding the baby Christ—that’s not the point, the story has to be cracked open for us to understand
         In today’s readings, it is Paul who gets us there
—Epiphany is about the Revelation of the great mystery of God. What was once hidden to many, God’s faithful presence for the whole world, is revealed to the world.
In other words, Grace for all people!
God’s bounty is without boundary. Whoever you are, through Christ, you have access to God, be confident in that! Be bold in that even!
And it is the Church’s calling to receive, and to be, this multi-colored Wisdom of God, this variegated, diverse, multifaceted, face of God for us, Jesus Christ our Lord.

         It’s one of those things, this revelation, this Epiphany. In retrospect it is obvious
—it’s like looking in your rearview mirror
—it appears closer and clearer, than it is.
In hindsight, God’s grace for all people was always floating just below the biblical surface
—you could even say God’s love of all peoples is the worst kept secret in the bible.

         It’s like that famous velvet painting of dogs playing poker…
we all know dogs would be horrible at poker
—they have a tell, their tail
—when that thing starts wagging the whole table knows that its time to fold.
         God too, has a tell.
         God too, is pretty obvious about the cards he’s going to play—his grace for all hand of cards is laid out for us.

         Think of it—In the beginning, that famous poem in Genesis tells, God created one ancestor for all of us.
         Abraham was a pagan, pushed into a relationship with God through no act of his own.
         Moses, the man who brought in laws to separate God’s people from foreigners, had a foreign wife.
         Every time particular people are excluded we have a Rehab, Ruth, or Bathsheba who break this mold.
         For that matter the Prophet Ezekiel has a vision of God on a throne with wheels, because God doesn’t concern Godself only with things happening in one place.
The story of Jonah shows mercy upon the Ninnevites, foreigners who had shown no mercy to the Israelites.
Isaiah goes even further and scandalizes us not only with today’s reading about foreigners bringing people and goods to Jerusalem, but puts in God’s lips words about Egypt and Babylon being God’s people before God ever dealt with Judah.
The book of Proverbs is filled with sayings from foreign kings, and the book of Job is about a faithful foreigner.

So, by the time God lays all His cards out on Epiphany—it shouldn’t be a revelation—of course it is, strangers from the East acknowledging the Christ Child, signifying that all have access to God through him.
This truth triumphs in Paul’s ministry—his whole mission is creating communities in which Gentiles, non-Jews, foreign people often excluded from relationship with God, are welcomed and given equal authority and affirmed as having equal access to God.
By the last book of the Bible, Revelation, John is given a glimpse of the court, the political cabinet if you will, of the Lamb, Jesus Christ ruling as King of Creation, and finds countless peoples from all places present!

All that to say, Epiphany reveals something that, once revealed, is apparent everywhere; it’s like getting a new car, once you do, you notice that model everywhere,
so to, once we realize God’s great mystery is Grace for All peoples, we see it everywhere in scripture, and hopefully in our lives together.

And that’s where the rubber hits the road, the church must always be aware that we not only receive this great revelation—grace for all people—but we also embody it.
We, as church, must always be aware of who is being left out,
who has not heard,
who we, in our sinfulness, exclude and even try to separate from the Grace of God.

We can not say:
“Hey, you have substance abuse problems, or you are depressed,
I don’t like your politics or cultural dress,
your skin tone scares me or your life is a mess,
Or your too young or too old,
you just don’t fit the mold.”
No, we live out the reality that first found usGrace for all people.

In Paul’s day. joint Jew and Gentile Churches were mind blowing and transgressive
—he had to defend non-Jews as:
Part of the Family of God,
Part of the Body of Christ,
Part of the Promise of God.
Co-inheritors, Co-members, Co-Promisees.

He then goes on to say something stupendous and very strange,
“through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety (God’s multi-colored wisdom) might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
As a rule I don’t preach on the goings on in heaven, because speculation atop speculation is often specious, but hear clearly what Paul is saying,
“When the Church holds onto, and lives out, the Epiphany Revelation—Grace for All—that shakes heaven, even angels quake!”
Some read this to mean all those evil forces that defy God, those powers we renounce in Baptism, are put on notice that they can’t separate people any more, because God is on the move.
Others read it more gently, that every nation, every people, have their particular guardian angel and these angels now know they can retire, because Christ cares for all people.
Or, and this is my take—and what I’m leaving you with, Paul is simply being motivational here,
“Live out the great Epiphany Revelation, Grace for All People, within your Christian Community, in all the wonderful diversity God has offered to us, with such vigor that even angels in heaven stop what they’re doing and take note!” A+A


Saturday, January 07, 2017

My Review of "On Bulls***"

On BullshitOn Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On Bulls*** is an enjoyable and quick read.
Frankfurt attempts to ascertain what Bulls*** is and why it is so prevalent these days. He compares Bulls*** to several similar concepts, such as Humbug and Hot Air. He also notes Bulls*** is different than lying, in that lying focuses on a false impression concerning a thing instead of concerning the mind of the speaker and Bulls*** makes no distinction between falsehood or truth—it is bluffing through come what may.
Here are two few of my favorite lines:
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing Bulls*** requires no such conviction.”
“Bulls*** is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”

View all my reviews


Friday, January 06, 2017

My review of "Our Revolution: A Future to Believe in"

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe inOur Revolution: A Future to Believe in by Bernie Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked this book.
Bernie Sanders shines a light on issues, and on people, often left in the dark by our society. In this book we can see that he has a grasp on details that the media often claimed he did not. He has a thorough holistic program, ideas cohering and interlinking, it’s all very solid.
There are a few faults to this book.
One of them, was something he couldn’t really do anything about, but at a certain point talking about a billion dollars here, 80 billion dollars there, becomes almost meaningless, really important, but unless you are writing down figures and following everything through it becomes overwhelming. In fact, if I followed the math it appears he’s using the same taxes on trading in 2 different ways, but I’m not entirely sure.
Additionally, he does take a lot of material previously used (previous speeches, stuff from other media sources) and sticks them into the book, sometimes in ways that disrupts the overall narrative. Because of this, and the holistic nature of his program (which is a good thing, to be clear) there are places where his ideas and themes overlap in a way that can be repetitive.
Reading this book also helps me understand how Trump grasped some of the same issues as Bernie and made them his own, the main difference being there is no overall cohering/interlinking/holistic program behind his use of the issues, in the way there is for Bernie.

View all my reviews

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Proclamation of God’s Incarnation

A Proclamation of God’s Incarnation

Come here all you wounded, all you struck by your mortality, edged toward the grave.
Have you heard? There is a baby wound tight in cloth.
Have you heard? There too is a God, wound tight in human flesh.
As a baby, this cloth keeps him close, holds him like a mother, held tight.

As a God, this flesh of ours unbinds him from the heavens,
Throws him into the uncertainty of all this.
Unwound from the divine weal,
Cast into our needs
--our welfare, a bottomless pit, only filled by an overflowing God.

Day by day,
We tie him tight to this common ken.

Day by day,
This baby grows and gets unbound,
Becoming a man.
Soon enough the godly bursts he shows us are rougher than we’d like to admit,
Yes, all that Advent stuff!
Swords are plowshares
Destruction and hurt banished
Healing and Holy Highways
God with us.
Yes, all that, but not as we expected
Unbinding, the crippled
Preaching, to the possessed
Forgiving, sinners
Joyfully sharing bread, with the hungry.

This is certainly not appreciated by everyone
He has to tie down their verbal traps,
Traps wielded by those who can not see the Kingdom of Heaven
In his kindness
…the weight of mortal flesh and enemies of flesh and of spirit
Take a toll
Tied again soon enough
Bound to be betrayed,
Bound to be denied.

His life unwound before our very eyes
Death on a cross

Bound then, a cloth wound there
There around his wounded body
His corpse

Three days, and unwound again!
Left there.
He unwound the cloth

In this unwinding we,
We wound in his being with us
We wound as well in his wounded side
We wound, bound in Spirit!
Wound in Divinity as he was wound in humanity!
Rewrapped in flesh, bought by our brother!
… Held together again!
Encountering him when we encounter each other!

Don’t get me wrong, it still unwinds from time to time
Still uncertain
Still need, still deep and always present need
Still sinners, the dispossessed, the crippled, the hungry
Still souls too small for the Kingdom’s wrappings
Still hearts broken and needing tighter binding
Still hands holding tight when fists will never do.

Still, still here
Yet, here!
Here where the savior stays
Here, in flesh rewrapped and story already told
Here shot full of consecrated oxytocin, like a new mother
Here at the Father’s side,
He, so in love, that he takes paternity leave from being Creator of the Universe.
Here in this cloth that smells of the baby
Here in the cloth that smells of his overcoming the grave
Here held tight by the Christ Child
Here, wrapped with God. 


Monday, December 12, 2016

Who Are You?

        Who are you? A question with all kinds of answers, you could simply say your name, or your relationship with other people, or an institution, or one of the many roles you fill…
         Who are you? Is a question that rides with us our whole life long
—after all we are often creatures of re-invention, never fully settled in one identity. Who you are will change
—with a new partner, 
after a serious illness, 
in a new job, 
at the in-law’s house, 
in prison.
         And today’s back and forth between John and Jesus, asks us to take this question very seriously.
         Who are you?

         “Who are you? Asks John. 
         As we read last week, he kinda knows
—he gave a speech about the one who is coming who will baptize with fire, taking a winnowing fork and banking good fruit and burningthe bad.
         But, perhaps imprisonment is one of those experiences that makes identity unclear
—part of why John is asking about Jesus’ identity is that John is wondering about his own. 
King Herod is free and John is jailed
—did Jesus’ pitch-fork miss its mark and pick up the wrong person? 
John’s asking, “What’s going on man?”
“Are you,” he wonders, “the Messiah? The one who will save us and bring about the reign of God, the Kingdom of Heaven?”
         A dangerous question to be sure, the kind of question that got John behind bars in the first place. Not the kind of thing King Herod would take lightly.
         And so, Jesus answers the question carefully—he doesn’t want this start of his ministry to also be his end. He responds,
“Look at what I’m about, 
enabling the disabled, 
healing the sick, 
empowering the poor, 
and raising the dead. 
-That has some strong resonances with scripture, right? -That echoes Isaiah and the Psalmist’s description of God’s salvation, doesn’t it?”
         In short, Jesus answers John, “Yes, I am the Messiah.”

         “Who are you?”
         The question is flipped, who is John? Jesus reminds his disciples that John is not someone like Herod, a leader controlled by foreigners, who basks in opulence
—he is a prophet.
a man in the same ranks as Jeremiah, or Isaiah, or Ezekiel or Huldah
—those strange people who look at the world with God glasses
—they have eyes that see the earth in a sacred way, and act accordingly, telling people their visions, living them out,
Sometimes performing them in bizarre ways
—shaking old moldy underwear at people to show how far they’ve fallen, 
choosing names for their kids to give hope to people during a siege—you think it’s bad being a Pastor’s kid, being a Prophet’s kid is so much worse!

         Point being—if people went out to see John thinking they were getting someone polished and presentable, there thought wrong
—they got a prophet.
         And not just any prophet, they got to glimpse the greatest of prophets. All prophets catch a peek of what God is doing, 
how the world looks to God
—John gets to glimpse God’s Son, Jesus, in the flesh, right there. 
In a prophetic act he baptized him, with prophetic eyes he eyed the Messiah!
…You know how at the Optometrist they have you look through a Phoropter (4opter), and they ask, “Is A clearer or B” well, John gets to see through the clearest best lens at what God is up to in his time, it becomes so focused he gets to see Jesus, and hear what he is up to!
Who are you?
         This question packs one final punch. John, the greatest of the prophets, Jesus declares, is least in the Kingdom of Heaven.
         This is one of those constant refrains we find in Matthew’s Gospel
—the first will be last and the last first. 
John, this great prophet, is least in the Kingdom of Heaven. And strangely enough, we, all of us here today, along with the blind, lame, lepers, deaf, dead, and poor, are elevated by the coming rule of God—the Kingdom of Heaven.
         Now, we as Christians spend a lot of time recognizing our sinful nature, trying to be humble in the face of our tendency toward boasting and turning in upon ourselves
—it’s what human do when unconstrained
—but give a moment’s thought to the precious place we find ourselves in. Think of the strange answer we can give, thanks to Jesus Christ, to the question, “Who are you?”
We can say, surely with some hesitancy—we are greater than John the Baptist.
         What John could only see through bars of Iron and hear from his disciples far off and never fully
—the act of God taking place in the person of Jesus Christ
no really… 
this is really cool! 
We get to see and hear in a greater way than John.
         We live after the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, and so we can marvel at it with multiple God Glasses.
The Spirit Herself points us to Jesus and his continued work among us. 
Scripture tells us about Jesus’ time in Galilee and Jerusalem and interprets its meaning to the earliest Christians as guideposts for our ongoing life. 
Our life together, as Christians, itself, is a kind of God glasses that help us to see the Kingdom of Heaven, how God is still at work in the world through Jesus.

Who are you? Jesus is the Messiah. John is the greatest of prophets. We, however improbable it may seem, are a people allowed to peek in at what God has, is, and will do! A+A