Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Sermon 2018

          What a strange and compelling story, our Gospel, this story of Christmas. It is a story of great reversals, and no one behaves as we’d expect them too.
          Right off the bat the Empire is sidelined
—the main story of the day can be summed up by the Priene inscription:
“Praise Augustus a Savior who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in peaceful order.”
Gaius Octavius—called Augustus (meaning the Revered One), had won the Roman civil war, beating out 7 other would be emperors, winning a peace through superior fire power, and therefore seen as entitled to be the center of every story
… but not here, Luke nods at the emperor and moves on… this isn’t his story!
The Good News, the story of peace and salvation, of the Savior of the whole world
—it isn’t Rome’s story, it is a story that starts somewhere very different… it starts…

          It starts with a sojourner, Joseph, who comes home.
          Comes home along with his fiancĂ©, Mary, a virgin who bears and births a child
a strange story indeed.
          This child is wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, no place for his head
such an out of the way place and space for this child who we proclaim to be the center of all that is!
God with us.
          And a heavenly herald comes to proclaim his arrival… and he chooses shepherds, those outside the city walls, those who spend a little too much time with animals and not enough time with people
you know, they’re a little off
… and yet these outsiders are the ones brought in on the biggest story ever announced…
          Good news, and yet it terrifies them…
          Good news sung by a heavenly host
—a military unit of angels
—singing peace…
warriors singing peace in a society where warriors weave only strands of chaos.
          And finally, these shepherds, called to watch their flock, leave them, so that they may watch and see this new thing
—the heights of heaven knelt low to gaze upon the infant nestled in a manger.

          Sojourners finding homes, warriors singing of peace, watchers abandoning their post to see something truly special
grand reversals, the world flipped on its head by the birth of Jesus…
          All of this marking a new world, one where God dwells with humanity, Creator with creature, God born in the flesh.
          And there is a terrible logic to it
—the mystery of God made flesh meets the logic of mortality—the logic of the grave…
once you are born you start dying
—so to with Emmanuel, God with us
—God becomes vulnerable for us, for our sake
for you…
God among a people occupied by Rome.
God wandering with his parents, first to Bethlehem, then on to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod.
God with outsider shepherds and stranger Magi.
God lost on pilgrimage as a boy. God baptized at the Jordon.
God three long years teaching. God scourging the temple.
God rejected by the religious and the politically powerful.
God crucified.
God dead and God alive again.
          God vulnerable like us, that we may be like him—beloved children of God.
Grand reversals not just in that story long ago, but now, today, including in our own life
—Gospel, life, peace, and salvation, for you!

          And, in the spirit of the vulnerability of this night, I’m going to ask all of you to be vulnerable too.
In our society that is obsessed with the perpetually new and never takes time to sit with something
—I would ask you to take some time to be like Mary
—Ponder and Treasure the mystery of God’s vulnerability.       And not just ponder, but like the shepherds share, talk to folk about what you come up with
—perhaps with your family over dinner, or with a friend when the moment feels right.
          In the back of your bulletin you will find some prompts for your pondering…
          -what false peace, saviors, and salvation are on offer these days?
          -Surely God reigns everywhere, yet where is God reigning for you and yours this Christmas?
          -Take a moment to think about the last time you were vulnerable, what did that feel like? Do you think that’s how Joseph and Mary and the Shepherds felt?
          And also, as you sit with the vulnerability of God that we celebrate this night, take some time to pray this Christmas.
An example of the prayer you could pray is this:
 O Holy One, heavenly angels spoke to earthly shepherds and eternity entered time in the child of Bethlehem. Through the telling of the Christmas story, let our temporal lives be caught up in the eternal in that same child, that we might join shepherds and all the heavenly host in praising the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and uplifts the lowly

          Imagine it, you’ve been strip-searched, your equipment taken apart and put back together, and after a secondary pat down the Secret Service ushers you into the Oval Office and tells you that you have 10 minutes to capture the heart and soul of the president on film. This is your one shot to take a portrait that will adorn super market magazines and art galleries alike…
How are you going to get the right shot? How are you going to succeed? How are you going to get it right?

          Well, Platon, a British photographer…
you know he’s good because he doesn’t even go by his last name any more…
Platon figured out a formula for just such a scenario.
          He’s taken photographs of every sitting president from Carter to Trump, as well as world leaders, both famous and infamous—Aung San Suu Kyi, Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel… not to mention singers like Bono and Yoko Ono and so on…
and he has one surefire technique.
          His portraits always manage to show something more than press secretaries or image consultants want to project
—they shows something more, something real
          You see, he brings with him a decrepit, falling-apart, white painted crate for his subjects to sit on… somehow 10 minutes, or 7 minutes, or however long he’s got, on that humble little box, displaces the leaders, brings them down from their throne and shows them for who they really are, just another person, another portrait in black and white.
          And so too the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and uplifts the lowly.

          He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and uplifts the lowly.
          It’s one thing when the fall is of obviously bad actors
—mass murderers drug out from their holes disheveled and done,
tyrants terrified by their own people,
gangsters who kept the whole block on lock down themselves locked up,
bullies brought to the principal’s office.
          But, what of our heroes?
-All those well spoken of men revealed to be cads and worse on account of the #MeToo movement
—Cosby and Clinton, Garrison Keller and Neil Degras Tyson…
-or think of all those women who were excited about the first female president and ended up disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s loss…
-or think of the controversy when “Go Set a Watchman” the sequel to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mocking Bird” was released
—in it the heroic father, Atticus Finch, was revealed to be imperfect
—a bit racist in his old age even…
and just this month poor Atticus has just received similar treatment by Aaron Sorkin’s broadway re-write of “To Kill a Mocking Bird.”
Another deflated hero.

          When your heroes, those whose opinions or character you put some stock in
—when they fail, when they fall, what do you do? If they cannot stand, what hope have we?
          After all, we too have our failings,
battered from the outside,
conflicted on the inside,
we are human, so very human.
We too are flesh and blood.

          And the Good News, which Elizabeth and Mary testify to, is that God is as well
—God is with us
and God has come in that very battered, conflicted, oh so human material that encompasses us
—God has come in flesh and blood.
God is with us, and God has even come in the flesh.

          Mary sings about God acting in her life and in the past,
God has acted with both mercy and justice
leveling mountains and raising valleys,
scattering the proud and gathering the humble
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and uplifts the lowly…

-He supported Slaves against Pharaoh and brought exiles out from captivity.
-He worked through such flawed people as King David and Samson.  
-Raised up Judges like Deborah and faithful women like Ruth and Naomi,
and even offered second acts for elders like Elizabeth and Zechariah.

Mary sings “Yes we are O’ so human, but the Story of God’s people is the story of God continually with us none the less!”

          In fact, God not only stayed in the story with us, but came to dwell among us
—Mary’s child is God with us, God in the flesh for us!

          Now, when Platon takes those pictures, he de-thrones the leaders, but he also reveals more clearly who the person is…

          And that’s a way to think about Jesus
—God made man
—we can see God more clearly, more fully, because he has sat down with us, stooped onto that white box, so we know him outside the trappings of power
—we can see into his soul. Receive a portrait in black and white…
The invisible God made visible in his Son Jesus Christ.

          This portrait gives us a glimpse of proper humanity, proper heroism, proper power, it is a picture of the flesh as it ought to be, proper creatureliness.
          But it is so more than that. We are also brought close to the Creator, lifted into a greater reality still, lifted up into the reality of God.

          And Eva—I pray that for you today… that you will come to know Mary’s words:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and uplifts the lowly…
that you will find hope in the midst of a fallen world,
hope in ambiguity, disappointment, and even danger…
for in your baptism you will come face to face with God among us, leaning kindly upon that white box, and you will be united to Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and Alleluia.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Sermon: Summer is Coming

Summer is Coming
         “Winter is coming” this is the constant refrain of the fantasy series Game of Thrones. George RR Martin is 5 books into the series and winter has not yet come… in the TV series it isn’t until 60 hours in that winter comes… and yet that reality frames the whole thing, winter is unfolding—the birth of dragons, deaths of kings, wars and rumors of war, Wildlings and Others encroaching upon civilization, snow falling first in the north and then in the south—all of these point to that one foundational reality, “Winter is coming.”
         And we read about just such signs in scripture today, read about looking forward in hope to a thing that is not yet, and yet is unfolding, it frames the whole of scripture and life…
         Jeremiah points to the sign of a righteous branch, God’s actions through David may have been chopped down, but they didn’t grind the stump—new life is coming.
         Jesus promises us that God is doing something new, promises us tender tentative tendrils—look carefully friends, you will find the leaves greening in this gray and foreboding world…
         All these are signs that “Summer is coming.”
         Jesus warns us about sea and waves
—one of the Bible’s ways of talking about Chaos and Death
—we are warned about the threat that looms so often
—losing life and losing control.
         Not only that, the world will be threatened
—and to clarify, the Greek word for worldused means the civilized world (so not the “He so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” world), instead the economically integrated world
—yes from time to time we will realize the societal structure we live and breath in, we move in the same way fish move through water, is ephemeral and fleeting—sometimes it is really obvious how threatened the whole project is.
         The powers themselves shake (have you seen the videos of Alaska—it is like that!)
—all those forces beyond ourselves that shape our day to day life
—the little gods of this world we cling to
—behold! They shall all be shaken loose
—they shall all be revealed to be what they are, Idols… all those things we fear, love, and trust—that are not God
—they shall be sifted through, burnt away
—they shall fall away.
         All of this shall be an earthquake showing what stands and what falls.
         And have you ever thought how much all that weighs us down?
How much we worry about life and control, our society holding together, the powers holding fast
—how much we drugourselves in many ways
(shopping, shooting up, shutting down, tuning in, going online, main-lining, maligning our neighbor)
drug ourselves in order to look away from all this…
how much we time and talents… and our very lives… we fritter away concerned about all these things.
We lack hope.

         I was reading Conservative columnist Arthur Brooks the other day, he wrote an article entitled: “How Loneliness is tearing America apart.”
Did you know 13% of Americans don’t believe there is a single personwho knows them well. 42 million people who feel like they are anonymous—unknown to anyone but themselves…
Brooks believe this has led to the record 45,000 suicides that have happened across the country this year
—to get the scope of this it is like the entire population of Plainfield killing themselves…
he also notes 70,000 people died of drug overdoses this last year
—that’s the entire population of East Orange…
         And this alienation also leads people to seek simulated communities, communities almost entirely made up of screens,
be they social media platforms or obsessive watching of partisan Television
—all of this telling them who to hate
—most often our fellow Americans…
         And, you know I often tell you all, when it comes to the internet, never read the comments section
—well this article may be an exception…
 the 1,034 comments at the end of this article—I didn’t read them all of course…
but my God!
It was people pouring out their hearts about their isolation
—how they yearned so completely for realcommunity, realconnection.

         Now, I can’t imagine how much more painful this isolation will get for folk this time of year (Daylight savings time and darkness),right…
imagine you don’t believe anyone really knows you
—you are always alone, and you go to work in the dark and get home in the dark and the only human-ishinteraction you have is with the warm glow of you TV or Smartphone or Computer Screen… So hopeless…
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

         No… be alert! Crane your neck up, stand up straight
—your redemption draws near!
(Point to tree)
         In the face of Babylon battering down all that is Holy
—know there is a righteous branch!
         In the face of the falling away of all the small gods—this grand and horrible earthquake, they no longer grace the heavens—look!
Look what remains!
The Son of Man, he lives that we may have life.
Look what remains!
The Kingdom of God, revealing the world as it is, in the face of the world as it seems, so we know that God rules!
Look what remains!
The Word of God! The promises of God for us and to us, promises which God shall not forsake,
God shall not forsake us!

(Point to tree)
         In the face of unbelievable isolation, anxiety, addiction, and death…
When all the simulated community crashes and there we are…
What remains, what’s real?
Christ, community, promise…hope
Real Christ—for you, the Lord on the donkey who sees fit to join us in all things, God made man that Humanity might be found Holy!
Real community—Surely a mixed body, saints and sinners all trying and failing and trying again, but here we are, thank God!
Real struggle—It isn’t just our communal life that is mixed, but each of us, all simultaneously saint and sinner
—a real struggle really worth it
—our whole lives found in the sanctity of God
—we are made in the image of God
youreally are a part of it,
you really matter to God!
Real words of promise—Promises of Christ
—I will be with you always,
I’ve purchased and freed you from the powers of sin, death, and the devil.
You belong to Christ and none can separate you from him!

Summer is coming!
The stump was not ground down—it still grows!
We’re all interconnected and are rooted together.
Even when all appears dead, the necessary work of new life is taking place, the seed is being made ready!
Winter isn’t even a pause, it is part of the whole process!
Look at those green leaves, those tendrils tender and tentative, yet clearly alive.
Have hope.
Summer is coming!

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.