Sunday, October 23, 2016

Political Prayer

Sermon 10.23.16
Luke 18:9-14 excerpt

That bigger picture is much harder to grasp when we only get one tiny slice of the pie on a Sunday morning -- God’s redemptive work is cannot be encapsulated in the simplistic teaching to “be humble.”  Keeping the greater context in our hearts and minds this morning I want to work with the short gospel scene and consider how it would sound coming from a Christian person in our time and place...

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

The Lutheran stood by herself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: I don’t want to be a democrat for they are reckless and naive.  I don’t want to be a republican either for their selfishness and fear-mongering is tiring. Thank you God that you clearly bless my political leanings so I can celebrate the line between us and them and never have to cross over.

God, thank you that I am not another sect of your church because I like not having to worry about good works and I like the way we interpret the bible and I’m pretty sure other churches get it wrong and so I’m happy you’re here with us and not over there with them.  

God, thank you that I am not like other people who have criminal records that will haunt them all their days no matter how much corrective work they have done.  Thank you that I do not come from a broken home which would make it harder to come to church every week, thank you that I fit the perfect little model of the family you intended -- a real, one-size fits all family is what you meant, right?

Thank you God that I am not like the tax-collectors or other people who serve corporate greed, oil companies or any other evil structures on this earth.  I’m a self-made human, and would never be complicit in injustice never mind where my clothes come from or the fact that I guzzle so much gas each day without a second thought.  God, I thank you that I am not like other people but rather am here, in your house on a Sunday morning (unlike the heathens who stayed in bed or did other activities on this holy day), I am righteous because I’m so darn good, a shiney Christian in my nice clothes and upright living.  Thank you God that I don’t even need to ask you for anything because I’ve got it figured out -- the answers to faithful living are so black and white, I’ve made all the right choices, I’ve kept your law to the very letter, I attend worship every week and tithe the perfect 10% of my income to support the church.  God, I thank you that I am not like other people.  Amen.

Now, this contemporary take on the Pharisee’s prayer is laced with an exaggerated smugness. We know we are not to pray or think like the arrogant, independent Pharisee -- he is clothed in religious hypocrisy! But who among us hasn’t ever thought, “I’m glad I’m not like….” and then we can fill in the blank with the people group or label that is irritating or threatening us most at any given moment.  And in that phrase, “Thank God I’m not like other people” I believe we hit on the deep sin of this prayer.  The Pharisee, and so often the contemporary Christian celebrates the lines between us and them. Even though this scene from Luke’s gospel is very short, the author took the time to tell us exactly where both the Pharisee and the tax collector are...the Pharisee is “standing by himself” set apart from the whole community to his self-righteous prayer.  And he thanks God for the distance between himself and those who are not like him -- especially calling out those that society has deemed dangerous and wrong. From the Pharisee’s vantage point on his high-moral pedestal, God was with him, he was righteous because he had earned it through proper living and good choices.

This very religious man drew lines around himself, drew lines to divide the worshipping community and tried to draw lines around God Almighty.

In this election year our country has become obsessed with line drawing. Social media posts are filled with self-righteousness and opinions, political rallies filled with moral superiority and smug attitudes. It seems to me that the citizens of the nation have allowed themselves to be drawn into tiny corners and taught to celebrate the lines that divide.

As God’s children, as people of the cross, we have a unique and important voice in our nation.  We get to share a story that God began and continues to write through the lives of all God’s children -- we get to share the story of a God who absolutely cannot be contained to a political party, or to a moral box that is black or white, we get to share the love of God that is blurring the lines we celebrate and working salvation in the lives of those we call dangerous and wrong.

In sharing the story of God’s love we are called to be marked with persistence, humility and reconciliation. And in the next few weeks our neighbors, no matter what sign they have stamped in their yard or how humble or arrogant we may be...our community and our very souls will hunger for a story like the story God is telling here today.

I saw this story take on flesh and blood this week.  On Monday night nine people gathered in our fellowship hall in front of the fireplace.  Five people were from this church, four people were from the Islamic Society in Woodbury.  I heard about the beauty and mutual appreciation that was born out of the “Meet Your Neighbor” even that happened here last summer.  Two very different faith communities came together to celebrate something, and it wasn’t the lines that divide (and there are lines that divide) but instead the celebration lifted up all that unites! I heard about fear of the unknown, but also about the comfort of knowing our neighbors.  Lines were blurry and community was cultivated.  

So we, the Lutheran church of Memorial will continue to attempt to tell the story of our God.  We’ll tell it to our neighbors and we’ll tell is alongside our neighbors.  And lest we believe that our righteousness will come from our own good works or thoughtful behaviors, we must remember the prayer of the tax-collector as well this morning.

The prayer of the tax-collector from our story is this, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” and if we were to set it in our contemporary setting, making it unique to every political, racial, religious, moral situation we all find ourselves would sound like this...“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  

The prayer of the tax-collector is timeless, the prayer from mortal to Divine speaking the truth of our nature to the truth of God’s nature.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  With a repentant heart we learn more about the unfolding story of God’s love and unfailing mercy that we are called to share and so we say, “Thanks be to God.”  Amen.

How do I find a Gracious God?

*Wow! This was pure joy, preaching the power of the gospel while reflecting on the history of my church tradition after having heard incredibly talented musicians present Bach's 80 Cantata.*

Oratory Sermon
Psalm 46

This is going to be quite a year to be a Lutheran.  In a few weeks we will begin the 500th year since Martin Luther began his critical, painful, passionate struggle with the church.  And for the next year the Twin Cities may be the proudest metro in the country as we celebrate Protestant Pride -- we’ll wave our team colors, chant our team slogans and sing our fight song long and loud,  (A Mighty Fortress is our God…).  And if this is all the church does, if one raucous hymn sing after hymn sing is how we remember and celebrate all year...well, we’d be seriously missing the spirit of the movement we so often label “The Reformation”.

It would be easier, of course, to drown out the intense spiritual struggle that haunted Martin Luther.  The chains of God’s law that bound him, the confines of his own humanity that bound him. What we commemorate in this coming year is the freedom from this bondage, the liberation Luther uncovered through a life of study, hours of daily prayer and painful schisms with the church he vowed to serve.  Luther discovered that the law which he failed miserably to fulfill was not the gospel in itself, but the law led him to the merciful promises of Jesus that brought liberation, redemption and reconciliation all on their own.  Luther discovered not law as gospel, but the law and and the gospel fully present in God’s Word.

Psalm 46 is always the psalm used for the festival day of Reformation.  This psalm is the inspiration Martin Luther used to to compose Ein Feste Burg, or A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The psalm does what we might expect and paints images of God’s strength and ever present help and protection...and there is also an intimacy to this psalm of praise as over and over it speaks to where our Almighty and Holy God can be found.  

Psalm 46 says that though the mountains tremble and waters foam, God is present, very present.
The holy habitation of God is in the streams of a river that flows through the city, moving and nourishing the people of the city though they are subjected to cosmic chaos and perverse political powers.
The Lord is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
God is exalted among nations and in the earth.

Deliverance through destruction, salvation through steadfast presence, God is more than a wall that surrounds and wards off injustice and oppression.  This mighty fortress is also coming near, making glad, inhabiting, in, with, among and in again...God is here working redemption for the injustices and oppression that is at the core of every internal, spiritual battle that would besiege God’s people.

Today’s music is such a gift...we are able to hear Bach’s cantata that sings and illustrates the fullness of promise in a psalm like psalm 46 and also sings the soulful intimacy.  This cantata is one of Bach’s most complex and intricate, we would all need to study and hear it many more times (if ya’ll would be up for that?!?) to even begin to hear the themes of repentance, longing and victory interwoven throughout.  

The full chorales sing of the power of the reforming movement and echo the mighty fortress themes, and arias like that of the soprano’s also gives us the advent pleading for Christ to “come make home in my heart”. We can hear the close relationship between Bach’s lyrics and the text of Psalm 46 which answers the advent plea again and again with the reassurance that our God is a God who comes especially near to the lowly and pleading.  And Luther discovered this sweetness of God through these words. The reforming movement of the church did not begin as a religious power grab or competition over who exactly God’s fortress was surrounding...rather this movement began with one, lowly, tormented heart seeking divine redemption for his soul.

Five years ago Pope Benedict poignantly articulated this balance between powerful, Divine promises and still the inner struggle of a faithful man. Pope Benedict commented,

“What constantly exercised [Luther] was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. How do I find a gracious God? This question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For him, theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.
How do I find a gracious God?”

“How do I find a gracious God?”
After much angst Luther did find the answer to his heart’s question in the treasure of the gospel of Jesus.  And the years that followed were filled with initiatives that would put this treasure in the hands of those who had not heard for themselves. The translating and mass production of scripture and accessible teaching tools like the small catechism, the leadership that told people of faith that their faith ought to be practiced first and foremost at home to raise up children whose would be able to hear the gospel promises right from the start.  The reforming movement of the church moved through violence and mistakes and power struggles and division on every human level imaginable...but it did continue moving.

499 years later and that foundational question of Martin Luther’s heart is still an intimate and soulful question for humanity today, “How do I find a gracious God?”

In our contemporary context this question has nuance, of course.  Schisms are sexy, we hear of political, racial, economic and religious schisms every day...division and disappointment is so commonplace we have come to expect it.

We seek righteousness through accomplishments and glory, we place ourselves in the place where God should be, we define ourselves, we label our neighbors and just like Luther we find ourselves in bondage to laws we will never be able to fulfill.

Spending our lives climbing and commenting, striving and straining -- even the quiet, earnest questions of our faith and existence become drowned out…”How do I find a gracious God?”

In the repentant spirit of Luther I think it is fair to say the legacy of the church has not always been as prolific at helping people answer this question as we are called to be.  Our propensity toward division, proper order and self-righteousness has so often distracted the mission of the church and we forget to turn to the treasure we have been freely given.  Meanwhile, the world around us continues to ask, “How do I find a gracious God?”

In order to continue the honest, critical movement of the reforming spirit, we must not only be comforted by the loud rousing of our team song and waving our team colors and rallying to celebrate the Reformation.  We can go deeper, to a quieter, introspective place of repentance.  These words from the center of the cantata we just heard help us to go there...

Do not let your heart, God's heaven on earth,
become a wasteland!
Repent your guilt with pain,
so that Christ's spirit may firmly bind itself to you!

Come into my heart's house,
Lord Jesus, my desire!
  Drive the world and Satan out
  and let your image, shine forth renewed in me!

Through repentance and the work of the Holy Spirit we find ourselves held tenderly and eternally by our gracious God. This is most certainly true.

My first pastoral call was to Holden Village, a lutheran retreat center that saw a different preacher climb into the pulpit nearly every day.   Each person brought their own gifts and failings, their own agendas and proclamations.  Some were amazing and some were not.  But no matter the gifting of the preacher, they stood in a large wooden pulpit that had these words carved into the front, “We have this treasure.” In four words the truth of the gospel of Jesus was shared and named -- it didn’t matter how long I rambled on, or how ineffective any sermon was, if nothing else could be grasped during the public proclamation there was a constant, sure promise.

“We have this treasure.”  We have the living Word of God made available to us.  And that Word drives us to despair in the law and carries us into the light of Christ.  And that sure and eternal promise is our treasure.  

We have this treasure...this did not suddenly become true 499 years ago. it was true as the spirit moved over the waters of creation, it was true 501 years ago and every year since.  It the promise we hold onto today, on November 8th and on November 9th...for the distractions of our living cannot push away the nearness of our God.  And for the sake of this treasure we have been called to let Christ’s image shine forth renewed in us!.  

For the sake of the world that lashing out and cries out and asks, “How do I find a gracious God?”  We turn to one Lord, one baptism, one body of Christ and together we will say, “We have this treasure.” Amen.

Turn, posture, praise & thanks

MLC Sermon 10.16.16
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17:11-19)

Ten people are miraculously healed and only one says thank-you.  This is a bible story every parent can stick in their back pocket to really hit home that lesson on the importance of saying “Thank you” Whether or not one’s heart is really in it when one is being forced to say “Thank you” is of course, an important point of consideration.  But I do believe that words matter and help to shape our character and ritual is also a power force in our lives.  When we practice saying words of gratitude we are changed, as the words become easier and easier to say and the spirit behind them is strengthened.

Saying “Thank you” or taking a posture of humility and gratitude is exactly what that one healed man did in our gospel lesson today.  This man’s ritual of gratitude was four-fold; first he turned back -- turned from rushing away and doing what he wanted, he turned back to his healer.  He praised God with a loud voice, we are not told exactly what his words were but whatever they were he was yelling them boldly and praising God for this healing! Third, he took a posture of humility, prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet because his words were not enough, he used his whole body to show his gratitude for new life.  And lastly, the healed man thanked Jesus.

Turn, praise, posture and thanks.  
Turn, praise, posture and thanks.

As you may have expected, I believe there is much more to this story than a simple “Say Thank you” lesson. This short story opens with a line that sets the stage for the radical healing we heart about.  The story begins by telling us that Jesus is in the region between Samaria and Galilee and when he approached the edge of the village he then saw the ten lepers.  It is important to note that the lepers are not in the town square, or in the synagogue, these lepers had been cast out to the village edge.  At this time, when a person was diagnosed with a contagious, feared disease they were set away from their homes, living in packs on the edge of their communities and forced by law to keep a wide distance between themselves and healthy people.  To make matters worse, the lepers were also asked to call out a warning to anyone that was passing by yelling “Unclean! Stay away!”. Their words, rituals and postures certainly gave this group of 10 a new identity: unclean, dangerous, sick and alone.

Throughout the gospel of Luke there is a clear, dangerous pattern of rule-breaking and boundary crossing.  This story picks up on that pattern, Jesus is radically, dangerously going outside the bounds of what is socially acceptable to bring mercy and healing to this group.  
He crosses the village lines and hangs out on the edge of town.
He crosses social law and approaches the sick group that is typically obliged to keep a distance.
He crosses ethnic boundaries and heals Jews and he heals a foreigner.

I don’t know what the exact modern day equivalent to this story is, but the news this weekend had me thinking a lot of those we label, disregard, disrespect, undervalue. From this painful presidential campaign to the overshadowed suffering of Haiti to the continued horror of Syria.  And to be honest, I found the news around the presidential campaign so disturbing this weekend that I wrestled greatly with a gospel response to such ugly, disrespectful attitudes and what systems are at play that allowed these voices to brought to the top of a presidential ticket. What is the Christian response? What is the church’s posture here?

Today’s gospel story reminded me that Jesus is on the move, and Jesus is moving to all the places I’d rather not go.  Jesus is on the move speaking redemption in the face of abuse and calling beloved that which we cast aside.  Systems of abuse, power and inequality are strongly at work in our lives, and so is our God.  Could we fill the world with a ritual response such as Turn, praise, posture and thanks? Could the foreigner of this story be the modern day model of Christian response to abuse and corruption?

Jesus goes to the margins of the world and there breaks in the kingdom of God into the lives of ten hurting and isolated people who are sent back to their communities as visible signs of God’s mercy and presence in our world.  And note where this in breaking kingdom was at work -- God’s kingdom broke open there in a group of people that had been labeled as sick, unclean and abandoned and that is exactly where Jesus is so often bringing the power and mercy of our loving God.

That is what God is up to in our scripture story today; messy, scandalous, healing miracles.

Now let’s turn and consider what the healed people are up to in our scripture story.  Nine of them are obedient, doing exactly what Jesus commanded and most certainly what their hearts are so happy to do which is run back to their communities and show themselves to be walking miracles!

But the tenth guy, he crossed even more lines.  He broke out of his isolated, unclean, ethnic prison to “Turn, praise, posture and thanks”.  Jesus doesn’t really talk to the man, rather looking around for others to follow suite Jesus calls the man and foreigner, the wrong person did the gracious act to turn, praise, posture and thanks.

The foreigner teaches the disciples, the foreigner teaches the status quo what a grateful heart looks like and moves like and worships God like.  The foreigner is a reminder that GOd’s promises know no boundaries or borders.  God’s grace will not abide by the arbitrary lines we draw between one another.  The foreigner consistently finds the most unlikely proclaimers of the good news to be the best choice to announce God’s mercy.  The outsider continues the in-breaking of God’s kingdom and he does it with gratitude. What a powerful force!

Turn, praise, posture and thanks.

That pattern of our Christian worship services enacts the healed man’s ritual.  We begin with confession, the spiritual act of turning towards God and away from self and sin.  Turn.

We worship God with our singing, “worthy is Christ the lamb who was slain whose blood set us free to be people of God!” praise.

We stand or sit, moving our bodies with heads bowed, or eyes closed, or maybe hands up or hearts open to hear God’s word read.  Posture.

We give God our thanks.  Through more singing, through offering a portion of our financial gifts to God, through serving each other and forgiving each other with a sign of peace.  And finally, we celebrate the Eucharistic feast.
Eucharist is a very churchy word -- more often we call the eucharist holy communion, or the sacrament of the table.  But this morning I want to use the word Eucharist because this english word comes from the Greek word Eucharistia and that word is the very one found in our bible ready.  The man prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and Eucharistia, he gave thanks.

When we come to this table week after week we come to celebrate what scandalous redemption we have been given by God through Jesus Christ our Savior.  We come to celebrate that the table of mercy is set for us despite our diving lines and sinful nature.  We come to the table at the invitation of Jesus who knows our sickness, our labels, our division and our pain...and we receive mercy anyways.
Turn, praise, posture and thanks.

So how will you turn, praise, posture and give thanks?
How has God broken into your life to bring mercy and healing? What foreigner has revealed to you a measure of Divine goodness you had not already known?

Turn, praise, posture and thanks.
Thanks be to God who moves beyond our lines.
Thanks be to God who turns our messy stories into walking miracles of healing and grace.
Thanks be to God who claims us as helpless infants and washes us in healing waters and promises to be with us forever.
Thanks be to God who is ever turning towards us and who alone is worthy of our praise.

The Ruin of Joseph

Sermon 9.25.16
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
   and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
the notables of the first of the nations,
   to whom the house of Israel resorts! 
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
   and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
   and calves from the stall; 
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
   and like David improvise on instruments of music; 
who drink wine from bowls,
   and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
   but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
   and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6:1, 4-7)

Alas for those who are at ease, for those who feel secure and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.

Do you grieve over the ruin of Joseph? Media strikes every day, all day, continually breaking news, reporting more than any one person can possibly consume.  

News of bombings and we change the station.
Reports of exposed and exploited refugees and we scroll on.
A warlike political season we excuse inexcusable behavior and language.
Sidestepping the imbalance of racial inequality in our lives has become the new normal and we are unclear about which lives matter anymore.
We justify our opinions and rationalize the distance we place between self and those who dare to disagree.
Our earth-home groans beneath our weight and greed and still we invest and mame so as not be disturbed in our ease.

O God, save us.  Our hearts are hardened, our minds are numb, our capacity to see your suffering is blinded by fear.

Alas for those who are at ease...but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.

The prophet Amos speaks the words of God’s judgement to us today.  The ruin of Joseph refers to the northern kingdom of Israel.  Amos is angry that God’s people have chosen to seek wealth while ignoring the rest of God’s people.  Amos is angry because God’s anger swells over such profound, human indifference.

Amos begins with that haunting words, “Alas..” with one words we know we are hearing a warning and also a surrendering.  “Alas…” you had your chance to care for your neighbor more than you care about yourself, you had your chance to trade your precious oils for the gain of Joseph…”Alas…” people of Israel, God’s chosen and beloved people, you are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph -- “Alas…”.

This judgement and flippancy carries us right into the gospel story as well! Normally we can hear a condemning Old Testament reading and then turn to our gospel reading for comfort and salvation.  Not this morning.  Judgement, surrendering, is the biblical tone before us.

Every day the rich man walks past the sick and hungry man at his gate.  Now in the afterlife they stare at each other from either side of the great, fixed cham and Father Abraham tells the rich man it’s too late.  Alas, he had his chance with the prophets, alas he never once showed grief over the ruin of the man sitting at this gate. and even though he now has concern for his family, they would even ignore a resurrected man. No grace, no second chances.  

There are days or maybe whole life times where we carry the arrogance and selfishness of the rich man.  Mostly likely we will now know the level of poverty of social marginalization of Lazarus.  But I think this story places us in another role.  Luke is the only gospel writer to include this story and Luke is very invested in proclaiming the salvation we receive in Jesus in the many way that manifests in our lives -- social redemption, physical redemption, economic, community and spiritual redemption is proclaimed in this gospel.  So it carries his theme of urgency and awareness if we remember that we are really the five siblings that the rich man wants to warn.  We are those five siblings of the rich man. We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation, the parable makes clear. We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the lessons of God’s economy, about God's care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is: Will we -- the five sisters and brothers -- open our eyes? Will we tend to the impoverished person laying at our gates?

People of God, we come here this morning to worship a God who will never leave us with “Alas…” like the prophet Amos did.  God will never be satisfied with a great chasm fixed between God and God’s people. It will not be our own efforts that move us from alas to healing or from fear to hope or from darkness into light.  
God gifts us with a more holy and eternal power that far outshines our feeble efforts and short attention spans...God gifts us with the power and movement of the Holy Spirit.  This was the gift given to the church by our resurrection Savior.  

Our hardened hearts are not left alone to rot and break...we are softened and healed every day by the love of God that just won’t leave us alone!

I want to leave you with a picture and story of hope this morning.  A story that I believe is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through God’s people.  Unlike the rich man who was too consumed with his own well being to see the suffering at his doorstep, there is a community in Philadelphia that began to work together to ease the suffering in at their doorstep.  Modern day Christian activist, Shane Claiborne lives and works in this neighborhood.  He has authored a few very thought and faith provoking books that tell the story of his life and the life of his neighbors that attempt to live out kingdom of God values as they feel so called.

Now, we are going to move into a congregation conversation about how we are called to serve and work in our neighborhoods as God’s people.  I offer this story not because I believe we are called to do exactly what they are doing.  But they are a beautiful example of flawed, hurting people joining together to do more together than they could ever do alone.  

Listen for this pattern: They stay in their neighborhood, they know their neighbors, they discern the need, their work to meet the need.

Let us pray...God, in this moment we know the the privilege that allows us to not see the needy outside our gate, we confess we see the poor as other than you. Risen Christ, this is how you come to us, this is your visitation. Let us be poor in keeping and rich in sharing. We pray for your Holy Spirit, for a softened heart that will let you in. God, open our eyes, open our hearts, open our gate.