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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sermon: The End

I missed posting this sermon from a few weeks back, because I went straight from Church to Pinecrest where I taught "Smart People, Wise Faith."

         On this, the final Sunday in our summer sermon series “8 Question from the Pews,” we end with a rather appropriate question… or rather an appropriate request “Talk about what ‘the end’ means.”
         To do this we’ll:
1.   Consider two meanings of the word
2.   And look at what today’s gospel readings from the Gospel of Mark look like in light of those two meanings of the word

Let us pray.

The End.
         When we talk about it theologically, we often think about the book of Revelation, Millenialism of various sorts, the Late Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind Series.
         What all these things have in common is an assumption that the definition of “The End” we’re using is “The conclusion” or “Termination.” “Ceasing.” “Stopping.” A period or exclamation mark, as opposed to a comma or semi-colon.
         And this is probably what the questioner meant.
         They’re likely wondering what it’ll all be like when the earth ceases to exist, or this particular epoch, this particular time period, stops.
         Yet, I would suggest another one of the 7 definitions of “End” is worth considering when we look at scripture—the end defined as “Goal.” The end of something is its direction, where it is going.
         By way of example, our Episcopal brothers and sisters confess: “The Chief End of Man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
         So, instead of “The End” being a period, or point ending a line, it’s an arrow pointing toward a goal.

         Let’s consider Mark’s Gospel in light of these two meanings.
         A more literal reading of Mark’s Gospel points us toward the first definition of Endà “The Passing away of heaven and earth,” the evaporation of the world.
         In this reading Jesus is warning us that at some unknown time there will be a period of cosmic darkness, and the Son of Man—this figure from the book of Daniel, will arrive and we ought to look for signs and keep awake so we know when it happens and are not caught unaware.
         Some read this as pointing toward the destruction of the temple, or more commonly, as pointing toward the destruction of the world. In this case, they say, Jesus is telling us to look around and read everything as a sign, to be anxious for the coming cosmic thunderclap that will end it all.

         But let’s consider option B—the End as an arrow pointing toward a goal.
         To do this we can look more particularly at a pattern in Mark’s Gospel—his dealing with fig trees.
         Yes, Fig trees, it might seem a weird place to go into order to talk about the end—with a plant… but Jesus himself describes the coming of The Son of Man as being announced like a fig tree announces summer.
         So, let’s consider the Fig Tree.
         Jesus enters Jerusalem the first time, his humble act of riding a donkey, which proclaims the kind of Kingdom we are called to, is met with leaves galore—it at first seems that there is a fruitful acceptance of the Kingdom of God.
         But, at the gates of Jerusalem, just outside the city limits, back in Bethany, Jesus sees the truth, writ large on that small Fig Tree, there are leaves but no fruit, and so he curses it. As in Jerusalem, so too the fig tree, both unfruitful.

         Then he again passes the threshold between Bethany and Jerusalem and enters to see the Temple, and attacks it, turning tables expelling sellers, and mightily kicking out moneychangers.
         And again he returns to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, he sees this fig tree again, this time withered.

         Then, a third time, Jesus, in Jerusalem, declares that there will be a time of darkness in which the Son of Man will be reveled, he will be at the very gate of Jerusalem—at the threshold and his presence will be announced like a fig tree announces summer.
         Then Jesus encourages us to stay awake for the Son of Man, for he might show up at:
 or at dawn.

         Again, lots of people see this as Jesus explaining what it will be like when the earth ceases to exist… but, what if this is a goal he is describing? What if it describes his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and is telling us where we might find our Master?
         After all, on two previous occasions the events in Jerusalem paralleled the sign of the Fig Tree.

         The Son of Man is coming Jesus tells the high Priest—and then Jesus adds that, he, Jesus, is the Son of Man.
         We must keep alert, stay awake, to see him—look at the Disciples at Gethsemane, who fail to do so.
         That evening, the Last Supper, they meet the Son of Man in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine.
         At midnight those in power are judged by the Son of Man, even as they put him on trial.
         When the cock crows, Peter makes a fateful choice and denies the Son of Man.
         At dawn, the women meet the resurrected Lord.

         What if the point of talking about the end is not some deathwatch for the world, or a waiting for everything to be over… what if instead the end is a goal, to stay awake that we might experience again the saving story of Jesus Christ’s Life, Death, and Resurrection…
that we might trust in his resurrection,
recognize when we deny our Lord,
eschew the powers of this world that judge falsely,
meet our Lord in the Holy Meal of Communion,
be awake in prayer,
and confess to all that Jesus is our Lord.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon: Christmas in August

          You may remember back a month or so South Plainfield held it’s 3rd annual “Christmas in July.” Paintings of Olaf the Snowman from Frozen adorned shop windows, good old St. Nick made a surprise appearance… in general we as a town came together to celebrate some parts of Christmas in July instead of December.

          Well, today we have a similar opportunity. Today’s readings all point us to the basic, blood and guts point of Christmas,
that God has been born to us,
Emmanuel, God with us…
Christmas is about the scandal of particularity!
God made flesh, in a particular man, in a particular time, in a particular place.
Yes, today we read about the scandal of particularity—and in so doing we are celebrating Christmas again. Just as there was Christmas in July, today there is Christmas in August.

Let us pray.

          In order to frame the scandalous particularity we proclaim this day, let’s think briefly back to Christmas…
The stories we tell—Joseph and Mary and Angels and all the rest… and for that matter the stories about Rudolf and Red Rider BB Guns, and the time Uncle Hank embarrassed the whole family but made it up to everyone with a soulful ballad from the old country.
The songs we sing—the Christmas carols, the Choir gathered at the Old Danish home around Tom’s homemade wine, the hymn sing the Sunday after.
The Decorations—Advent Candles, Wreaths, Poinsettias, Trees with Tinsel, maybe torn down by little terroristic cats.
The meals—Turkey and stuffing, yams and pie and Figgie Pudding, Seven fishes the night before…

          Yes, the particularity of Christmas: Stories, Songs, Decorations, and Meals… So too the particularity we find before us today.

          The specific story of Joshua, remembering how God has acted, brought God’s people out of Egypt, protected them along their sojourn to freedom, defended them and brought them to a land that became there own.
          This is not some universal story of a god doing good things in general, but Our God acting against oppression and bondage, a special story for a special people—a particular people chosen by a particular God.
          The specific song of Psalm 34—a weird one, about God’s body parts—a God with eyes and ears, a face and an astonishing closeness. A God embodied in the world—yes Metaphorically, but a face that points to God’s closeness with us, eyes and ears that can hear our cries and see our lives!
          Not some God that steps away or does not care, but a God intimately involved and concerned with God’s people. God for us and with us!

          The odd decorations we wear upon ourselves—the very actions and attributes of God, putting on God’s truth and righteousness, his peace and faith, his salvation and spirit, holding tight to the very Word of God!
          Not some far away and far out deity acting in theory but not in fact… When God acts, those actions become so real that we can wrap them around us, the character of God so solid that it is our sure defense.

          That meal Jesus tells us about! The bodily-ness of it all, the icky intimacy of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood. A call to abide with him, to reside with him, to follow him all the way to the end.
          Not some Gnostic escape from the flesh, from the world in which we live, not a pie in the sky savior—but one you can sink your teeth into—literally… one who isn’t about escape, but instead about staying put where you are and finding life there with Him!

          So yes, in stories of specificity, songs sung about the face of God, decorations made from God’s actions, and a holy Meal of the flesh and blood of Christ, we are confronted with Christmas in August.

          And this means so much. God is with us in one particular human being, Jesus—and since then He’s been entering into our personal peculiar particularities every since.
          God’s story sanctifying our story.
          God’s song the tempo our life.
          God’s reality wrapping us tighter than swaddling clothe.
           God’s banquet in Christ Jesus’ flesh making us Holy and his blood making us drunk on his divinity!

          God in the newborn baby’s cry, the mother’s joy and the father’s worry.
          God with a toddler clinging to her uncle’s neck as they wonder at the meteor shower.
          God lazing in the sun, back to an old sad poplar, just taking in the goodness of the day.
          God with us hungry by a restaurant dumpster, waiting for the day-old-bread and bagels to be deposited.
          God in the hospital with a man quarantined and questioning the meaning of life.
          God joyfully smiling at the wedding banquet and clapping at the family reunion.
          God a solemn sentinel in the nursing home and a mourner when things fall apart.
          God entering into the thin places between heaven and earth, making holy the particulars of our lives.
          God, on this particular day, celebrating Christmas in August.  A+A


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

All The Books

            Greetings faithful readers, I just wanted to update you all on my latest book, Seeing with the Mind, Hearing with the Heart, make sure you all know the wide variety of books I’ve written that are available for purchase, and let you know the directions I’m hoping to go with future books.
            Seeingwith the Mind, Hearing with the Heart: A Thematic Bible Study on Luke by aYoung Pastor and a Not So Young Parishioner is a collaboration with one of my parishioners, Linda Nietman. I taught a 7-week bible study on the portions of Luke only found in the Gospel of Luke, and she suggested I turn it into a book. I agreed, on one condition, that she become my co-author. Linda and I alternate chapters, mine focus on what the text says, the bible study end of things, and Linda’s chapters focus on what the texts mean for you, a more devotional reading. In seven chapters we tackle a variety of themes, including Women, Wealth, Samaritans, Social Status, Persistent Prayer, and Repentance.
            Previous to this I published Silicon Soul, which is a Dystopian Sci-Fi novel set in a future where AI is out of control, Ayn Rand and her ideas are in ascendancy, and the Gospel must be read with its back against the wall (to borrow a phrase from Thurman). It was my contribution to National Novel Writing Month.
            Additionally, I gathered sermons from my Seminary classmates and stuck them into a little book titled Nine Sermons from the Lutheran Theological Seminary atPhiladelphia Class of 2011.
            Previous to that I compiled a Minister’s Prayer Book-esque Prayer Book entitled Read,Reflect, Pray: A Lutheran Prayer Book that focused on the seven central things of worship. I wrote it in response to my experience of becoming an Ordained person, you no longer get to lose yourself in worship.

            Finally, I published an expanded version of my M. Phil. Thesis about re-tellings of Genesis 22. Its title is An Uncomfortable Bit of Rope and Other Essays onthe Binding of Isaac.
            So, those are all the books I currently have out. Keep tabs on my Author’s Page.

            Now that my big summer projects are behind me, teaching a theology course for young people Smart People, Wise Faith, a Bible course Hidden Books and Heresies, and thinking through my sermon series 8 question from the pews, I’m starting to think through my next writing projects. (Drumroll please).

Christopher’s Medium Catechism—Every now and again I do an Ember Day like Luther did, where I preach on Luther’s Small and Large Catechism. What results is a medium length re-reading of those documents. So, once I’ve preached on the whole Catechism perhaps I’ll work them into a more formal thing in book or blog form.
The Bible We Don’t Read—A while back I defaced one of my bibles, cutting out all the pieces that are in the lectionary to see what’s left… there is a lot. So, I intend to carefully read through all the portions of scripture left out of the Revised Common Lectionary and write about the kind of faith found in those portions of the Bible.
A Project on Revelation—I’ve often thought, what did the book of Revelation sound like to its original readers? Did it sound like a 5th Gospel or a horror show? This will be a work that covers similar ground as The Rapture Exposed and Joy in Our Weakness but with more of a creative eye. So, perhaps a mainline response to the Left Behind series.
A Speculative Fiction Trilogy—Back in college I outlined a Speculative Fiction trilogy that covered some of the same ground as Silicon Soul. My plan is to write one of these for each of the next 3 National Novel Writing Months.

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Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sermon: “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”

         This second to last Sunday in our summer sermon series “8 questions from the pews” is a heavy one. The question is this: “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
         Part of me would simply like to respond with a time of silence.
         But, I think, today calls for confession and understanding.
         What can we say?
1.That the Lutheran tradition has within it a strain of submission to people in authority
2. a strain of anti-Judaism in it
Both of which make us complicit in the horror of the Holocaust.
3.      Additionally, there was also a portion of the faith that resisted Nazism, but it wasn’t enough and didn’t go far enough.

         Let us pray.

         One aspect of the faith going all the way back to our beginnings is that common question “How do we relate to the state and the society in which we live?”
         One tact is to take Jesus’ words “my kingdom is not of this world” to move all our concern in an otherworldly direction—to assume those things shaping day to day life here and now, are none of our business as Christians.

         Similarly, and this is more the norm for us Lutherans, is to follow Paul’s advice to the Romans—those in authority are there because God is the God of History, and therefore we ought to be good citizens of our country and not question authority.
         Lutheranism’s tendency to side with the powers that be, fits Luther’s life experience—when there were death threats by the Pope and other Catholic officials it was the secular princes who kept him from trial and death. The state kept him alive and the reformation afloat, and he rightly thanked God for that
—not knowing the kind of murderous totalitarianism that was to come.
(larger society)
         Now, Anti-Judaism is perhaps the original sin of Christianity. It was birthed out of that strange back and forth that lead to the cleaving of Judaism and Christianity.
Rome called on Jews to denounce Christianity as a new cult—an innovation and therefore not exempt from Emperor worship,
and the Roman Empire called upon the early Christian movement to denounce Jews as rebels to be expelled from Rome and Jerusalem.
The debates and stories Jesus told within the Judaism of his time and Paul’s description of “The Law” sounded much different coming from Gentile lips. It switched from being an inter-Jewish discussion to an antagonism from the outside.
Eventually Marcion, a Roman Christian, declared a separation between the “Jewish God” and the God revealed in Christ—and while he was condemned as a heretic, that did little to repair the widening breach between the two faiths.
         Supersessionalism—the idea that the Church replaced Israel and the New Testament replaced the 10 commandments—still haunts the Christian heart to this very day.
         In Nazi Germany this original sin was in full blossom—with wrongheaded arguments that Jesus was not a Jew and with renewed Marcionism—calling for the de-Judaizing of scripture.

         Similarly, the unfortunate words attributed to the crowd in Matthew’s telling of the passion, “His blood be on us and on our children,” has been used to justify all kinds of horrible things done to the Jews—Pogroms in Poland, the Inquisition in Spain
—the charge of “Christ-Killer” comes from these words.
In fact, so powerful a motivator were these words in past decades and centuries, that the panel on Lutheran-Jewish relations insisted, that “the New Testament … must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews", and that "blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people.”—that is why on Good Friday you hear me talk a lot about Judeans and Religious Officials when I read the Passion account instead of the traditional translation “the Jews.”
         But, let’s get a little more particular—what of Luther?
At the age of 40 he wrote a tract against Dominican abuses of the Jewish populous entitled, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” in which he writes:
“Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks—the crude asses—have treated the Jews in such a way that anyone who is truly a good Christian ought to become a Jew. If I was a Jew and heard such dolts and blockheads teach the Christian faith I would as soon be a wild boar as be a Christian.”
         If only he’d stopped there, but he did not. When he was 60, a few years before his death, he wrote “On the Jews and Their Lies” a tract so vile that even his closest friend Melanchthon said it “reeked of the Inquisition.”
         In it he maps out a “solution” for what he calls the “Jewish problem” in Germany—that Synagogues and Jewish houses ought to be burnt, Talmuds taken, Rabbis forbidden to speak, safe passage on highways removed, Jewish property confiscated, and Jews made to be serfs on German farms until they choose to self-deport.
         If this sounds similar to the Nazi “final solution,” minus the gas chambers—there is a good reason for it—Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were picked up quite whole-cloth by the National Socialists.

         There were however some Lutherans who heard the pseudo-Theological claims of the Nazis such as:
“The New Word of God is found in the History of the German People.”
“Jesus is not Savior but a Hero-Prophet for the Church just as Hitler is the Hero-Prophet of Germany.”
And “You may only believe in the resurrection if you believe in the resurrection of Germany.”
They heard these claims and took the entire Nazi program as an attack on the Church.

         When most German Church-folk were asking the question, “Should the Nazi controlled Church be more Calvinist or Lutheran?” There was a movement called the Confessing Church, who believed the Nazis should not control the Church and responded with the Barman Declaration, which we will confess together in place of the Apostle’s Creed in today’s service.
         One of those members of the Confessing Church, Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonheoffer, responded to the situation in Nazi Germany by entering into a conspiracy to kill Hitler and smuggle German Jews to Switzerland. In fact one of the last orders of the Nazi High Command before they lost the control of German was “Bonheoffer must die.” And indeed he was executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9th 1945

         I bring up these heroes not to absolve us, but to challenge us to hear God in the midst of societal noise and historical half-truths. Challenge us to hear the Gospel above the clangor of Culture, to hear always the cries of our common humanity.

         So, “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
         Christianity’s original sin Anti-Judaism, and Luther’s tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” are part of a train of thought that leads to Auschwitz.
         The Lutheran hesitancy to challenge secular authorities ensured that resistance to, or even questioning of, “The Final Solution” was limited.
         Finally, I thank God that there were some who tapped other veins of our tradition—Theology of the Cross and Scripture Alone—and in so doing resisted Nazism and the Holocaust.
  We mourn the majority’s inaction and wrong actions,
we remember the martyrs who died doing what was right,
and we continue to pledge to the 20 million victims of the Nazi regime, especially the 6 million Jews, never again.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Religious Violence Sermon

Religious violence

            Today’s, on this, our 6th sermon in the Summer Sermon Series “8 Questions from the Pews,” I’ll be tackling a topic that you might say is one of my hobby horses, maybe even a fixation: the connection between religion and violence.
            It was on this subject, nearly 4 years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, that I preached my first sermon as St. Stephen’s pastor. Since then, at Pub Theology and in other sermons, I’ve covered similar ground.
         In fact, judging by today’s question, I may have, in these last 4 years, made my case too forcefully—that I’ve made a solid link between religion and violence in you all’s mind.
         The question is this:
            “Religion is a source of hope and salvation for many, yet it has been the basis or cause of so many wars over time, why? And how do the positives negate all the negatives of war and radicals?”
         To answer this questions we’ll look at our text from Joshua in order to think about how violence can be connected to religion both in scripture and in history—then we’ll consider why this connection get’s made, and then finally I’ll suggest a few ways these negatives can be upended or at least balanced.


         It would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in scripture.
         Consider the fanatical acts described in the book of Joshua, utterly destroying towns and people in the name of Moses and the name of God. Truly this is disturbing stuff found in our scriptures.
         And it’s not the only place in scripture where we find dark acts dedicated to God.
We find rules about slavery and the oppression of women,
Calls to kill Babylonian and Assyrian Children,
Guidelines for war that are more concerned with trees than people,

         And maybe there is a larger point that must to be made about these things:
Often scripture is being descriptive instead of prescriptive
—it’s showing and telling, not ordering
—describing a lived reality, not making a program for life now.
It’s faithful people at a particular time and place saying “wow, in the midst of it all God is here” so that we too might trust even in the most violent and strange of times, that God is here.

         For that matter, it would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in history.
         Take for example a common interpretation and use of the book of Joshua from the 15th-17th century. When the Conquistadores, who took South America, read this biblical book—they did so in a prescriptive instead of descriptive way—they read themselves into the book
They justified their slaughter of natives and taking of land as a parallel to the taking of Canaan in the books of Joshua and Judges.
         In fact, frequently colonization and invasion has been justified by faith—it is often said colonizers
offer god,
bring guns and germs,
and leave with gold.

         And there is that icky question left—once you get into it, why?
         Why is religion linked to violence? Why does invasion and war often have a religious tint? Why is religion woven into matter of statecraft and splattered all over the history of war?
         It could be that religion is innately violent,
or that it encourages countries to colonize, or something like that,
but I think not, instead, religion speaks to our deepest selves and about those things which are most important to us both individually and collectively. Everything else is of secondary importance—imagine what kind of motivator our faith is!
         For example, an American drone kills your kid on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border—you want revenge… how much more of a motivation is it if you’re told not only will you get revenge for your kid, but also God wants you to get that revenge!

         What I’m saying is religion is often a justification for war and other acts of violence, not the actual cause.
         Take, for example, the most “religious” of wars, the Crusades. The initial Religious justification—when Pope Urban the 2nd declared “Deus Vult” “God wills it” it was a call to defend Christians traveling to Jerusalem, and throughout the Middle East, from attacks by Muslims. Yet, somewhere along the line it became more profitable to pillage fellow Christians in Constantinople and throughout Asia Minor, so the religious justification for such actions shifted to fighting incorrect understandings of the trinity.
         Two different acts of violence, both conveniently justified with a religious pretext.
         So, what do we do with all that—how do we, to put it crassly, “come out ahead?” How can we be sure religion is “worth it?”
         Well, firstly, it’s important that we continue to wrestle with the ways in which our faith has fallen short—more than that, we ought to repent of it.
         I think of former Presiding Bishop Mark Hansen’s moving words about representing the ELCA as part of the Lutheran World Federation in Stuttgart Germany, where they confessed to and repented of our historical persecution of the Mennonite tradition—there our Mennonite sisters and brothers accepted our repentance and declared us forgiven.
         And that right there—receiving forgiveness—for me that would be enough, that would upend all the negatives of being a religious people—that would, to quote the questioner be the positive that “negates all the negatives.”
         That this is a space where we can be honest about our faults and find forgiveness
—find a grace we don’t deserve
—that alone is of infinite worth. As Paul writes all else is rubbish.

         But wait, there’s more!
         While it can be deeply misused, religion is the language of our deepest values. It frames our existence, cultivates holy habits, and tells stories that give life meaning.

         Also it gives us comfort like nothing else will—just think back to the last time you heard the 23rd Psalm, all that is packed into that, how those words travel with you through the very shadow of death.
         Christ’s words we read today “No more of this” ring so true, in the face of violence both scriptural and historical, “No more of this.”
         Faith is for healing the hurt, not hurting the healed. Yes, of course faith can be misused, but so can so many things
—If a child hits another child with a book, do we burn all books, or teach them to read?

         The abuse of Religion, bad religion, can be best balanced by better religion.
         And that’s part of our calling—to put away swords and bring healing.
         To do what Christianity has always been called to do, to recognize the good in those things that are warped into evil, and redeem them! Bad religion is not to be banished, but transformed.

         To conclude, my answer to the question is this:
The violence we find in scripture describes God’s relationship to a brutally violent world.
The violence we find in history often uses faith as a motivator.
We ought to confess to this and make amends.
In so doing we find the core of faith—forgiveness.
Faith expresses the ultimate, it comforts as few other things can, and Christ calls us to be religious in such a way that we can redeem religion.