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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

3rd Corinthians (1st Jerseyans)

3rd Corinthians (1st Jerseyans)

         Dearest Sisters and Brothers,
         I have heard that those communities I planted so long ago have spread and changed and popped up all across the globe.
         I have heard that they’ve spawned divisions now called denominations, and movements that I would have never imagined.
         When I brought Jesus’ message from Jerusalem to Rome
—I traveled 1434 miles
—that was an unbelievable length.
It was as if my gargantuan effort to bring the Gospel there
—through shipwrecks and beatings and all kinds of disasters…
It was as if that effort which, the Holy Spirit moved me to do, had brought the Gospel to the entire world.
Now the Gospel is firmly entrenched in such far off places as South Plainfield New Jersey in the USA—which is over 4 times farther away from Jerusalem than my impossible journey was from Jerusalem to Rome.

         I suppose, thinking of my image of the Church as the body of Christ, it is as if the child has become an adult
—the Church has matured. What was once small, has grown large.

         But brothers and sisters, let me be clear
—you are still the body of Christ
—each congregation, each denomination, each piece of you, and all of your gifts, is part of a larger whole.

         In your diversity and in your wide reach, this grand stretching out of the body of Christ
—in this you are still members one to another. Some are eyes, others ears or toes, elbows or nose
—Understand me, you are not a horror show, a bunch of disembodied body parts
—not a crime scene, but a church!
         How we are connected one to another, is extremely significant!
How we foster that connection in love, that is of ultimate import!

         And so, it distresses me when I hear of the recent rending of the body of Christ taking place within the Anglican Communion, dividing the Episcopals, the American manifestation of that denomination, from her English and African siblings. Can you not bear with one another? Are not arm and body connected by ligaments?

         At the same time, I am astounded by the speed by which the Roman Catholics and Lutherans are remembering that they are of one body
—re-membering the body,
 membering again,
making what was once dis-membered re-membered!
That the Roman Catholic Pope will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation alongside world Lutheranism
—that is astonishing! It is as if the Ear has heard the Mouth and the Mouth realized the Ear is just a few inches from him!
         Or, there are the latest tales of merger from those two Lutheran Seminaries in Pennsylvania who have been feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys since the American Civil War. Out of two, will come one.
Is that not the story of the body,
of union,
of our hope,
being one together
—the creation of something new,
being reconciled to one another and in so doing showing forth the body of Christ?

         And then, there is the work of Christ done in this particular piece of Central New Jersey
—that five churches would recognize one another for each of their unique gifts, seeing them all as gifts of the Spirit in their particular neighborhoods, and at the same time recognize the connections they have to one another!
It’s like the eyes see that the body’s got feet for walkin’ and the ears hear that the arms are useful for more than just picking out earwax!
         What I’m saying, to shift the metaphor, is that God has rooted each congregation in a particular community, and God is calling these congregations to share the burdens and the joys of ministry with one another… I thank God for that!
         As I stated earlier how you live out these connections are significant—if it is done without love, it does not matter.

         If I adhere to all proper doctrine, but do not have love, I am myself excluded.
         If I connect to my brothers and sisters so quickly and fully that every slight either of us ever committed is erased then and there, but do so without love, I have whitewashed myself.
         If I create something new, birth the Christ Child himself, but do so without love, the whole project is stillborn.
         If I dig deeply into a community and the branches of our mutual ministry together reach out and touch the sky, but I have not planted in love, take a chainsaw to me!

         Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

         For at the end of the day, love alone will remain.
When the fire has cleared out the forest floor, the tiny seeds of love will be all that is left.
Purity and Division. Merging, Partnership, Community
—that’s all fine and dandy.
But the one place I hang my hat,
the only ground I can stand on, the only place I can put my trust
—is love.



Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon: The Wisemen’s Gifts

The Wisemen’s Gifts

            Today I want to talk with you all about the gifts the wisemen brought.
            On one hand, there is the tradition, going back to at least the 600’s—attributed to the Venerable Bede,
we find this tradition in such songs as “We Three Kings”
—this tradition looks at the three gifts, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, and sees them as Symbols.
            Gold symbolizes the Kingship of Jesus…that he is the Messiah—the King of the Jews—the rightful heir of King David, whose kingdom God has promised shall have no end.
            Frankincense symbolizes the Divinity of Christ, that this baby they’ve come before, is God arrived in the flesh. God is found in the flesh, that the flesh might be found in God.
            Myrrh symbolizes the death to come—that Jesus would die as a sacrifice, acceptable for all.

            Another common way to view these gifts, is in light of certain scriptures about the wealth of the nations flooding into Israel to signal the changing of the age
—make us aware of the Day of the Lord
—a day when justice and mercy would be shown concretely
—the day God would act.
            In fact, we read in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters, of the collection Paul was taking up from the gentile churches he’d founded
—he was collecting money and other goods from these gentile churches—these non-Jewish churches—to send to the 12 disciples who were back in Jerusalem.
He did this to point out that God was acting in Jesus Christ
—acting, as well in Paul’s mission to the wider world.
The words of Isaiah and the Psalmist were being fulfilled in the actions of the Early Church.
            So too, Matthew’s Wisemen—they bear these gifts to Jesus in order to point to God’s actions in this world
—that the age was changing,
the Day of the Lord was at hand,
Justice and mercy were taking place in the person of Jesus.

            And these are both important gifts the Magi, these wise men, bring.
            But I think there is one more—they bring to us the gift of the seeker.
            The wisemen’s gift is the gift of the seeker.

Let us pray

            The wisemen give the gift of the seeker, the gift of the outsider, the one seeking, not the one who is comfortable with what they’ve already found.
The gift of the seeker—Think of it—the wise men arrive looking for the King of the Jews.
            They come as outsiders, foreigners, gentiles
—and they enter in, and they ask the question “Where is the King of the Jews?”
            They ask, where is the Christ Child.
            And the answer they receive is shocking
—Herod and the religious leaders react with fear and cause a stampede of a whole city
—all of Jerusalem.
            As you might imagine asking the King… where the King is, could rub a guy the wrong way. In fact, if you keep reading, Herod ends up killing a whole generation of Jesus’ peers, trying to stave off competition.
            Even when the Priests and Scribes tell the wise men where to find Jesus, they don’t go—they don’t follow.
            For Herod, following would finish his kingship, for the Priests and Scribes, it would challenge their positions.

            It is not unlike Dolstoyevski’s famed short story “The Grand Inquisitor.” In it, Jesus returns during the Spanish Inquisition and the story’s namesake The Grand Inquisitor arrests and chases away Jesus rather than allow him to disrupt the Church.

            And the Church today, while not as dreadful as the Inquisition, still has some of those same tendencies, the tendency of the insider, of a Herod, of a Scribe
—to be, at times, too comfortable with the Gospel to hear it.
—To, at times, major in the Minors.

             It’s like we’re listening to Bob Dylan on our Ipod, and don’t realize we’re at a live concert!
            It’s like we’re looking for spare change in our couch, yet we’re holding the winning lottery ticket in our back pocket!
            It’s like we’ve received the whole world and we decide to fight over who gets the last French fry.

            And that’s why I thank God that the Wisemen come, bearing their gifts, the Gift of the Seeker.
            They hear the word and rush to see.
            They follow the star to the King to be!
            They are filled with such Joy at their discovery.
            They present the best they have before him.
            They’re still surprised by this thing God is doing.
            Still stunned by God’s actions for all of us
—Good news for all!
            That’s Matthew’s Gospel in a nutshell, from the Wisemen at the start to the Great Commission at the end—let All Nations Know that Jesus is born for us!

            That’s the gift, the blessing of the Wisemen and every seeker
—the gift to us who know the old old story… we get to tell it again, and experience it again, see it with fresh eyes….
            It’s like a friend of mine—when he was a new father, he got to play hopscotch in the grocery isle with his son—got to experience childhood again and see the world that had become warn and old afresh, see again how unique and special it all is.

            So too for the Church—when seekers come to hear and see, we get to tell of God’s wondrous works!
            They shake us out of our complacency, reminding us of the power of all these things we see as commonplace.
Tell them about how…
            How together as a community we’re the Body of Christ—wow!
            How in Water, Word, Wine and Bread, God comes to us… and not just to us, but to you particularly!—Wow!
            How God’s work of salvation continually expands—Beyond Jerusalem, Beyond Samaria, Beyond Rome, beyond any barrier we build, blossoming before our very surprised eyes! Wow!

            This is why Confirmation classes and new members classes are such a joy to most pastors—we get to tell that old old story again, and in doing so hear it again ourselves!
            Yes, the Church’s gift is to hold this message about God, to hold it and share it, to live it! And the Seeker’s gift is to receive it, and in so doing revive it again for all of us! That we might all be overwhelmed with Joy at what God continues to do among us!
That through the power of God Jesus is King, Divinity, and Sacrifice.
That Justice and Mercy have found us in Jesus, that God has acted and continues to act!


Sunday, January 03, 2016

Today's sermon:Blueprint, Hand, Baptism, Magnifying Glass


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon 2015

In those days,
in those long warn out days,
in a long worn out world
—a world clunking along like an old clock, gears grinding along, but without purpose or consistency.

          In those old days, there was a certain kind of peace.
          The peace of Emperor Caesar Augustus
—Caesar the Revered One.
          Revered, because he was the one who climbed out of the Roman Civil War
—he scrambled over the bodies of:
Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
          He’d survived all that, and imposed a steel rule over that what remained. He held the Empire together through Roman Peace
—also known as Peace by Superior Fire Power.
          Caesar Augustus’ peace was essentially a blackmailing of Rome and all she’d conquered.
A strange kidnapping… a letter slid under glass to a bank teller stating, “Stick close to me and no one gets hurt.”
          A rule based on fear, not consent.

          And for that absence of war
—for filling the power vacuum left by Julius Caesar’s death
he was declared Son of the Divine.
          In those days, it was etched on rock, “Praise Augustus a Savior who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in peaceful order.”
          And in these old days it is important that we don’t judge those old days.
After all, filling power vacuums with non-violent, or at least non-chaotic, forces…
The absence of war, even if it’s not peace…
Security even if it means a certain amount of tyranny…
It is easy to want to settle for that…
But, we know even instinctually, that it is a fear driven kind of peace…
For that matter, sometimes just getting through another day feels like an acceptable end in and of itself…
But such a limited life may not even deserve the name.

          In those days, Augustus brought the kind of peace that fears so fully that it sends heavily pregnant women across borders…
Fear that forces a woman to deliver her child while traveling…
Fear that finds a father unable to provide even a guest room for his wife…
Not even a crib for his newborn child.

          And out there,
outside the gates of Bethlehem,
a people often left outside the gates…
          A people associated with animals and the outdoors
—a people who saw everything and everyone coming into the gates, and so were great gossips, to be believed but not to be associated with
          The Shepherds
          Now, what is a Shepherd? Well, I always remember the bumper sticker on my parents cooler—it said:
 “If you can’t trust a Biker, who can you trust?”
That’s kinda what we’re talking about here:
“If you can’t trust a Shepherd, who can you trust?”

          Those shepherds got to be witness to the greatest bit of gossip the world has ever known—the first to hear the gospel!
The first to hear a new thing in this old world,
The first to be a bridge between those old days to this day, this new day!
          Angels come to them…
Think about that!
 Angels! What are they doing out there?
          The Angels of heaven arrive on earth—imagine the weirdness of that
Their arrival indicates that heaven is down, the universe has upended itself, and this is an invasion!
          It’s like a scene from a movie
—the camera focuses tightly on an angel’s wing and the sky
—the stars all up there, only to flip around and rightsize at the last moment, revealing the angel is not flying, up there in the sky, but instead standing, right here, right here on earth!
The holy is not up there, but right here, right here on earth!
          In the book “Ender’s Game” the characters play an elaborate laser tag/capture the flag game in zero-gravity,
and the main character realizes spatial orientation doesn’t matter in zero-gravity,
that if you re-think where you are in the room, and see your opponent’s goal as down then the game, instead of being about dodging and hiding, is about falling well, landing in your enemy’s goal.
          So too, the orientation of earth has shifted, heaven is on earth, God has arrived here
—everything else is just an elaborate falling into His arms.

          Yes, with the arrival of angels heaven has come down, and the tired promises of those days are eclipsed with the true promises of this day!
          No more the worn out promises of safety by blackmail, a Caesar crowned atop the bodies of those he brutalized and beat, the peace he keeps by keeping a lid on it all.

          Instead the one who is Savior, Messiah, Lord…
is a baby bound in bands of cloth,
set in a slop trough.
          A tiny child
—a small human,
filled with God,
filled with all those proud promises made by Caesar,
but backed up by blessing instead of force.

          The host of angels is an army
—an angelic invasion of Caesar’s world,
our world
An invasion on behalf of this little child…
—an invasion like no other, (other than maybe The Beatles)
an invasion by a song,

an invasion that woos the world,
singing a better song than
all our false saviors,
all our controlling kings,
all our armies of interests and security and tyranny,
all that squared off against a song
Caesar’s song of fear…
Our song of fear…
Faces off against one of praise and pondering, and fear doesn’t have a chance!

No chance against:
--A song to shepherds outside the gates
--A song these shepherds sing to Mary and Joseph there a long way from Nazareth,
--A song there before little Jesus in the lowly manger.
--A song reverberating in Mary’s heart.
A song Jesus later sings to the crowds.
A song sung to Samaritans and Sabbath breakers,
Sung to the lost and the least.
A song sung for his whole life long
Sung there on the cross for us,
Wooing us at whatever the cost
And sung again on the other side of the grave.
Sung to you and to me,
…Sung by you and by me, as well
“Glory to God in the highest of heavens
And peace to God’s people here on earth!”


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent 3: John's Good News!

         You wouldn’t think it
—a wild man in the desert telling you to repent
—telling you the truth… that you are a sinner
—you wouldn’t think that would be a good message.
--You wouldn’t think it would be popular and attractive.

         Can’t you hear the ad men now, “Oh, soften your image, John. Replace camel hair with Prada and pastel. Maybe tone down the sin talk
Or only talk about sins that other people commit
—Tell the coatless that people need to be generous,
the occupied about the danger of Roman taxation,
and the extorted that soldiers are sinners.
Or even, you know, cut out this whole sin talk in total.”

         To which John replies by doubling down.
          He turns to the newly baptized, who he—I want to be clear here, he was the one who warned them… warned to flee the wrath of God, He question “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” is rhetorical,
and he says, “You brood of vipers!”
“Your ancestry,
your pedigree,
your nation of origin,
your race,
your ethnicity,
 isn’t your value
—isn’t your fruitfulness.
God created humans from the humus—earthlings from the earth.
God can shake every grave until the stones fly away and the dead rise
—God can produce women and men much more faithful than you.
Be fruitful or be cut down.
This baptism thing wasn’t a one and done.
Look alive or you might as well be dead.”

         “It’s like,” he continues, “you heard the phrase ‘Bear fruits worthy of repentance’ and turned it on its head… as thought that meant: sin a whole lot so when you repent you have a whole catalogue of stuff to repent of…
but you’ve already repented!
         You’ve somehow grabbed at the root of the phrase and assumed the root was the branches
—you’ve dug yourself into the root system, the term, repentance, instead of looking up at its fruits dangling there so sweet.
You’ve somehow managed to dig yourself into a grave, even though I called on you to climb out of it!
         You’ve repented, that’s the seed that you’ve planted…
I want to know what kind of bush you’ve produced,
what kind of plant you’ve got?
Is it an actual repentance-plant or some sort of sickly self-sanctified scrubland shrub?

         If that’s all you got, its taking up space
—it’s a waste of space
—it ought to be burnt so actual repentance will have space to flourish!

         “What does fruitfulness, a turned around life preparing for God’s coming, look like?” the crowd asks.
         “You that have, share with those who do not have.”
         Someone in the crowd hurrumphs and responds, “That’s all well and good—but we’re living in a complex multi-faceted world where diverse cultures and dominant empires collide to make all sharing hard.”
         “For example,” another man in the crowd continues, “This is an occupied country, but I collaborate with Rome to make ends meat, I collect taxes for the enemy.”
         “That way of doing things is rigged, unrig it,” John replies.
         A roman soldier studies him and says, “What about us occupiers ourselves?”
         “Did I stutter?” John replies, “The way you are occupying is rigged… unrig it.”

         Share and don’t rig the system—it’s so simple it’s in brilliant.
         Simple, but how often do you let your life get in the way of it?
         How often do you make excuses for not showing forth the fruits of repentance?
         How often do you say, “They probably don’t really need a coat”... or maybe you give them the worst coat you own and then complain that they are ungrateful!
         How often do you say, “I’m part of a very unjust and rigged system, but such a little part, that it doesn’t matter… blame the game not the player.”
         How often do you say, “This world can be brutal, but that’s just the world,” and shrug your shoulders and move on?
         Share and don’t rig the system… that’s what a repentant life looks like.

         There with John, despite, or maybe because of, his rough calls to repentance and fruitfulness, baptism after baptism occurred, and you began to babble asking, “who is this John fellow?”
         “Is he the one? Will he bring about salvation? Is he King of the Jews? Is he Lord of the World?”

         “No,” John replies to us
—“I can tell you about a fruitful life,
but he’ll burn you and turn you into mulch so you can be fruitful
—purifying you with fire and spirit.”

         And let me tell you one final thing—that’s good news.” A+A