Saturday, June 29, 2019

Sermon: Rejection Road

         Did you see those horrifying pictures of 2-year-old Valer-iaand her father Oscar? They’d traveled 1,000 miles from El Salvador seeking safety and plenty. They reached a bridge crossing to seek asylum, and were rejected before they could even be interviewed. So Oscar made the decision to ford the Rio Grande, and they drowned together.
         A tragic consequence of rejection.
         And today’s Gospel is full up with rejection.
-Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, where he will be rejected
-We are reminded that the Samaritan religion rejects the Holiness of Jerusalem.
-For that reason the Samaritans reject James and John
-These Disciples return the favor by rejecting the Samaritans
- Jesus then rejects his disciple’s violent inclinations
-Next Jesus rejects a would be follower
-And finally Jesus twice insists that all other things must be rejected so that the Reign of God might be proclaimed!
         Today we follow along a path of rejection, a rejection road.

Let us pray
         The first stop upon this rejection road is at this Samaritan village. The Samaritans are a group of Babylonians transplanted to Judea 700 some years before Jesus’ day. Foreigners who adopted and then adapted Jewish religion, accepting the Torah and regarding as holy Mount Gerizim…
not Mount Zion, not Jerusalem.
And as such, when James and John come around and tell them to prepare for the Messiah to visit on his way to Jerusalem, they reject them!
         The Disciple’s response is classic. They could just brush things off, after all sometimes those you reach out to do not want to be reached…
 but no, instead they get angry… 
         I would gently suggest that if you are reaching out to someone about good news, torching their village doesn’t really get the message across!

         And I imagine they aren’t the only folk who take rejection too seriously. Did you know the average member of the ELCA only invites someone to church once every 23 years… yet 80% of people say they would attend a church if they were invited to it by someone other than the Pastor.
         Now, that’s inviting someone to church, which is a little different than telling someone about Jesus… yet the concept is the same. Yeah, some folk aren’t going to listen to you—but if we zip our lips on account of the 20% who won’t come if they are invited, if we stop following Jesus because there will be Samaritan villages—we’re in the wrong business and going down the wrong road…
by the same token, if YOU get so offended by someone saying no, that you respond with meanness, like James and John…
Then you’re in the wrong business, going down the wrong road…

You see, telling people about Jesus is a gift not only for the person you preach to, but is a gift for you too… 
         Honestly, the secret blessing of the pulpit is that we get to practice telling people about Jesus every week, and in our telling, our own souls are renewed.
         I won’t go as far as my Pastor over in England, who said, “Every Sunday, I walk up these high steps not believing in God, and only at the end can I even say, ‘I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.’”
         I wouldn’t go that far, but regularly proclaiming—getting to practice the faith, knowing you’ll get it a little wrong, and knowing you’ll have another opportunity in a week’s time or less—it is balm to the soul! It is a gift I wish for every one of you!

         But if you are afraid of rejection—you’re in the wrong business… you’re going down the wrong road and following the wrong Messiah...
         This guy who wants to be Jesus’ disciple is looking to go places, even to Jerusalem… but not the Jerusalem Jesus has in mind…
the man is thinking of a Jerusalem that will be captured by the kingly messiah
—but Jesus is going to the Jerusalem where he will be rejected.
         It’s sort of like the “Great Google Map Disaster” that happened this week. There was some construction on the main road to the Denver International Airport and a whole bunch of people looked up a shorter route on their phone, one that would cut their wait time in half…
and before long 100s of people found themselves stuck in a muddy field…
         So too, Jesus warns the man about the costs of following him
—you’re not making your international flight
—you’re going into the mud and the muck with me…
you are looking for a whereverI’m heading to nowhereto lay my head reality.
Following me is a path to rejection!

         Then Jesus calls on two others, calling on them to reject funerals and farewells to follow him. It sounds incredibly harsh
(for example, I hope Valer-ia and Oscar said farewell to their family and will receive a good funeral, don’t you?), but at base Jesus is pointing to a question of priorities,
and right then, as Jesus heads to Jerusalem,
the one thing that mattered was proclaiming the Kingdom, preaching the Reign of God.
         I think of the do list on my phone. It is color coded by priority. Red, Orange, Blue, and Grey… by the end of most evenings the Red and Orange stuff got done, but some of the Priority Blue and most of the Priority Grey stuff did not.
         Or I think of the ELCA—as we shrink our capacity to do big things is diminished. But we’re no paper tiger, our denomination still has some heft and strength to it… at this point we can still do anything as a denomination
—we just can’t do everything…
it is a matter of choosing priorities.

         And the priority is proclamation of the Gospel—Preaching about the Reign of God!
         The Messiah goes to Jerusalem to be rejected… he calls on all his disciples to prioritize telling people about him, about how through him God rules!
         Imagine what good news this is!
To all the Rejected Ones:
To Valer-ia and Oscar,
to those who have ears to hear, but no one respects them enough to invite them in,
to those battered by religious threats instead of accepted as they are,
to those without a place to rest their head,
to the mourning ones,
to those who did not get a farewell,
to the rejected everywhere!
         He is with you. The Blessed One is rejected too. Therefore, God is with you! God’s footprints are found along Rejection Road. 
         In fact, Rejection Road is transformed into a Kingly Highway… for God Reigns!
         O’ Rejected Ones, God Reigns:
         God reigns, so there isforgiveness.
         God reigns, so the fallen are redeemed, instead of destroyed.
         God reigns, so humility overtakes hypocrisy.
         God reigns, so those who can not repay kindness for kindness or mercy for mercy, still receive both!
         God reigns, so possessions no longer possess us.
         God reigns, so we do good instead of storing up goods.
         God reigns so greed gives way to grace and generosity!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Sermon Sparkler for the Third Sunday After Pentecost

              One of the consistent themes in Luke (as well as its sequel Acts, which moves from Jerusalem to Samaria to Rome) is outsiders, and particularly Samaritans.
              Just a brief reminder of what makes Samaritans outsiders, from Seeing with the Mind, Hearing with the Heart: A Thematic Bible Study on Luke by a Young Pastor and a Not So Young Parishioner:
              “Here are two images to get you thinking about Samaritans.
1) Who do you fight with the most, your brother or the neighbor two blocks down? Your brother, clearly, because you are closer to him; he’s like you, but isn’t you.
2) There is a phenomena called “The Uncanny Valley” in which, at a certain point, the more human a robot gets, the less comfortable humans are with the robot.
              Both of these realities, brother and robot, get to Judaism’s relationship to the Samaritans. They’re too close for comfort; they’re so close, yet “fake,” they’re Gentiles, yet followers of the law.
              So, who are the Samaritans? According to 2 Kings 17, they were originally people from Babylon conquered by the Assyrians. The Assyrians had a particular method of conquest—they conquered a people, plucked them up from their land, and plunked them somewhere else that they had conquered, repopulating the then uninhabited land with other conquered peoples. Essentially they swapped conquered peoples. This policy makes a certain amount of sense—if you’re dropped off in a strange land you have to depend on the one thing you are familiar with, your captors, additionally, guerilla warfare is harder to do if you don’t know the best places to hide.
              So, in this particular case, sometime after 722BCE Israel, the Northern Kingdom, is conquered and the 10 tribes are drug away and dispersed to other territories conquered by the Assyrians. Then, the Assyrians took peoples from Babylon and made them settle in what used to be Israel. As the story goes, these newcomers were having trouble adapting to the local fauna—by that, I mean they were getting eaten by lions. So they made a very practical choice. They converted to the faith of the land, so that the god of the land would stop harassing them with a feline welcome wagon.
              As time goes on, the Samaritans adopt a modified version of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, but not the later books, especially those written while the Judean elite were captured in Babylon. Fast forward five to seven centuries, and you have these “foreigners” living alongside the Jews, who have their own customs, place of worship, and a condensed scripture to which they claim the Jews added. As you can imagine this is a recipe for ill will. And into this breach, steps Jesus, interacting with folk who it is unacceptable to interact with.
              Here is one final note on Samaritans; in the famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s commentary on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he explicitly encourages us to read the parable in light of American race relations; he’s not wrong. In fact, pushing it a little bit, imagine a people taken from their native land, adopting the religion of their surroundings for the sake of their safety, and hundreds of years later they’re still treated as other and as second-class citizens.”
              In today’s Gospel James and John experience the jagged nature of reaching out to those different than you… sometimes they don’t want to be reached. And when that is the case we need to shake it off, instead of getting angry… after all, if you are reaching out to someone about good news, torching their village doesn’t really get the message across. Also, it is worth noting the reason Jesus is rejected here is that the Samaritans believe Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the holy mountain. At any rate, today could be a good day to set up Samaritans for the congregation, in two weeks time you can point back to this incident when Jesus describes the Good Samaritan.

*       Who may seem like a Samaritan to your community?
*       How can we practice shaking off rejection as communities of faith who wish to witness to that faith?
*       How are you going to set up the Good Samaritan Parable with today’s sermon?

Our Changing Vocation (A reflection on Luther’s Small Catechism)

              Perhaps it is because I’m nearly half a year into a new vocation—that of husband (not to mention uncle to a passel of nephews and nieces)—that I’ve been thinking again about the idea of Christian Vocation. In regular conversations we use “vocation” as synonymous with job, but what I’m talking about is all our roles and relationships. As Christians the starting point for all these roles and relationships is our baptism; God has graciously made us Children of God. We don’t have to do anything, so what do we now do? An impulse might be to try and “repay” this gift… well, God doesn’t need anything we have, none of our work will make us more Child of God-ish… but you know where we could invest that impulse to work and to give, to repay?
              Our neighbors! I mean this in the most inclusive way possible, anyone we connect to via roles and relationships, everyone from our self to the earth.
              The first relationships we have is with ourselves. Being a person who inhabits a body is something Christians (and humans in general) sometimes forget when thinking about relationships… but that’s where it starts, have you seen a 3-month-old discover that their feet are in fact part of them? That’s definitely the start of a new relationship!!! Jesus at one point says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you don’t love yourself, there is no way you can love any of the other neighbors we have.
              Part of self-love is having a sense of purpose, if you don’t know what you are for you won’t know when you’ve accomplished your calling. According to Luther we are made to be in relationship with God, experiencing awe, love, and trust. Sometimes this impulse to holiness gets misdirected, either by camouflaging our own interests in “god talk” or idealizing people and things that are not God. In both cases we have created idols. Additionally, we are made for praise and thanksgiving. We often have an urge to focus on the negative, but for our own health, if not for praise, it is imperative that we teach ourselves to recognize the good moments and give thanks for them. Finally, we need to remember the Sabbath, keeping it holy. On one hand, this means committing to Holy Time, gathering together in worship of God and engagement with scripture. On the other hand, this means taking time to rest—really rest. In our society where everyone with a cell phone is responsible for every email and phone call, where split shifts and on call work is the norm, this is no easy task, but it is still a holy calling and one that respects the sanctity of the self.
              Our first neighbor we are aware of is often a parent or relative. In our vocation as child we ought to honor these first relationships. They are incredibly formative, fostering an environment of both safety and growth. On the flip side, to various degrees based on our involvement in a child’s life, we find ourselves the recipient of an amazing amount of trust from these kiddos. We are called to raise loving and loved children!
              We also make friends. We ought to treat these relationships with care, for they are precious. Our friends must be treated as ends, not means to some other end.
              In our romantic relationships, especially when they reach the seriousness of marriage, we are called to love and honor our spouses and significant others. We are also called to avoid pursuing romantic relationships that would make it harder for other people to honor and love their spouse.
              Then there are our actual neighbors—not just the metaphor of neighbor to mean “someone who is not me.” We are to help and support them as best we can. We are to help keep their property and interpret their actions and words in the best possible light. All these things are true about our friends as well, but neighbors, unlike friends, are rarely chosen, thus we must be more aware of our worse impulses when it comes to our neighbors. Additionally, as our country grows more diverse, so too will our neighbors (and I certainly hope our friends too). When someone is of a different race or religion than we are it can be harder to empathize with them, this only means we must make an extra effort to do so, to engage our neighbor with  curious and kind eyes, not with suspicious or malicious ones.
              Then we come to the more secular understanding of vocation—our job and those of other people. How do we as a worker, a business person, and a consumer live out our calling to be Children of God? Neither employer nor employee ought to steal from one another or their customer. This can run the gamut from wage theft (employees loose approximately 19 billion dollars a year to wage theft) to time theft (costing employers approximately 11 billion dollars a year) to selling someone an inferior product based on the color of their skin (for example, redlining). Then there is being a consumer—so much of our economy feeds off of people desiring things other people have, just watch a commercial, which is coveting… how do we keep these desires subservient to love of neighbor and ensure we do not make consumer products, and the lifestyles they sell us, into idols? This question ought to be on our mind every time we take out our wallet or log onto Amazon to make a purchase.
              Then there is that age old question of citizenship. We are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20) and yet we live in a particular nation. The question of how these two identities intersect is a complicated one—for example St. Augustine wrote 415,280 words on the subject in his City of God. He faced a falling Roman Empire that everyone identified as a Christian Nation, and had to disentangle what was Christian and what was Roman, in order to assure his people that God had not failed, even though Rome had. In fact, St. Augustine goes so far as to describes the state as nothing more than a big band of pirates! Luther was on the other end of things, the state was protecting him from the Roman Catholic Church and he wanted to affirm the authority of the state over against the authority of the church. So, Luther saw the state as a parent figure; citizens had a duty to honor, serve, obey, love, and respect the state. Then Luther goes on to insist that the state has only one job, to distribute daily bread to both the just and the unjust, since God has already provided it. Two very different visions for two very different situations… and we find ourselves in a state categorically different than both the “Holy Roman Empire”(aka Germany, which by Luther’s day was neither Holy, nor Roman) of Luther’s day and the Roman Empire of Augustine’s day.
              We live in a democracy, where the state rules by “the consent of the governed.” So, our vocation as citizen is a little more complicated than if we were peons ruled by an Emperor. On one hand, our relationship to those in authority ought to be that of respect. On the other hand, the way our system is set up we ourselves participate in that authority and need to act as such. That means in addition to respect and deference toward the state we also need to be informed voters, the gentle voice of Christ among the many competing voices in our society, and engaged with the state to ensure that it, “restrains evil, protects from harm and upholds the common good.”[1]
              We are also, no matter how “cheesy” the phrase sounds, citizens of the world. Between the normalization of global travel and the international reach of the internet, it is no longer enough to consider our relationships with people within our own country. Now we have neighbors everywhere; if we type a lie on the internet in New Jersey it can make a man in Bangladesh lose his job, if we buy products that are unjustly made overseas we are still acting unjustly, if we cheat on our spouse while traveling internationally, we still cheat on our spouse… even if it happened far away.
              Finally, we are earthlings residing on earth—if Genesis 2:7 means anything it means we are intimately connected to this planet, we are called to keep it (Gen. 2:15). With acidic oceans, widening holes in the ozone and shrinking polar ice caps, it would serve us well if we cared and kept this sacred trust more fully.
              Remember, our vocations start from baptism—God has acted first, we are simply living into what he has already done. God acted graciously, and will continue to do so. Even when we fail, and we will, our relationship with God is still there, and so is our neighbor. So when we fall, we are still Children of God and can get back up again and continue to be kind neighbors to ourselves, to our family, to neighbors and friends, in our jobs, as consumers and citizens, as earthlings. In all things we can strive to love God and neighbor.

[1] “Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” ELCA social Statement Summary

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Paul’s First Letter to the Galatians

          I Paul, am on a Mission from God!
          I’m an ambassador of Jesus the Messiah and God the Father, who raised him from the dead!
          It is from them that I offer to all you Christians in Central Turkey Grace and Peace!
          I’m blown away at how quickly all of you defected from that Grace and Peace by embracing an alternative gospel… to be clear, there is only one Gospel, any other is false—there is only one message of hope and blessing—good tidings come from God and the Messiah alone!
          There are those who have looked at the Good News I preach and make the claim that it is too easy, that what I preach is people pleasing… believe you me, I wouldn’t be slaving away like this for Jesus if I was people pleasing!
          There are others who claim the Gospel I preached to you is a secondhand gospel—well let me tell you my story.
          I was the most religious of people, so zealous that I turned to violence and persecuted the church… up until God revealed the Church’s head, Jesus, the Son of God, to me, and ordered me to tell non-Jews about Him! This put me in a tailspin and for three years I tried to put it all together, eventually going to Jerusalem and meeting with Jesus’ brother, James. After that I preached in the province of Syria and my home province of Cilicia in South East Turkey. No one said it was a secondhand Gospel then, instead they just marveled that what I once persecuted, I now proclaim.

          Then, after 14 years, I checked in with the Jerusalem Church to make sure the Gospel I was preaching was in fact Gospel. They confirmed it, agreeing that God had gifted me to preach to non-Jews in the same way God had gifted Peter to preach to Jews. They asked only one thing of me, to “Remember the Poor” which of course I already planned on doing.
          This dual mission, I and my people proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” to the Gentiles and Peter and his people proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” to the Jews, turned out to be more complicated than expected—that’s why I have to write this bitter letter to you.
          In Antioch, my home congregation, this tension came to a head. Peter visited and stayed with us and shared meals with us, Jews and Gentiles eating together, no division, for we all are one in Christ—but then other Jewish Christians from Jerusalem showed up, and Peter withdrew from table, and his decision to do so caused all the Jewish Christians to follow his example and eat separately. It was hypocrisy! Whatever you were before Jesus claimed you for his Kingdom doesn’t matter, our old identities are gone, we belong to Jesus the Messiah, Jesus our Lord! Jesus demolished all these dividing walls, if we now build them back up when it suits us, then we are dividing ourselves from him!

          And those who came preaching to you all in Central Turkey after me… they are doing the same thing Peter did… and you all are falling for it! They’ve bewitched you! I preached Christ Crucified to you until I couldn’t preach anymore! And it is like you didn’t hear… Well, let me tell it to you again—you trust Jesus because you heard his Good News—that’s it! Did you receive the Spirit because you changed identity from Gentile to Jew, or because you heard the faith? Don’t you get it, there is no two-step process; no one is a second-class Christian. If you belong to Jesus, you belong to Jesus, full stop! Jesus plus anything is less than Jesus alone!
          I know these people preaching to you today are making you doubt that you are God’s Children, making you ask if God would bless someone like you—I can hear them telling you that you are cursed unless you side with them, because they have Moses’ laws on their side. Unless you change your identity… yet you already identify with Christ—any change after that does violence to your Baptism!
          I used to think like them, insisting to everyone I met that the Law says, “Cursed is everyone hanging upon a tree,” as proof that Jesus could not be the Christ. But he IS the Blessed One—the Blessed One receiving the curse short circuits all curses, so now all may be blessed!
          Let’s use Abraham, all the way back in chapter 11 of Genesis, as an example so you get what I’m saying. God made Abraham a promise, he trusted God and was made right. In fact, God promised to bless the whole wide world through him. As I’ve told you until I was blue in the face, God has made a promise to you through Christ. Trust God. Those who trust like Abraham are Abraham’s kin, through whom the world is being blessed!
          Now, many things have transpired since Abraham, namely the giving of the Law of Moses (which, I might add, doesn’t happen until Exodus 24—way after Abraham). The Law kept God’s people safe for many centuries, but now is being used by your fellow Christians to stifle the blessing of all people and exclude some from their baptism into Jesus Christ.
          So, know this, as many of you as were baptized into the Messiah have clothed yourself with him. Therefore, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female…
(I imagine you have some different divisions in your day—perhaps costal elite or fly over state, rich or poor, young and old, LGBT and straight, citizen or immigrant, black or white) for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah.
          And if you belong to him, then you are Abraham’s children, recipients of the promise!