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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon--Symptom: Murder

          I don’t know if you remember the show Diagnosis: Murder, it starred Dick Van Dyke, ran for 8 seasons… well, I don’t so much want to talk to you about the show, as talk to you about the title.
Diagnosis: Murder.
If Jesus is right, and I think he is, then…
Murder isn’t the diagnosis—only a symptom,
Adultery isn’t a diagnosis—only a symptom,
False oaths aren’t a diagnosis—only a symptom.
          Today we’re going to go beyond symptom to diagnosis.
          Going beyond symptom to diagnosis is an important thing, one is descriptive, the other prescriptive
I think about all the obituaries in this sad little town in Texas I once lived in—the cause of death in every case was “Heart stopped.” While not untrue… maybe unhelpful.
          And so too, Jesus looks at the commandments—you know, the ones that he fulfills—and suggests that the thou shall nots, unmoored from their deeper cause, become about as useful as the diagnosis, “heart stopped.”

          So, let’s think about these a bit.
          Murder, as a rule, doesn’t come out of a vacuum, it is the ratcheted up result of growing resentment, choosing not to reconcile.
Every insult and jape and jest and accusation
—a step along the road to snuffing out the life of a Child of God.
          Yes, anger is a sickness, left untreated we hold hate toward another human being; not reconciling with our neighbors, becomes natural… small murders and steps toward murder, multiply.
          As for us, we are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

          Affairs rarely start, or end for that matter, in the bedroom, and when we lead with lust we rarely have the best interest of the other person at heart.
-And, to be clear—because some of you out there right now are squirming,
Squirming on account of your own divorce or for those of family members—there are times when divorce is the greater good, sometimes the only option even, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that broken relationship is a tragedy, and has lasting consequences for the soul, body, and community.
          Yes, lust is a sickness, left untreated it makes marriages brittle; it transforms people we are in relationship with, people we love, into things, which we lust after.
          As for us, we are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.

Symptom—False Oaths
          Isn’t it strange that in court we swear on a bible that we’re telling the truth, we often say things like, “I swear to God,” to indicate something is true, even if it is far fetched? We do so because the danger of spreading falsehood is every-present… if we told the truth, and were known as being trustworthy, we’d have no need of oaths.
          Yes, falsehood is a sickness, left untreated it allows for lies and truth to be interchangeable, for the two to be interspersed in such a way that oaths and swearing and threat of perjury are the only way to discern if someone is lying—no one can trust anyone else, and all the words in the world are nothing more than babble.
          As for us, we are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

          All these diseases dehumanize.
-You aren’t worth the time and humility it takes to reconcile with.
-You are nothing more than a sex object to me.
-You can’t handle the truth.
          In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are called to really take other people seriously.
Would you really do that to him if you saw him as created in the image of God?
Would you really treat her like that if she’s a beloved Child of God?

          Think of the word disease
—dis, ease…
doing kingdom work, is hard and it is uncomfortable.
Reconciling with someone is hard. There are after all plenty of people out there who will gladly help you nurse a grudge…
Working on marriage and seeing your relationship with a person as it is, can take a toll.
Speaking clear truth, even taking the time to know what the contours of the truth are, is exhausting.

Finally, this kingdom work is ongoing. There are no quick fixes
—while Jesus admonishes us to go and reconcile with someone quickly, he does not say reconciliation itself is a quick process.
We need to hold close to our hearts the reality that these diseases are out there, and in here… and that we’re always stumbling, we’re always susceptible to them.
I say this, not to frighten us into paralysis, but to prepare us for temptation, and ready us to serve our neighbor in their times of trial.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Review of The Constitution of the United States of America

The Constitution of the United States, with Index, and the Declaration of IndependenceThe Constitution of the United States, with Index, and the Declaration of Independence by National Center for Constitutional Studi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What can one say about the Constitution?
One thing real quick, this particular edition begins with quotes to ensure we know that the Hand of Providence (aka God), Principles, Virtue and Freedom, and Education are all implicitly enshrined in the Constitution.
This pamphlet also contains the Declaration of Independence.
As for the Constitution itself, I’m struck again by how non-partisan it appears (I know, the wide variety of wrangling that went into creating the document bears this impression to be false). It is the rules of the game, not the game itself. There is also a sense of goodwill and trust implied. It’s like the authors assume that there will be a group of reasonable people gathered together to do the people’s business.
For example, veto power sounds like it is a conversation between the legislative branch and executive, not a battle. State regulation of imports and exports sounds like someone shrugged and said, “Well, the federal government controls that, other than when it is reasonable for the states to do that,” like there is a consensus on what is reasonable.
… huh, it almost seems like I’m writing more about our own time than the actually document…
At any rate everyone should own a copy of this, it is the rules of the road, let’s not crash.

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Thursday, February 09, 2017

A Halverson Always Pays His Debts

As you well know by now, I’m the gloomy seminary debt guy.
Well, I have some good news. As of today, I am debt free.
In a little over 5 years I managed to pay off everything—$80,000 removed from around my neck.
I didn’t do this alone. My parents helped me a little, the Obama student debt-refinancing program knocked .50% off, and EMU helped tremendously.
So, you won’t hear me complaining about that any more, which means I’ll have more time to post cat pictures.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Travel Ban is a Tragedy

            I hope that people of goodwill can agree that “Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” is a tragedy.
            Here me out. Even if you believe it is the only way to limit terrorist attacks on the US, it is still a tragedy. To shrink the number of refugees entering our country, indefinitely banning Syrians, and blocking entry of folk from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yeman, is a tragedy.
            Folk like Munther Alaskry, who aided us in the Iraq War and are now in danger of reprisals. Kids like Fatimah won’t get the medical help they need to live (as a guy who has lived through 4 open-heart surgeries, including two as a baby and small child, I can say I’m particularly horrified by the prospects of keeping people like her out of our country). And Syrian Christians fleeing persecution are being sent back to Islamic countries.

            All that to say, even if this Executive Order is the best option, it still leaves blood on our hands, and we need to be clear eyed about that fact. I don’t know if the courts will permanently overturn things, or what will happen, but at best this travel ban is the best bad option, and we can't pretend otherwise.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

A Review of The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement

The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice MovementThe Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement by William J. Barber II
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Third Reconstruction is an inspiring book. It tells the tale of Pastor Barber and his lifelong commitment to Jesus and to fusion politics. Fusion politics being a movement that takes multiple concerns seriously—he tells of gathering together 14 groups and writing up their grievances and what stood in the way of each group gaining justice—and finding that while the grievances were different, the obstacles holding back justice were the same. And so they covenanted together to stick up for one another, for Women’s Rights groups to show up for the sake of those seeking voting rights, for black clergy to show up in support of gay folk… you get the idea—the fires of injustice can only be smothered by a quilt of many peoples. Barber points back to older examples of fusion politics, the multi-racial poor people’s groundswell during Reconstruction, the alliances King made with labor unions during the Civil Rights Era, and most recently the Moral Mondays held by this 14 point coalition of which Barber is a part. He weaves prophetic faith into a community organizing tradition—being willing to lose more than a secular organizer would, because he holds onto faith that God has already won.
This coalition won the expansion of voting rights in North Carolina that likely allowed President Obama to win in that state. After this, they faced a severe back-lash from moneyed interests. In fact, the very education of children in North Carolina is endangered, and Barber’s group has to push back.
The culmination of this story, at least for me, was Barber being invited to a Moral Monday in backwoods North Carolina in what he described as “Klan-country.” He was met with a sea of rural white-folk, Eisenhower Republicans, who were up for Moral Monday, but wanted to make sure they were not being co-opted by the Democratic Party.
And this might actually be rather instructive—as you likely know Barber preached at the Democratic National Convention. I wonder if this betrayed one of his ideals, never run candidates, only shape the narrative so those in power have to do the right thing?
The book ends with 14 steps for living out fusion politics. They are well worth heeding.
1. Relationships have to be built on the ground.
2. Don’t run from moral language.
3. Be willing to suffer.
4. Make sure those most impacted by the policies you talk about have a voice.
5. Any moral movement in the USA needs to wrestle with the question of racial equality.
6. The coalition must be broad and diverse.
7. Like really broad, bring in those who sometimes seem to be your enemies.
8. Be clear about your agenda.
9. Make sure the numbers add up.
10. Use social media to coordinate things.
11. Engage in voter registration and education.
12. Have a good legal team on your side.
13. Have a good set of artists on your side.
14. It’s a movement not a moment.

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Sunday, February 05, 2017

The righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

The righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees
         I know you didn’t hear the start of the Gospel, because you’re stuck on the ending… so let’s start there.
         What’s Matthew talking about when he writes, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
         Brothers and sisters, being religious people is a dangerous business. It is very easy to fall into all kinds of traps—traps Matthew’s community knew all too well.

         Being human, being naturally self-interested, we have a tendency to make the faith about ourselves
—why do end times people always claim the end of the world is in their generation—because they are self-interested—it’s all about me.
Likewise, when we do good works, they are often tainted. How many selfies are done at a soup-kitchen? More than you’d think.
         Avoid the trap of selfishness, keep your good works hidden, so that people might see God’s good works done through you.

         Avoid hypocrisy—a term that Matthew invented, he coined it
—it used to be, in his time, a critique of bad actors, actors who would wear one character’s mask and act like they were a different one…
Matthew pointed out that people act that way too, especially religious people
—we act like Christians in Church and cruel at home,
we bring one persona to the pew and another to the park.
         We’re called as Christians to struggle to be a whole person inside and out,
at home and at work,
in your secular and your sacred life
—don’t allow your heart to be torn asunder…
         and brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll remind you there is another side to that, we have to ensure our congregations are places where you can be who you are
—no mask, no pretend nice, none of that
—let’s not force people to be two-faced or hypocrites.

         There is also the danger of majoring in the minors—focusing on the trinkets and outward form of faith, while the core rots away
—as Isaiah writes, what is a proper fast? “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
         Playing church, and forgetting ceaseless prayer, acts of mercy, and working for justice
—that ain’t going to do it.

         Finally, Matthew warns that the cardinal sin of Pharisees of every age is pushing God into the past. The Pharisees, even when they come to Jesus to hear his teachings, don’t see God at work in him…
and how often do we do the same? The Spirit is nudging us a certain way—and we tell her *shhhh* because God acted in the past
—God acted with Moses and Ruth and Jesus and John, but we’re living in the present. I wonder if it is simply a defensive mechanism—following Jesus as disciples today, can be as off-putting as it was 2000 years ago, but that distance makes it all easier to ignore.
         But again, we are his disciples, and we follow him wherever he leads, even when it is unpopular or unpleasant or unexpected.

         So, yes, when Matthew talks about exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees he’s talking about:
-Pointing to God, not self.
-Wholeness, not hypocrisy.
-The center of the faith, not the window dressing.
-Finding God in the present, not relegating the faith to the past.

         And on that last point, it is worth asking how? How do we stay faithful to the Law and the Prophets? How does Jesus fulfill them, in such a way that they speak to us today?
         According to Matthew, it has to do with story. Jesus’ life and his parables re-interpret God acting, and when we take his life and teachings seriously, we can start to re-tell them in light of the world around us
—a parable of seeds sewn gain new life when planted in our 21st century America soil
—workers waiting for a Lord to put them to work in their vineyard looks very familiar when we see them too in our local Home Depot parking lot.
         Clear eyed about our present realities and captured by a creative biblical imagination
—telling that old old story in a new new way
—we can figure out what it means to be a disciple today.

         And when we get that—when we are caught, even temporarily, by those connections
—our story and God’s story facing each other like a mirror
—it’s a story no man can hide, its worth sharing!
We tell people about this grand story God has allowed us to be a character in.
We witness to the weaving of our lives into the life of God!
         We all are the light of the world
—this good news God has given us through Jesus Christ
—how it gets us through, how it changes you, how it makes our life into a heavenly spotlight
—it can’t be hidden.
When you tell your story, how God enters your story, how the word of scripture lifted up by Jesus, lifts you up
—it is a flame that can light the life of many.
         Don’t hide that story of God and you—someone needs to hear it!

         You don’t like sharing, you say?
You’re an introvert—sharing a flame like that might extinguish your own inner fire… that’s okay—you all aren’t just light, but also salt!...
You are salt!
         In everything you do, being faithfully present with people
—that’s enough
—you are salt and you can spice everything you touch. You might not even notice it, but just showing up, doing all the tasks of life in as faithful manner as you can
—that sanctifies those tasks, it makes holy all aspects of life.
Holy the altar with communion upon it
/ holy too the kitchen table around which you share food and fellowship.
Holy the pulpit,
/holy too a word spoken in defense of neighbor.
Holy the font,
/ holy too the sewers running well, electricity getting to where it needs to go, bridges maintained and streets safe from crime.

Watch out for the pitfalls of faith.
Hear the story of God and find your place in it.
Tell that story.
Live it.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

Law Court, a reflection on Micah 6:8

          Here ye, here ye!
          The Court Case, entitled Micah 6:8: Lord God v. The People, is ready for jury selection.
          You are all called to jury duty!
          Yes, you, and you, and you!
          And you, here, church building, roof made from solemn and just trees, walls of stone and cement foundations.
          You, little hills and Washington Rock!
          You deer family and Raritan River—you Atlantic Ocean and majestic continents.
          All that has a voice, hear God’s case.
          All that lives and moves and has its being, hear the accusation the LORD God has against the people, listen with great granite ears to the controversy o’ Earth!

2.      “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me and I will be satisfied!
          For the earth I enveloped with atmosphere, the water with hydrogen bonds and formed you all from carbon and other stuff! From the humus I made humans!
          I rescued Noah and revealed myself to Abraham and kept faith with him when he traveled from Ur to Israel.
          I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
          I made promise after promise to you.
          I infused my prophets with hopes and dreams for your sake!
          Mary brought you and I eye to eye, I came to you, Word made flesh.
          When you are poor in spirit and mourning—I dwell with you.
          When you are meek or hungry and thirsty for righteousness, I fill you!
          When I see mercy, purity, peace, righteousness to the point of persecution and revilement—I enter into your life and reign in it for your sake!
          In short, I have saved you at every turn and continue to!
          And you seem not to care! You do not live like the Kingdom of Heaven is real.

3.      What then do you want from us then? Shall we grovel?
          Should I scrape my face against the pavement? Sacrifice goats until they call me Billy the kid? Or even cows… send a herd to the slaughter for your sake? Pour oil on an altar until it looks like the Exxon-Valdez oil spill?
          Or how about humans? Shall we offer the next generation, to make You happy?
          That’s all rather impractical though… we’re modern right? We can do better, right?
          What if I spent my whole life in service of You? Or built up an institution for Your sake? Or built grand cathedrals to the sky and in my soul for your sake, God?
          What if I gathered every ounce of wit and will that I have and pointed it at the problem of finding You, would You then be satisfied?
          What if I built a neon sign the size of Saturn that pointed to you?
          What if I gathered power and influence around me, raised myself up by sheer willpower and guts, to the pinnacle of our society and made sure Your name was praised on every street corner and household? Would that be enough for You?

4.      Has he not told you O mortals, what is good; what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
          You are called to do justice—
That is, work in your self, and among your whole society, to make sure impartiality and fairness is for everyone, especially those who have been left out.
          You are called to love kindness—
I know, it sounds weak, and doesn’t get much traction, treating people like you’d like to be treated, even if they don’t reciprocate, being the bigger person and building people up even when they are in tear down mode—but I promise is you it is your calling.
          You are called to walk humbly with your God—
Because you know what? Nothing you can do, will do it, will make me love you.
          I loved you when you acted the fool, when you were puny, a loser, and not a soul would look you in your eyes.
          I just wish you’d show the same kind of courtesy to other people that I’ve shown you.
          Notice the poor and mourning, the meek, those sincerely seeking righteousness… the persecuted and reviled, the peaceful, pure, and merciful
If you really want to find me… be among them… because that’s where I am, just as I was for you.