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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon: The Self-Binding God

        In light of the recent beheading of 21 Coptic Christians and the rumors of organ harvesting coming out of the region controlled by Daesh, commonly called ISIS here in the states.
         In light of the attacks on cartoonists and Jews now in two different countries, France and Denmark.
         In light of Daesh burning a Jordanian pilot alive.
         In light of the thousands slaughtered in Iraq and Syria.
         In light of the attempted Genocide of the Yazidi.
         In light of the beheading of Journalists and other foreigners.
         In light of the kidnapping of the two Bishops from Aleppo, now nearly 2 years ago.
          In light of all that, it’s worth considering again how these kind of things can be done in the name of God.

         Let us pray.

         When I first was reading the Bible on my own as a young kid, before I was firmly connected with a Church community or tradition, at night when I was supposed to be asleep, I would just randomly open up the Bible and read—this is how I rebelled against my parents as a 8 year old.
         Often times I ran into cool stories, Jesus getting the best of some Religious stick in the mud, or I ran into a cool proverbs that really made me think—it was great fun…
but sometimes I ran into some totally creepy stuff—The Book of Revelation, rules about menstrual blood, descriptions of situations when it is advisable to stone a person to death
—and the one that gave me nightmares for a good long time, was about the practice of Haram, the act of sacred destruction. When you conquer a village, take everything in it, both things and people, and put them to the flame.
Now, I would have read right past it, except it goes on and gives an example of when a soldier took some things and didn’t utterly destroy them. God gets mad at the people until the soldier is punished by joining the objects in the flames.

         And, if we get past the cute children’s story version of events we have about Noah—you know all those children’s arks with cute little Giraffes and Elephants and smiling Noah and family
—if you get past all that, the flood story is another one of those stories that could give a kid nightmares.
         Angels are boinking humans, humans are killing one another left, right, and center, so God flushes the whole experiment down the toilet.

         It must be stated that the first 12 chapters of Genesis are written as pre-history—essentially, “you’ve heard all these explanations of the world from other peoples, here’s a faithful reading of them, in light of the God we know.”
So, for example, “you’ve heard it said the god Marduke created earth by tearing apart a chaos dragon, well I say to you God isn’t a fighting God, God creates simply with his words.”
Likewise, as in today’s reading, “You’ve heard it said in the Epic of Gilgemesh, and elsewhere, that the gods were grumpy because humans are loud, so they tried to drown us all, and it was only because a human seduced a goddess that humans survived, but I say to you, the wickedness of humans brought about a just response, yet God was merciful and started again with a new covenant, a new relationship, with humans and the earth—God doesn’t give up on us.”
         So, when you read vast swaths of scripture it’s worth noting what they’re being written in response to… None the less, it’s gruesome, “all flesh cut off,” the deadly bow of God.

         And as you all know there are plenty of times when the faithful have not put down the bow.
         Because I believe it might be a useful analogy to help us understand what’s currently going on in the Middle East, I would like us to think back for a few moments to the period during, and immediately after, Luther’s Reformation.
         Before Luther, Jan Hus was burnt at the stake for offering his parishioners both bread and wine at communion.
         If Luther hadn’t been taken into hiding after his famous declaration at his trial, “Here, I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen,” that would have been his fate as well. Some early Lutherans were in fact killed in just such a fashion.
         John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, burnt Michael Servetus alive for not believing in the Trinity or in child baptism.
         Lutherans carried out the persecution of Mennonites.

         In general, Christians of all sorts took up the Sacred Bow against one another,
The Faithful were used by secular governments to further national ends,
and likewise, the religious used secular governments to further their religious ends.
         From 1555, when the Peace of Augsburg claimed to settle the question of religious persecution, until 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, almost 100 years—inter-religious war depopulated Germany, and killed, by some estimates, 12 million Europeans.
All in the name of God.
         For that matter, it wasn’t for another 200 years that, at the 1st Vatican Council in 1870, the Pope gave up his claim to secular power.
         Now this is just me talking, but it seems like one of the big questions for “The West” and all those governing authorities in our country, since the Iranian Revolution in ‘79, or perhaps the Lockerbie Bombing ‘88, or maybe the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, is this:
         “How do you navigate, and/or contain, the Islamic equivalent of the European Wars of Religion, in an Era of Globalization, Mass Immigration, the Internet, and Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
         Obviously I do not have a set of answers for you all, it’s way above my pay grade…
This is why we pray for those who govern nations, especially our own; they have an unenviable job.

         All of these acts of violence and destruction in the name of God, ought to be Anathema—denounced, condemned, and cursed.
         Because God puts down the bow. God binds God’s-self with a vow, that never again will God destroy the world, never again will God take up that bow.
Think of that, God limiting God’s self!

         This is the true story of the faith, it is the hope always on the lips of those who preach the Gospel
—that God favors mercy over justice. God limit’s God’s self, for our sake.

         During the season of Lent we’ll see this again and again in the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. God will say:
“Okay, I renewed all of creation after the flood… and that didn’t work for you all, so I’ll work through Abraham and his family.”
“Okay, you guys screwed that up too… I’ll lay down 10 basic rules for you all.”
“Okay, you’re still complaining in the wilderness… I’ll create a batch of miracles to save you from yourselves.”
“Okay, this still isn’t working… I’ll jam my covenant into your hearts, so you can’t find it to break it.”

And even then, it continues, until God sends Jesus, his son, who continually forgives us.
Even then, we kill him.
And even then, God provides for us, taking the death of Jesus as payment for all of our sins!

         And surely that would be enough, but God continues this trajectory of mercy over justice, as we read in that weird bit in 1st Peter.
         Christ descends to hell, preaching even to the Spirits bound in chains there! Jesus ripping apart hell itself! That’s the power of the Word of God.

         Think of it. If God tries to convert Djinns and Demons in the depths of hell, surely we can pray for the redemption of Daesh.
         In fact, a good place to start, might be to remind them, and us, of Noah’s words, as recorded in the Quran, the 71st chapter: “Ask forgiveness of your LORD. Indeed, He is ever a Perpetual Forgiver.”
         Yes, there is much violence done in the name of God.
Violence committed because God’s mercy is being ignored.
Yet truly, for the faithful, this is an impossible thing they do—to ignore God’s mercy,
Because God’s merciful acts are the linchpin of the entire story of Scripture.
God, merciful to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah.
God’s mercy shown in total, in Jesus’ righteous actions and words.
Jesus’ death, the ultimate act of self-limiting on God’s part.
Jesus’ descent to the dead to Harrow Hell and pull from the pit a people imprisoned.
And of course, that amazing act of God we prepare for, this Lenten season
—the Resurrection, which is God’s ultimate promise of mercy to us. Amen.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday Homily

Gather together sisters and brothers.
          Sing together psalms and songs of sorrow, dear people.
          Call upon the LORD God, cling to Christ the Savior of the World.
          Confess your sins, known and unknown.
          Be marked with the dust of your very nature.

          Come here, you lonely and abandoned ones.
          You quiet, you reflective.
          You, like David, who have been confronted with your sin, pinned down by a clarifying moment—struck dumb by your Sin revealed, confessing “I’ve seen the enemy and it is me.”
          You, like Joel, overwhelmed by the events of the world and your own helplessness in the face of it all. Found powerless, you do the only thing you can, you kneel in prayer, you search out the warmth of other people, so that sorrow might be shared, and overcome by community, carrying one another and bearing one another.
          Yes, come together in worship and fellowship, gathered together as the body of Christ as we prepare for the coming of resurrected Christ.
          Pray more deeply, in this season that has a chasm’s depth to it.
          Hold more loosely those things that you wish to grasp for
—for our Lord did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbled himself all the way to the cross.
          Give to those who ask of it, for all has already been given to you.
          Yet listen to the words of Jesus and the Prophets—heed them well. Do these things from the heart and for the sake of your neighbors.
          The Danger is we will try to practice piety in pubic in order to point to ourselves; we get caught on showmanship instead of sorrow for sin.
          This is the opposite of true religion; it’s the opposite of a true Lenten calling. Our actions are not for ourselves—they are to de-center ourselves… to catch us off balance so we are caught in God’s mercy.
          Hear the words of the Prophets—they are cries for repentance, not for public consumption, but as an act of restitution
—justice is not admitting a mistake and moving on, it’s admitting the mistake and making amends.
          In short, it’s not about you. It’s about love of God and love of neighbor—no big surprise there I suppose, we’re Christians after all

          Worship, pray, fast, and give alms, knowing that you will fail at it
—and in that failure you will find the dust of the cross upon your brow again
—you’ll find yourself at the feet of Jesus again
—you’ll find that a space in your soul has been opened, that God might sanctify you in your failure.

          As dear Brother Martin Luther wrote on his death bed 469 years ago today, “We are all beggars; that is true.”
That, that is what we find in this sacred failure of Lent
—we find ourselves dying and being brought back to life by the one who was so profoundly a beggar that:
He veiled himself,
He entered the darkness
He knelt down in the dirt and dust
—the ashes of this Wednesday.
Christ is found in them, Christ is found here.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Five Links 2

As I stated last time, one of the reasons Andrew Sullivan’s blog was so good, was that he commented on EVERYTHING (same reason St. Augustine was so good, but that’s another story). One of the ways he commented on everything was soliciting five links a day from one of his contributors. So, I decided that on an irregular basis I’d try my hand at commenting on five links. Without further adieu here they are!
Kevin Drum of Mother Jones mentions that Scott Walker, if he becomes the Republican Candidate, will be the most conservative nominee since Barry Goldwater. Then the article goes on to mention that Walker’s Midwestern nature hides this fact. That got me thinking about how folk in New Jersey talk about Chris Christie’s chances at becoming the Republican nominee. Essentially, they argue he’s quite liberal, but he’s Jersey tough, maybe even Jersey mean—and meanness can be confused with being conservative.
Think about that for a second. Walker, despite being very conservative, could get the nod because he’s Midwestern nice. Christie, despite being relatively liberal, could get the nod because he’s Jersey mean. Weird.
John Dickerson pointed to Vice President Joe Biden’s recent comment that the next Democratic nominee for president will essentially be running for President Obama’s third term. In other words, “If by third term you mean another 59 months of continuous job growth and falling unemployment, then yes, I’ll be a third term.”
Dickerson doesn’t think this is a good idea for Hillary, who he assumes will be the Democratic Party Nominee. He points out that voters almost always prefer the new to the old… just ask Al Gore about offering America an era of peace and prosperity, a continuation of the 1990’s. I suppose in that way Americans are just like the Athenians, we’re always chasing after something new (Acts 17:21).
Continuing to engage with “Obama’s Niebuhr moment” Douthat cautions conservatives from responding to the President’s non-nuanced reference to the Crusades with even more lack of nuance. Essentially Douthat argues that by rushing to answer the President conservatives have, “produced a lot of arguments that effectively whitewash Christian history, minimize the harge reality of pogroms and persecutions, and otherwise present fat targets for secular eye-rolling.”
So, LutheranCORE, a “reform” group within the ELCA that often times tries to convince ELCA churches to leave the denomination over our “liberal” stance on Gay folk, as well as our willingness to play nice with the Episcopal Church, did an epic troll. That is, no one was paying attention to what they have to say, so they said something really offensive in order to get attention—it’s the internet version of throwing a temper tantrum.
Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod recently wrote an open letter to the LGBT community in response to a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (the 2nd largest Lutheran denomination in the USA) school expelling a student for coming out of the closet.  His post was a pastoral letter addressing a local issue within the confines of his Synod where, because of that news, Lutherans were becoming synonymous with anti-gay bigots.
CORE responded, by issuing their own “Open Letter” to gay folk, in which they purposefully misread the ELCA’s statement on Human Sexuality, and state, on behalf of the ELCA, that gay people are in fact not welcome in the ELCA. They did so repeating key phrases and words so that their statement will pop up first when people look up ELCA, LGBT, and open letter… in other words, if there are gay people and their families hurt by Lutherans, who want to search out this open letter by Bishop Rinehart, they will instead find a letter of unwelcome.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sermon: Sacred Failure

         Mathematicians spend time trying to solve unsolvable problems. The theory behind this practice is that it makes them better mathematicians, by working toward the unsolvable—it hones their craft…
         Perhaps this is why the Transfiguration exists.
         An impossible story upon which Pastors can hone our craft, sharpen our tongue, become better preachers.
         Knowing, from the beginning that preaching about the Transfiguration is an impossible task…
Let us pray,

         So, knowing I’m about to fail, here’s the deal.
         Peter’s words, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,” speaks to two halves of the human experience.
         “It’s good for us to be here,” speaks to those who are Spiritual, but not Religious—those who seek the high of Divine experience—a prophetic frenzy, without the moorings of buildings and tradition, and more disastrously community—so the divine, at best, sparks and sputters out, leaving only a shadow behind.
         “Let us make three dwellings,” speaks to those who are Religious, but not Spiritual—those who dimly recognize the divine light among them, and so they do what they can to capture that moment, make a dwelling for that moment—taking the trappings of place, or era, or people there as the central part of that God moment—they take these things and harden those things into an idol

         As you might imagine, both fail…
The first, the Spiritual but not Religious crowd, cedes all control of events, perhaps they make everything an inward blaa, they give up clarity for the sake of expediency.
I can find God in the woods, I can find God without community, I can find God by sleeping in, and at some point they no longer care to find God.
The second, the Religious but not Spiritual folk, muzzles things, stuffs God in all too confining boxes, makes ritual out of righteousness and prescribed acts out of piety.
God is found on this mountain only, you can access God by living among these people only, God only shows up if you wear this particular funny hat.

         To these words of Peter, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,” —to our own inclinations to Spiritualism and Religiosity—comes the voice of God from a cloud…

         Hey—maybe we’re getting somewhere now… right?
Perhaps it is in those clouds that we find a way to be both religious and spiritual… perhaps if we just listen to the beloved son all will be better… perhaps this is the road to success?

         But those clouds too disappear, just as the prophets and the idea of dwelling places, disappeared.

         There you are—there we are—there is the human condition—right there. All these things lead you into a grave nothingness—no flighty spirituality, no grounding ritual—not even the very voice of God
—there you are, only Jesus. There you are, neither Religious nor Spiritual—there you are, with only Jesus.
         And that sparse reality is a good thing to keep in front of you, as you enter Lent.
         Lent is all about the Spiritual and the Religious—extra worship, prescribed prayers, fasting, almsgiving, a personal piety explosion, chasing after Jesus, boxing Jesus in—ritual and rigor.

         And here’s the thing. Both Spiritual and Religious yearnings and strivings—the basic stuff of Lent—all of it, end in utter failure.
Either we go half-way and recognize we can’t do it—or we go all the way—all the way through the desert, and congratulate ourselves, patting ourselves on the back…
Only then, once we’ve made a right fool of ourselves… then we realize it wasn’t us, it wasn’t our own will that brought us this far, but the faithfulness of God that put that will within us.

         You Spiritual, your transcendent warm fuzzies will float away, clearing like a cloud.
         You Religious, you’ll succeed only by formalizing and forgetting, fixating on the mountain instead of the message.

—either way—we find ourselves in failure,
no prophet,
no dwelling,
no cloud,
no religion,
no spirit
—stripped of all pretentions—only Jesus remains.

         Interestingly the date of Luther’s death—February 18th, will fall on Ash Wednesday this year.
Luther’s dying words were, “We are beggars all; this is true.”
         That right there is the point of Lent—it’s the process of striving, and failing—recognizing that we are beggars.
Sanctification is nothing more than growing in identification with the needy world we are part of.
Growing more profoundly a beggar ourselves, arriving at that place where only Jesus remains.
         It’s dying and being brought to life by the one who was so profoundly a beggar that,
he veiled himself,
he entered the darkness,
he knelt down in the dirt and dust with us.

          Yes, this sermon here is a failure.
         All Transfiguration Sermons, are failures.
         And I thank God for that, for failure.
         It is in that failure we show ourselves for who we are.
         And Christ shows himself for who he is.
         In failure we are left with nothing
         —nothing but Jesus.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Five Links

With the retirement of Andrew Sullivan, I think it’s worth thinking a little about why his blog was so successful. One reason was he “read the whole internet.” He began this process by asking for 5 links a day.
So, to honor the recently retired pioneer of the internet, every now and again I’ll comment on five links.
Reacting instantly to five links about hot topics of the day is no small thing. You can put your foot in it easily, or even contribute to more noise instead of expanding positive and useful discourse.
Between Stephen Colbert, Andrew Sullivan, and now Jon Stewart, we’re losing some heavy hitters in the cross section of politics and popular culture. I do not think it’s a coincidence that they all gained their prominence during the Bush Administration. They were the folk pointing out, with both poignancy and aplomb, that the emperor had no clothing. And you can ride on that for… apparently a little over 6 years, but in the Obama years there isn’t the same oxygen for their kind of flame. I mean, obviously there are still a lot of loyal fans, but skewering the opposition isn’t the same as poking the crown while it’s atop the king’s head.
Ross Douthat sees Obama as within the tradition of Niebuhr in his “Christians do violence too,” moment at the prayer breakfast. However, Ross then goes on and does a “I knew Niebuhr, and you my friend are no Reinhold Niebuhr.” He sees Obama’s critique as distinct from a Niebuhrian critique because:
a. Obama isn’t a theologian or historian, so his comments were creating a straw-man instead of a nuanced and thought through expression of reality
b. The Muslim world doesn’t care what Obama says 
c. Obama is using Niebuhr to score political points.
Frum noticed that Jeb Bush quoted Plinty the Elder when talking about oil policy. The problem is Plinty didn’t read Adam Smith, who might be a better guide for modern economics, per Frum.

Clint, over at Lutheran Confessions, sees a potentially insidious side to “Progressive Christianity," a form of the Faith that focuses on the questions instead of the answers—as an antidote to more fundamentalists forms of Christianity that focuses on answers without considering the questions of the day; the danger is "Progressive Christianity" might make itself out to be the end goal of the Faith—instead of seeing itself as yet another evolution, another anti-thesis, in a Hegelian reading of Christian history.


Student Debt 2015 Edition, Ctd

It was pointed out to me that my chart did not take into account the fact that I live in a Parsonage and receive other clergy benefits. That’s a fair critique, I guess when I’m living day to day I just think about the money I have in my bank account, not the bank account of living in a house and having health insurance, which are by no means small things!
I like to think I at least occasionally blog in the style of Andrew Sullivan, and one of his big things is admitting when you are wrong. Well, the last chart is kinda wrong. Here is an updated chart that takes into account my “Defined Compensation.” Also, just because I think it’s worth thinking about the amount of interest students pay on their loans, I created a distinct category of “Loan Interest.”

So, what’s the diff? All of a sudden I’m keeping 49% of my income instead of 36% and my student loans only account for 16% of my income instead of 19%.

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