It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

(sermon 21/8/19 – Second Sunday of Advent)

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Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

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Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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This always seemed like an odd week in Advent to me. We start off with this beautiful passage from Isaiah that we heard earlier, where he speaks so eloquently about this wonderful future time of peace, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and so on – and then we hear this second reading, about wild, cranky, angry John the Baptist, insulting the people standing around listening to him, calling them a “brood of vipers.” I mean, I get the idea of John’s call to repentance fitting in with the focus of Advent, but his whole attitude seems more than a bit off-putting, especially this week when our Advent litany recognizes the peace embodied in the coming of Christ. It’s like that crazed panhandler that you’re trying to avoid eye contact with while you’re stopped at the traffic signal, who’s yelling at you through the window because you won’t give them any money.

But the more I consider it, I guess I understand it. John knows this passage from Isaiah; he’s read it and heard it many times, and he knows its hopeful vision of a peaceful existence for all the world; and he knows that he’s telling people about this very same vision, this same time, except he’s telling them that it’s about to break into the world. But he looks around, and almost everything he sees is the exact opposite of that vision, and quite simply, he’s ticked. He’s angry at what he sees going on around him, and he’s calling people out for it. What he sees is an existence where sin hasn’t just tainted everything, it’s completely taken over.

At this point, I suppose it would be important to recognize just what it is that John considers that sin to be. Just what is it that a Jew in first-century Palestine would consider sin? The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out that we Christians have often been misinformed, mis-taught, that the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time was all about ritual and ritualistic practices; a kind of checklist religion, over against a Christian religion that is supposedly so much different from that, when in fact Judaism then wasn’t any more ritual-based than Christianity is. She goes on to explain that the Jewish concept of sin, then, wasn’t that some set of ritualistic traditions hadn’t been adhered to – but rather, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, whenever sin is discussed, whenever it’s identified, almost without exception it refers to attitudes and especially actions that have the effect of mistreating or hurting other people. Did you hear that? Almost every single description of sin details actions that hurt other people. Actions that treat others without justice, or mercy; actions that exploit or cheat others from enjoying the same existence that a person wants for themselves. It’s a virtual constant in the Hebrew scriptures, and we see the exact same message in Jesus’ words in the gospels.

So John looks around him and sees a society that is completely under the thumb of the Roman occupation. Oh, sure, Rome has given the Jews some degree of autonomy in their local governance and their religion, but not much – they’re on a pretty tight reign. The people are paying heavy taxes to a faraway empire and have very limited freedoms. People are being treated unjustly and abusively. And any time they get even a little bit out of line, the violent power of Rome comes crushing down on them, making sure they understand who’s really in charge. And adding insult to injury, some of their own people are collaborating with Rome to impose the dictates of this occupying force, simply because they realize that if they go along with the Roman occupiers, things will go well for them, and they don’t want to upset their own relative comfort and well-being.

John sees all this – how the people, especially the poor, are being mistreated and exploited. How God’s commands for caring for the widow and orphan, the sick and poor, are being ignored. And he gets mad. He recognizes that this just isn’t the way things should be, especially now, as God has told him that this eternal peaceful kingdom is about to break into the world. Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. You brood of vipers, you poisonous snakes, change your ways, now, before it’s too late.

And now, as we think about this future time of peace ourselves, we look around us and we see the same thing. We see a society, a culture, that in so many ways seems to have gone off the rails. Poor people – men, women, and children; young and old – who can’t find work and who don’t have enough money to eat are being kicked off of federal food assistance. People legally entering the country seeking refugee status are illegally jailed, and families are separated, often without any plan for reunification, in violation of federal law, international treaties, Christian moral teaching, and just plain common sense and decency. People of color are enduring generations of injustice, being mauled in a criminal justice system designed to destroy individuals and families in multiple ways, and to deprive them of the right to vote, and to essentially create a perfectly legal replacement to Jim Crow society and a return to near-slave era conditions. One particular religious group imposing its narrow, burdensome, discriminatory beliefs on the entire society. Innocent men, women, and children becoming victims of human sacrifice to the false god of gun proliferation. A consumer culture that brainwashes us from before we’re even out of the cradle that we should want everything that we don’t have, and more of everything we already do; and that our worth as human beings isn’t that we’re loved by God and that we’ve been created in God’s image, but instead, our worth is measured by the worth of our stuff. Government leaders who rule with impunity, with no sense of accountability or ethics, only out for their own personal gain at the expense of all of us. Thousands of people being bankrupted every year by outrageous healthcare costs charged by for-profit healthcare corporations, or even dying simply for lack of health insurance or affordable life-saving prescriptions. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist, with nationalist groups, the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-Fascism all despite our thoughts that it could never happen here. But it’s happening here.

If you can see all of those things and not be every bit as mad as John the Baptist, you’re just not paying attention. Just John saw what he saw, we can see and know that this isn’t the way things should be. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That we need to repent from these kinds of things in our own personal lives, to be sure, but also that there are systems at work in our society that are causing and enabling these problems in ways far worse than we could ever cause them on our own. We’re all inescapably enmeshed in these harmful, these sinful, systems. Thinking about all of those things makes John the Baptist’s calling people out as a brood of vipers sounds almost tame.

As a congregation, we’ve signed on to the Matthew 25 vision. Next month, I’ll host a three-week Bible study that focuses on Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew 25 in particular, and just what the whole Matthew 25 emphasis really means to us as a congregation, here, where the rubber meets the road. But as a bit of a preview, I can say that it has a lot to do with exactly that kind of turning away from the current ways, and turning toward God’s ways, that John was calling for in this passage. The Matthew 25 vision echoes the idea that all those things don’t have to be that way, and it calls us to taking concrete steps to try to change them.

John was so upset, so angry, because he could see that same vision that Isaiah saw and told about. It was wonderful, and beautiful, and peaceful. And while we can’t create that final, ultimate peaceful world that only Christ will finally usher in some day, having that vision in our minds is enough for us to see that the current world could be so much better, so much more just, so much more peaceful, than it is now – and that by turning our lives, and especially our social systems and structures, toward God’s paths, toward God’s standards of compassion, and mercy, and justice, we’ll be adding just that much more straw into the manger in preparation for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, and in hope of his eventual return and establishing that wonderful world that Isaiah and John  saw. So have righteous anger at what you see – but don’t stay in the anger. Let that anger become repentance, and let that repentance become action, and in that action, find hope. Hold on to that hope, because those words from Isaiah, and from John, are true; that peace, that shalom, is coming.

Thanks be to God.

 

What Is God Creating?

(sermon 11/17/19)

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Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

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Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

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Taken together, these two scripture texts confirm two things. First, God is well aware that there’s a lot wrong in this world, and there will be times when the bad will get so bad that things will feel hopeless – that God isn’t able to do anything about it, or that God doesn’t care, or frankly, that maybe God doesn’t even exist at all. And second, that there will come a time that God will indeed step in and set things right.

What isn’t said in these texts directly, but what I think is just as true, is that while they may point toward some final re-creation and re-setting of the world, once and for all, the additional truth embedded within them is that many times before that final, forever correction, this will be a recurring, cyclical scenario. Things will get bad, and then God will work to make them better. And then we’ll find a way to mess things up again, and make the world a dark place, and then God will work, in ways chosen by God, to improve things; over and over again throughout history.

It’s this continuous cyclical divine working of things that I believe God established the church for. If you look at history, you’ll see many of those dark times – and often enough, each one of them spawned people in the church who thought this was it – the end times, and Jesus was ready to reappear at any moment. And you’ll also see some significant part of the church that enabled, encouraged, even participated in, that darkness. It’s happened again and again.

But at the same time, looking at those dark times, you’ll see something else, too. You’ll see another significant part of the church that didn’t buy into the darkness. That fought against it; that worked to advance the gospel and the Kingdom of God in spite of the darkness. That saw itself as a model, the illustration of an alternative way of living, thinking, believing, being. In each of those dark times, and in the times in between, too, you’ll see a part of the church that stood out and stood up as different, and that with God’s help, helped the world find its way out of that darkness, and into a brighter existence, one more in keeping with God’s intentions, through its acts of love, and mercy, and peace, and justice, and truth.

I really believe that’s a big reason why we, the church, are here. God has drawn us together and called us to be that model, an agent of whatever God is creating next, to stand up to the darkness and fight against it. And if I’m right, if that’s true, then we’ve got our work cut out for us, because there is certainly no shortage of darkness in our world today that we need to fight against and offer an alternative model to.

If we’re called to be that kind of co-creating agent, that kind of church, we’re going to have to work together. It’s going to take all of our efforts, and all of our compassion, and all of our commitment.

And it’s going to take all of us being financially committed, too. It isn’t any mystery that to be the disciplined individual believer, and the collective church, that Christ has called us to be, it’s going to cost us something. Just think of our own congregation. Of course, there are the hard costs, the relatively fixed costs – salaries, building & property costs, and so on – the things that enable us to do all that we do, and that enable us to be a worshiping body at all. And then there are the direct costs of those ministries and mission, whether they’re directed internally or externally. It all costs money.

Right now, we’re in the middle of our annual stewardship campaign, which will help us to budget for our congregational needs for the coming year. You probably got your stewardship package, including your pledge card, in the mail the other day. This week, we all need to deeply, prayerfully consider how we can financially support our church family in the work that God has called us to. And next week, during the service, we’ll turn in our pledge commitments for the coming year. In a perfect illustration that God is calling us onward into a new and vital future, in that same service next week, we’ll receive two more new members, and have one baptism; and then we’ll all go down to Grace Hope church and enjoy a Thanksgiving meal together with them. This is evidence of increasing congregational vitality; this is what being a Matthew 25 congregation is all about. This congregation, in spirit, in word, and in deed, is moving in the right direction. Do you see the new thing that God is doing here? Can you see it? Can you feel it? But yes, to put it as bluntly as I can, that all is going to take money.

So I ask you today to consider: How is God speaking to your heart? How is God leading you to financially support this congregation, our congregation, to help lead it into that future that God has in store for us – a future where, yes, everything, just as it is with our own households, is going to cost more next year than it did this year?

God is continuing to create something new in our time, and is calling us to be a part of that, and to move into a new and exciting future for our ministry. Won’t you please be a part of making it financially possible to follow that path that God has laid out for us?

Amen.

 

In That Land

(sermon 11/10/19)

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Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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I was online the other day and I saw a guy who was trying to stir the pot in some conversation. That isn’t all that uncommon; if you’re online finding someone like that takes maybe all of about fifteen seconds. This particular guy was commenting on something another person had written – but he wasn’t really all that interested in addressing the first person’s actual point; instead, he was trying to twist that comment into something different, something almost completely unrelated, just so that he could talk about one of his own pet issues. And even if he were successful at turning the topic in that direction, it was pretty clear that he didn’t even really want to have a real discussion, an actual dialogue about that issue; he just wanted a soapbox to stand on while he spouted his own favorite talking points for probably the umpteenth time.

Something very similar is going on in today’s gospel text. In this case, it’s the Sadducees who are playing the part of the internet troll, setting up a hypothetical situation for Jesus to wrestle with – a situation that they didn’t really care about per se, but that they wanted to use as a springboard to one of their own pet issues. As the text says, the Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in resurrection and an afterlife. Their attitude was basically YOLO – you only live once, so make the best of it. Now, just as is the case with people who believe the same way today, that attitude can go in one of two directions. The first option is to live your life grabbing all you can get for yourself, and without regard for or caring about the needs of others. The second is to live your life being kind and compassionate to others, because that’s actually the definition of living this life well – it’s just the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to score points to get into heaven down the road.

So the Sadducees tried to set Jesus up with this weird, elaborate hypothetical. But rather than get mired down in all the potential rabbit holes in that hypothetical, Jesus just swats the whole thing away and pretty much says OK, you want to talk about an afterlife? Fine, let’s get into it. And then he makes an argument to them about the existence of an afterlife, using an argument based on logic and language that admittedly was probably more compelling to the Sadducees’ ears than it is to our own. But at the end of it all, Jesus’ position was undeniable – he was telling them that there is indeed a resurrection and an afterlife.

To be honest, the church hasn’t always done a good job with that teaching. We’ve either come up with bizarre, limited ideas of what the afterlife will be like – you know, robes, harps, angels’ wings, sitting around on clouds, a musical background that’s all Bach, all the time. St. Augustine writing that in heaven, we’ll all have the body and appearance we had when we were thirty years old; which would seem to trigger a whole new set of questions about people who died when they were ten. At the same time, we’d messed people up by trying to literally scare them to death, and setting up a burdensome set of checklists that they’d have to comply with in order to stay out of hell and get into heaven. We’ve messed things up when trying to understand the afterlife, probably most of all because we’re just finite, flawed human beings, and the very concept of life after this life is something far larger and more transcendent, more infinite, than our finite brains can really get around.

But none of those mistakes take away from the fact that the existence of an eternal afterlife is something that Jesus taught about unambiguously, and repeatedly. Yes, we can still mangle understanding that teaching with Fundamentalist four-step programs to guarantee that we’re part of the in-crowd, and to look down our noses at others who aren’t. And yes, it’s true that there’s a whole sub-genre of Christian literature written by people who have had near-death experiences and returned to write a book about their experiences. Heaven is for Real. Ninety Minutes in Heaven. Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell. My Half -Hour Stuck on the On-Ramp to Purgatory. Well, no, I made that last one  up, but the others are real books. And it isn’t my point here to demean these people’s stories, because I really do believe that there’s something real, and meaningful, and important in their experiences – but it does seem strange that each of them ended up experiencing a heaven, or hell, that was pretty much the kind of place they’d been taught about as a child, whether they continued to hold those beliefs or not as an adult.

One of the outcomes of these stories has been to continue to reinforce an overemphasis on the future eternal life in the sweet by-and-by, over against the current eternal life to live in the here-and-now. And honestly, a lot of people have come to feel awkward, a little squeamish, to think about resurrection and afterlife. I mean, we’re all intelligent, educated, enlightened people. We understand at least the basics of the laws of physics and how the natural world works, and doesn’t work. So we can get a little nervous thinking about miracles, and let’s face it, the idea of resurrection and life after death are really the mother of all miracles. I’ve talked with a lot of people who feel that awkwardness, who ultimately throw their hands up and say “I don’t know if heaven is real or not; I just care about being the best person I can be right now, and honestly, that’s all the reward I really need.” And you know, on one level, I absolutely agree with them. As a follower of Jesus Christ, my focus is completely on living in this life, and being in relationship with God and with people in ways that would please Christ. Pleasing him pleases me. I don’t need anything else. I’m not doing acts of kindness or compassion to earn any future reward or to get some golden ticket into eternity.

But the reality is that we worship a God of extravagant overkill. We don’t need any more reward for a life well-lived in Christ, but according to Jesus, God chooses to give us one anyway.

And whatever the actual details of that life to come really might be, we know, based on Jesus’ teaching, that it’s going to be amazing. When we reach that existence, when we arrive in that eternal land, it’s going to exceed our wildest, most extreme, unreal imaginings. Every wild, crazy, irrational thing that we could imagine as being the ultimate of happiness, contentment, shalom, reconciliation, reunion, peace, justice – that’s what it’s going to be like.

So yes, keep living and loving, and working in this world because you’ve been called to do that. Work to bring compassion, and justice, and peace, and truth, and healing to people in this life, wherever there’s hatred, and fear, and ignorance and injustice, and lies, and brokenness, because we know that the world certainly needs that kind of help. Yes, live this life well in the ways that Christ teaches us, because it’s sufficient as its own reward. Go ahead and live your life as if there’s nothing more to come, as if there’s no afterlife – but still enjoy the assurance of knowing that there really is.

Thanks be to God.

Reformation Then, Reformation Now

(sermon 10/27/19 – Reformation Sunday)

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Luke 18:9-14

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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So this is Reformation Sunday. All around the country today, Mainline Protestant churches will do things to observe and celebrate the Protestant Reformation that gave birth to them. The Reformation actually started at least as far back as the 1300s, and really came to a head in the 1500s. In all sorts of different ways, congregations will pay our respect to our theological roots. And for the most part, that’s very  good thing. It’s important and can even be fun to remember where we’ve come from. It’s sort of like getting a theological Ancestry DNA report, without even having to spit in a vial.

The whole thing runs off the rails, though, if celebrating our roots turns into us having a feeling that we, and we alone, have this whole religion thing figured out, once and for all; that we’ve managed to tap into the heart and mind of God better than anyone else – that Jesus loves everyone, but we’re his favorites, as one T shirt puts it – and because of that, we’ve got to defend against any change or challenge to what was handed down to us from those theological ancestors. It runs off the rails when we start to believe that we’re so much better than all the other riffraff who think and believe somewhat differently than we do. That’s happened a lot throughout our history, and it’s caused an awful lot of misunderstanding and harm, spiritual, emotional, and even physical. It’s also an attitude that’s in direct contradiction to a core principle of the Reformation, and the Reformed tradition, that we want to honor. Setting aside some of the stylistic bluster common to theological writing of that time, one of John Calvin’s core theological principles, and one that we still maintain, is that we as individuals, and especially we as the Church, are flawed, and that we can, and often do, err. We can get things wrong. We can just flat-out blow it. We can get full of ourselves. We can cling too tightly to tradition. We can allow ourselves to get caught up in internal politics and power plays, and have all kinds of motivations other than the one we should have. We, the church, can be and often are, terribly, horribly dysfunctional. That was the kind of Church that the Reformers were standing up against, even while they were smart enough to recognize that a reformed church could, and probably would, end up falling into that same trap. Because of that, they cautioned us to always be humble in our words, our truth-claims, and our actions, because none of us really understand the heart and mind of God perfectly; and to recognize that in order to avoid that trap, we’d have to engage in what John Calvin called the “continual resurrecting of the Church.”

In practice, though, we, the church, have often forgotten or ignored that warning. Sometimes I wonder if we forget it more often than we remember it. Much of the time, we, the church, can act as self-righteous as the Pharisee in today’s gospel text. We offer up thanks to God that we aren’t like those other poor slobs who aren’t as good or enlightened or even as “religious” as we are. Of course, the irony in this story that Jesus tells is that God was ultimately more pleased with the humility and sincerity of the so-called “bad person” in the story – the outsider; the one the supposedly good religious people looked down on; the one who didn’t really have much time for what they saw was the hypocritical, self-righteous nonsense of organized religion, but who still felt drawn to show up there and encounter God in humility, in simplicity, and in truth.

This same story replays itself literally millions of times every single day. How often have you heard someone call themselves “spiritual but not religious”? Or who grew up loving being part of some faith tradition, and they still long for a connection with the good parts of that tradition, but they’ve been burned too badly by its ugly side? How many times have we encountered good people who are just fed up with all the extraneous negative BS of organized, institutional religion, and with good reason?

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard, and how many articles I’ve read, all talking about those people on the periphery, and saying that we’ve got to find a way to reach them, to speak their language, to find a way to communicate that resonates with them, and that’s all very true. But ultimately, a lot of these speakers and writers end up giving these people a patronizing pat on the head, just considering them a problem for us to fix. They’re poor, misguided, unenlightened people who would really “get it,” if we only explained ourselves to them in a better way. Surely, if we just found a better way to make our case to them, they’d see that they should want to change themselves. If we could only get the tax collector to see they should really be more like the Pharisee; that *they* should become more like *us*.

But what if it’s actually the other way around? What if God hasn’t brought the “insiders” and the “outliers” together for us to solve their problems, but for them to solve ours? Or at least, for us to come together to help each other?

I honestly wonder if these people who we’d think of as the outliers, the ones spiritually hanging out on the edges, and sometimes completely outside of, the institutional church, might actually be more the real spiritual heirs of the Reformers than most of us on the “inside” are. They’re the ones who are most vocally calling out the same missteps, the same hypocrisy, the same corruption, the same sin within the institutional church that those Reformers did. The only difference is that now, the institution is “Us” instead of some over-there “Them.”

So when a person is really seeking an authentic spiritual connection with God, including doing that as part of a shared journey of mutual support with others, they have two basic choices. They can stay on the outside, or at least on the periphery of the institutional church, trying to benefit from its good while rejecting and calling out its bad as only a so-called “outsider” can. Or they can join in and be a part of the institution, for all of its good and bad, saying “Yes, there’s a lot of dysfunctional, counterproductive crap in the institutional church – but you know, there’s a lot of dysfunctional, counterproductive crap in me, too; and maybe together, the church can help me, and I can help the church, and we can both be at least a little less dysfunctional than we were to begin with.”

So which of those approaches is best? Which is more pleasing to God? As an official of the institutional church, I might be expected to say that the second option is really the best. But honestly, in the spirit of humility that the Reformers called for, I can’t categorically say which of them is better for everyone. I don’t live in another person’s skin. I don’t know the depths of their heart, or the experiences that have shaped them and gotten them to this day, or what, based on all of that, they may or may not be capable of in the way they find and experience God and a sense of sacred community. So I honor both approaches, out of the very Reformed doctrine that God, and God alone, is the Lord of our personal conscience.

And I believe that for the church to honor and live out its Reformation roots, we have to hold space for people regardless of which of those two paths they feel to be right for them at the moment. We have to be a place of welcome and acceptance and support for people wherever they find themselves on the spiritual spectrum. We need to hear and learn something from them, and hopefully, they’ll hear and learn something from us, and we’ll both be better off for it. That’s what we need to do if we’re going to really be a church that honors the real significance of the Reformation – to be a church that doesn’t just remember its past, but also remembers that we’re supposed to be “the church reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” and that God has drawn all of us in our own particular dysfunction and weirdness together for some mutually beneficial reason. And honestly, being that kind of people – being that kind of church – shouldn’t be too hard for us, as long as we recognize that, when we think about today’s gospel text, and the story Jesus told, we’re all the tax collector – all of us. But as long as we have the same kind of humility and sincerity that they had, God’s OK with that.

Thanks be to God.

Gratitude

(sermon 10/13/19)

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Photo by Marcus Wökel – used with permission    http://www.pexels.com

(with gratitude to Rev. Dr. David Lose, whose words heavily inspired this sermon)

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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There are some people I know who do something important every day. It’s something simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. Every single day, in some way or another, they set aside time in their day, which is just as busy as my own, to take stock of what they’re grateful for. They keep “gratitude journals,” or just observe a bit of quiet time to intentionally reflect on the day that’s just passed, and actually name the things that they’re grateful for. Some of them take this a step further and actually jot a note, or maybe more often now, an email, to reach out and acknowledge their gratitude to someone who had something to do with it.

I wish that I were more like these people. I want to be, because there is so much that I really am grateful for. But at least up until now, for whatever reason, I haven’t had the discipline to do this, and I’m the worse off for it. Because without doing this in some way, it’s easy to forget, or at least to take for granted, the things that mean so much to us, the things that we’re so grateful for, and the people responsible for them.

This comes into play in today’s gospel text. Ten suffering people come to Jesus for help and healing. All ten receive that help, but only one takes the time to thank Jesus for having been healed. I’m pretty sure the other nine were grateful, too, but ultimately, only one of them actually expressed it to Jesus.

Except for some people who have serious psychological and emotional issues, feeling gratitude is a natural, involuntary human emotion. But taking it the extra step, and expressing that gratitude with our words and actions, is a choice – one that can have a huge effect in our own lives, but that also can have a remarkable effect on the people around us. A simple “thank you” is something far more powerful and transformative than would seem possible from just two little words. Just think how you feel when someone takes the effort to just say thank you, or does something nice for you, because of something you’ve done for them. Even when you think that no thanks is necessary, and you mean it, it’s still powerful when that thanks is offered.

There are all kinds of different emotions that we feel in any given day. Whether it’s because of things going on in the news, or some family situation, or a work thing, or a health or aging issue, our emotions can run the full spectrum from joy to sorrow to worry to fear to shame to rage, and everything in between. And there are certainly appropriate times to express all of those emotions. Sometimes, we’re just in a place where we just can’t express gratitude for something even if we’re actually very grateful for it. Our other emotions can come into play and tongue-tie us, even when we can see it happening, and many times, we can’t. It’s OK; we’ve all been there at some point or another. We all understand that. In those times, we see the importance of this, the whole church family, when together, we can help carry one another over those patches; we can lift one another up and offer emotional support and compassion for one another until we can get through those times. Until we can work through those other emotions and get to the point where we really can choose to express gratitude and to live gratefully again.

Like most things, expressing gratitude is something that gets easier the more you do it. And the more you do it, the better you feel – the more grateful you are. And the more you help others. You become an illustration, and example for others.

These days, expressing gratitude is truly a counter-cultural idea. Anger, hostility, violence, distrust, transactional tit-for-tat vengefulness, tribalism, rage – these are the emotions and things that are shaping our culture at the moment. But just imagine how much of that could be defused if we “choose to refuse”. To refuse to play that game. To refuse to express those knee-jerk emotions, and instead, to take stock of the good and to express gratitude to God and others in our words and actions. Expressing gratitude has the power to change the world – it’s the ultimate weapon, the ultimate game-changer, that can defeat virtually all of the ugliness that we find ourselves knee-deep in. We just have to choose to do it.

So I’ll start: I’m grateful to be alive and a part of this amazing, beautiful creation of God’s. I’m grateful that I have two wonderful daughters. I’m grateful for the love of family and friends. I’m grateful that I have a good education, a reasonable measure of good health, a roof over my head, and food on the table. I’m grateful that I’m here in Louisville, and specifically here at Springdale. I’m grateful that I’m your pastor, that God drew us both  together; and that I’m not only your pastor, but that, at least to the extent it’s possible between pastors and parishioners, we’re friends. I’m grateful that I get to work every day with the remarkably gifted, talented, and caring staff here at the church. I’m very grateful for George, that God allowed us to find each other, and that we’re together now. And I’m grateful that you’ve welcomed and accepted him and made him a part of all of this as much as you have with me. I’m grateful to be a part of this journey of faith and life that we’re all on together. I’m grateful for all of this, and so much more.

So, if I never said all of that before, I have now. And now, I invite all of you to do the same. Decide, choose, commit, to sit down daily and take stock of what it is that you’re grateful for, large or small. And then, choose, commit, to finding some way, just as the leper in the gospel story did, to express that gratitude in your words and actions. Maybe it will take the form of making a batch of cookies for someone. Or fixing a storm door, or offering a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Or maybe it’s dropping someone a card, or finally getting around to a thank you note that you’ve been meaning to send out forever. Or maybe it will just be taking a moment to offer a simple, face-to-face thank you. Whatever it is, it will make you feel better, and it will make the person you offer it to feel better, and it will definitely please Christ every bit as much as the thank you he received on that road all those years ago.

Thanks be to God.

Grow a Pair, Neil.

we the people t shirt

Yesterday, nine Supreme Court Justices heard arguments that will have a major effect on the lives of LGBTQ+ people, and our society in general, for probably a generation. Based on the arguments made in a surprisingly small amount of time far out of proportion to their import, these Justices are going to determine whether under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is Constitutionally legal to fire a person simply because they are LGBTQ+.

Currently, almost half of the people questioned in a recent Reuters survey actually believe it is already illegal to do so. Further, “The poll indicates that most Americans do not think religious objections should be a reason to deny service to an LGBTQ person, whether in business (57%), healthcare (64%) or employment (62%).

The unfortunate reality is quite different. While the federal Equality Act, which would ban all such discrimination independent of any interpretations of Title VII, remains in a years-long state of Congressional limbo, only 21 states currently have enacted laws that provide full non-discrimination protection for LGBTQ+ individuals.

What that boils down to is this: there are currently some 11.3 million LGBTQ+ people living in the United States; about 8.5 million of them are currently part of the workforce. Roughly half of us live in states without non-discrimination protection. So in an odd twist, the Supreme Court has ruled that LGBTQ+ people have the right to marry as a matter of basic human dignity, but under current law, exercising that human dignity by getting married on Saturday can – and often does – result in our getting fired from our jobs, thrown out of our apartments, and/or denied service in commercial and retail settings, on the following Monday for having done so. Doesn’t sound very dignified to me.

It pains me to know that there is a substantial minority of people in this country who believe that a.) I am somehow a less important, second-class citizen of this country compared to them based solely on who I love; and b.) they have a Constitutional, and in many of their minds, a God-given right to discriminate against me by withholding the same civil rights that they enjoy as a matter of course.

These justices are set to decide whether my full equal rights as a citizen of this inherently secular, pluralistic republic will be protected; whether the rights afforded to all citizens by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to equal protection under the law will be protected for me, too, or whether they won’t, merely on the basis of the gender of the person whom I love.

To be honest, it’s almost unthinkable that we even have to have such a debate. The entire dispute really originates in that a particular subset of a particular religious group believes that LGBTQ+ are sinners in the eyes of God, and that because of that particular religious belief, the federal government should ensconce their particular religious opinion into federal law. Their argument is that their group has the right not only to hold those beliefs, but that they have the right to a Constitutional exclusion that allows them to impose those particular religious-based beliefs onto our larger, secular society that its founders took great pains to prohibit any establishment or endorsement of any particular religious group.

To be clear, our country has offered tacit – and frankly, unconstitutional – privileged status to adherents of the Christian faith since its very beginning. As a nation, we have always played fast and loose with the actual words and clear meaning of our First Amendment position regarding religion, paying them lip service but always giving a wink and a nudge when applying them to Christianity and Christians. We Christians have enjoyed the privilege of a usually unspoken, sometimes explicit “Yes, but” stance in applying the concepts of non-establishment and especially non-endorsement of any religion on the part of the government. A large part of the current problem is that a particular subset of Christians is upset, seeing parts of their inappropriate privilege crumbling away as the country gradually lives more fully into the words of our founding texts. I suppose I could find a more diplomatic words of comfort to offer them in their time of perceived loss, but all I can come up with is tough shit. Literally millions of people, all of them citizens of this country fully equal to you, have suffered for far too long because the government has unconstitutionally permitted your particular sectarian religious beliefs to be imposed on all of society. It’s high time we came to our collective senses, and stopped allowing ourselves to be led around by you as you like, as if we’ve got a ring through our nose.

And yet… here we are, with these nine individuals hearing arguments and deliberating  whether I will, in fact, be treated as a full, equal citizen of this country, or whether the religious opinions of some members of society – somewhere between 25 and 30% of society, according to surveys – may legally make me a social, cultural, and Constitutional, less-than.

Reports from inside the chamber during those arguments say that based on the questioning by the Justices, the vote will end up being close, and that it may be decided by one swing vote made by a Justice who openly fretted about the “major social upheaval” that a decision favoring the LGBTQ+ individuals would supposedly have.

I’m sorry – actually, I’m not – but numerous surveys about this subject, including the one previously referred to all show that to a large extent, this is a cultural ship that has already sailed. It’s highly doubtful that a decision confirming full LGBTQ+ equality would cause anything resembling “major social upheaval.” To begin with, just look at some mathematical facts: Roughly 70% of the American public identifies as Christian of one sort or another. At the same time, as seen in the Reuters survey, almost that same percentage of the public favor LGBTQ+ non-discrimination law. This means that there is already a huge amount of overlap of the two groups “Christian” and “Supports LGBTQ+ Equality.” There would most assuredly be some social consternation, limited to those people who believe – just as previous generations believed regarding racial and gender discrimination – that they have a right to discriminate against other citizens because of their own particular religious beliefs.

And that gets us to the larger point, which is that this way of thinking about “social upheaval,” major, minor, or otherwise, is the fear of a coward, or the excuse of a scoundrel, or both. And social upheaval to whom? Why is there more concern for social upheaval that will be experienced by the oppressor in this case (and many similar previous battles), than the existing, massive social upheaval that the oppressed have been suffering all this time?

Even more important than the concern being misplaced is the reality that every single advance made in this country living more fully into the promises of its founding documents and principles has caused social upheaval, sometimes truly major social upheaval. It is inevitable. If avoiding social upheaval were a legitimate reason to not advance our society, nothing would ever improve.

It’s delusional to think that progress can be made without some kind of social upheaval. It’s disingenuous to use that as an excuse to deprive millions of people their Constitutionally-protected civil rights and equal protection under the law.

I speak as a married gay man, and as an ordained minister and pastor in the Presbyterian Church. The mere fact that that can even be possible caused no small amount of “social upheaval” in itself, and thanks be to God for it. I have come to believe that a large part of why God called me, a person whom God knew was gay long before I knew it myself, into pastoral ministry at all, was to be a witness – an illustration – to people inside and outside the church that God does indeed call and equip LGBTQ+ people into the church and its leadership. Another, even broader, part of that is to illustrate to people who don’t yet understand, possibly because they’ve never knowingly had a relationship with an LGBTQ+ person, that gay people – people like me – are really no different from them. At least, I’m no more different from them than they might be from another straight person, and maybe there are more significant differences between them and the other straight person than between them and me. In short, I believe a part of my divine call is merely to illustrate my equal humanity to others who don’t understand that. To show those who don’t yet quite understand that as an LGBTQ+ individual, I have the same dreams, fears, worries, aspirations, goals, loves, that they do. I laugh, I cry, I hurt, I mourn, I celebrate, I contemplate. I am your brother, your son, your father or uncle or cousin. I am your neighbor, your coworker, and yes, in my own case, your pastor. I have the same need as you to be a valued, respected, equal member of the society I was born into. I am not scary; I’m not something other. I am you.

But I have the same demands, too. I demand that the equal rights and equal protection under the law that I’ve been assured of based on my citizenship be protected and respected. I demand that the government not permit a particular minority within a particular sectarian religious group to have veto power over those rights, and my equality in our nonsectarian, secular, pluralistic republic. I’m not asking the government to grant these rights to me; I’m demanding that they protect these rights that I already have as a birthright, and that are being denied me. I demand that my government live into the principles ensconced in its founding documents, the same principles that are so widely given lip service to but so frequently ignored.

This one Supreme Court Justice who seems to be the swing vote in these cases was put in place by a conservative power block who frankly, expect him to be nothing more than a guaranteed knee-jerk vote to support their own political agenda. Now that he’s been appointed, he finds himself at a crossroads of history, about to make maybe the single most significant ruling by which history will judge him. I do not humbly ask for special consideration, favors, scraps from the table of full equality from him. I demand that he live into this historic moment; that he not serve as a lap dog to political partisans. I demand that he protect my rights, and my equal protection under the law, that all full citizens have. I demand that he understand that doing so will cause some social upheaval, and that it will be worth it. I demand that he not allow a sectarian minority to hold millions of citizens hostage to their chosen religious beliefs. I demand that he use his own brain, and heart, and that he grow a spine, and a pair of testicles to go along with it, and once and for all do the Constitutionally and morally right thing.

Come to the Table

(sermon 10/6/19 – World Communion Sunday)

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Photo used with permission – pexels.com

Isaiah 25:6-8

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And the Lord will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, and will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and will take away from all the earth the disgrace of the people, for the Lord has spoken.

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There’s just something special about the idea of sharing a meal together. When we’re happy, we throw a feast, a party. When we’re in mourning, we share unspoken love and compassion through the sharing of a casserole or some other comfort food. Every holiday, every milestone, every major occasion in our lives, is usually marked by sharing some special food. It’s universal, something that’s common to every human culture and across all times, and it’s something that goes far beyond simple biological sustenance. And just as a particular smell can instantly take us to another time and place and memory in our lives, a particular food can immediately transport us to some other time and place in our lives, too. It can remind us of where we’re grounded, what are our roots, and where we’ve been along our life’s journey. Speaking for myself, I grew up in an area where there were many Polish and other eastern European immigrants, so even though I don’t think I’ve got a bit of Polish heritage myself, a lot 0f that special food for me is Polish – pierogi, and halupki, and kolachi, and so on. And I’m sure that all of you have your own particular “soul food,” too, that you might be thinking of right now. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the finest Japanese beef, or a humble bowl of chili, the taste is important, of course, but what makes it really special, what makes it deeply meaningful, even sacred, holy, it that we’re sharing the experience, preparing it, eating it, even cleaning up afterward, with other family, friends, people who we love and care deeply about. Sharing that common meal at a common table draws us together and creates a special bond among us.

Given that universal reality, it shouldn’t be any surprise that one of the defining sacraments that Christ instituted within our faith is the reenactment of a shared meal. Really, what better way could there be to illustrate the kind of relationship, the bond, the unity, that God has made with humanity, and that God wants all of humanity to have among itself, than to use a common meal at a common table? In both of the testaments in the scriptures, God uses the imagery of an eternal banquet, a feast, to represent eternal life in God’s presence. It makes perfect sense that in order to remember and live out this common bond, this unity, that we have with God and one another, we come to the Lord’s Table for the Lord’s Supper; Communion.

Of course, this is World Communion Sunday, when many Christian denominations and traditions serve Communion on the same day as an even greater sign of this unity and common bond. And most of us have heard on previous World Communion Sundays that the whole thing got started by a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, and that the idea really gained traction when then-President Truman plugged the idea in a radio broadcast. It’s a nice bit of Presbyterian trivia that we can all take some pride in, I guess.

So it’s a good thing to observe World Communion Sunday, to take a stand for unity within the church, and to observe Communion in general. But it’s only a good thing if we’re using it to represent and participate in the kingdom of God as God sees it, and not the way we see it. If we understand that we come to this table as deeply flawed individuals, all of us, and as people who, no matter how much we might try to sincerely understand and follow God and God’s ways, are going to get at least as much of our understanding wrong as we get right. If we come to the table realizing that we haven’t done anything to have earned or deserved our being at the table any more than the person sitting next to us – if we recognize that we’re just as flawed and imperfect and undeserving as they are. If we recognize that  everyone at this table – at this eternal banquet – has been invited by God, on God’s terms, using God’s logic, and not ours.

Observing the Lord’s Supper that way is a very good thing. But it isn’t a good thing at all if we see it as something used to exclude. Something to limit. Something that says that we think we’re better than others, or that we’re God’s favorites or God’s chosen people over against everyone else. It isn’t a good thing if we use this sacrament intended to enact divine and human unity,  and to represent God’s vision of that eternal banquet, eternal life, as a club to beat other people over the head with to say that we’re part of God’s in-group, and they aren’t.

In Isaiah, God says that all people, all nations will participate in the eternal banquet of God’s kingdom. In the gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that he has “other sheep” that those disciples didn’t know. And his teachings about the nature and basis of the final judgment make a pretty bold statement that when considering what will be important in that judgment of whether or not we’ll be welcomed into that eternal banquet, the question of whether a person was or wasn’t a professing Christian never seems to come up. I have to think that John Calvin had these and other scriptures in mind when he wrote about what he called the “visible church” and the “invisible church” – that the visible church was the institution and its people that we see in the world and think of as the church; but the invisible church was the actual, true church, known only to God – and that many in the visible church weren’t really a part of the true, invisible church, and that many not in the visible church actually are part of the invisible church.

That should keep us very humble. It should also keep us very mindful of who we might or might not welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper. In the past, and in some cases in the present, the church has been very restrictive about who is welcome to participate in the sacrament of Communion. Here, we practice what the church calls an “open table” – that is, any person from any Christian faith, regardless of whether they’re Presbyterian or not, are welcome to participate in this sacrament with us to the fullest extent of their own conscience. We don’t have to hold the same theological beliefs about what, if anything, is happening within the sacrament. We don’t have to hold the same beliefs about how, or even if, Christ himself is present in the sacrament. We hold this view of Communion in large part because Christ said simply “Do this in remembrance of me.” He didn’t say “Only do this after you understand it perfectly, and everyone agrees on that,” and it’s a good thing, because frankly, we never will. He simply said to do it. And so we do.

But I will share with you that personally, I also believe something else about this. I am a firm believer in the visible and invisible church. And I believe Isaiah’s imagery of all people being a part of the eternal banquet, and I believe Christ when he teaches about the nature of the final judgment and welcome into the kingdom.  And because of that,  my own view of the “open table” is this: If you feel God drawing you to participate in this sacrament; if you understand that the good news from God that Christ proclaimed in the world was the message proclaimed by the angels when Jesus was born, a message of God’s favor and love for all of humanity; if you understand the importance of living out love of God in your life, and extending that love to your fellow human beings – then to me, you understand the gospel as well as anyone. You are a part of that invisible church, and you are just as welcome at the Lord’s Table as anyone else. Not only that, but, as the apostle Peter said in the Book of Acts, if God has given you the same Spirit that was given to me, then who am I that I would be an obstacle to you taking your place at the Lord’s Table? To be frank, I believe that I would actually be sinning if I obstructed you or in any way discouraged you from participating along with everyone else.

So today, whether that special food you love to share with loved ones originated in Scotland, or England, or Italy, or Poland, or Iran, or Taiwan, or Korea, or Puerto Rico, or Mexico, or anywhere else, today, we come together to share a simpler common meal – a little bit of bread, and a little bit of wine or juice. But in reality, it is so much more than that. It’s the physical manifestation of God’s love itself. It’s the physical taste of the joyful sharing of our lives together with God, and with one another. So today, on World Communion Sunday, let’s enjoy this meal, this sacrament, and let’s enjoy it together with love.

Thanks be to God.