Saturday, February 18, 2017

Happy Anniversary Reformation! 500 Years and Counting!

In October of 2017 we will reach the 500th anniversary of the event that began the series of events that led to the Reformation: Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses for debate on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Saxony.  Lutherans of all varieties will be taking the opportunity this year to remember this day and celebrate the Reformation.  But I think there are some things we all should keep in mind. 
First – The nailing event was only the first of a series of events that led to a permanent break between various German churches and Rome.  This was not Luther’s intent.  He did not set out to create a new church, he only wanted to call attention to what he felt were abuses and he hoped that the leadership would address these.  Was he cynical or naïve in this expectation?  It is a good question.  Power had corrupted the Roman church of the late Middle Ages so much that there would have been no realistic possibility that the church would have reformed itself, especially on the basis of some critiques by an obscure Augustinian monk from the backwaters of Northern Germany. Personally, I think Luther was sincere initially in hoping for debate and reform.  But it did not take long for him to give up this hope.
2nd – Luther had not been the first person to raise the concerns.  The Czech priest Jan Hus had raised many of the same issues. The church responded by inviting him to Rome for “discussions” and then had him arrested and executed – burned at the stake.  Luther would not make the same mistake.  And Luther was lucky to have as his prince the Elector Frederick the Wise, who protected him.  This protection was essential for Luther.  Without it he would have undoubtedly ended up tied to a stake in Rome like Hus.
3rd – Two other secondary things came together with this event and without either of them Luther’s protest would have probably fizzled.  1st, Luther made the curious decision to write these Theses (topics for debate) in German, the language that was spoken by the population, rather than in Latin which was the academic language for scholarship, writing and debate.  It is a curious decision.  The majority of the population could neither read nor write either German or Latin.  However, most of the students and certainly all of Luther’s colleagues certainly could and once these were posted and printed Luther’s Theses papered all of Northern Germany.  One can imagine students in the local taverns reading the document aloud to all of those who were assembled.  And this leads to important happenstance #2: the invention of the Printing Press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.  Additionally the fact that there was a printer in Wittenberg and that they were looking for things to print was the other element here.  When Hus was burned at the stake in 1415 there was no printing press and most folks had little knowledge of what the Czech priest had written.  By 1517 everyone who wanted a copy had a copy and this even led to an interest in learning to read.
4th – There were others who are very, very important to the development and success of the Reformation: Philip Melanchthon is first and foremost.  This quiet and unassuming, brilliant scholar of Classical and Biblical Greek served as a calming influence, grounding the emotional and often irascible Luther.  Another favorite of mine was Frederick’s private secretary Georg Spalatin, who was also a priest, a Greek scholar, a lawyer and a humanist.  Like Melanchthon he was careful, methodical and organized.  He often found himself going between Luther and Elector Frederick.  And as upset as Luther sometimes got with Spalatin he nonetheless may very well owe his life to this brilliant man who was Frederick’s most trusted advisor.  I will confess that Spalatin is my favorite figure of the Reformation. Without Spalatin there may well have been no German Reformation in 1517.
Georg Spalatin
5th – This is important.  Too often in the past celebrations of Reformation Sunday and Reformation anniversaries have become times to condemn Roman Catholicism - “We are glad we are not like them!” we say in so many ways.  And indeed much of what we do and do not do in worship and in other areas of ministry have been too often determined by doing the opposite of whatever we think is “Catholic.”  Lutherans in the past have even gone so far as the change the words of the Ecumenical Apostle’s Creed in order to avoid being “Catholic.”  (e.g. changing “I believe in the holy catholic church” to “holy Christian church,’ whatever that is!)  The time for such Catholic bashing and defining ourselves as anti-Catholic is over. First of all, the Roman Catholic Church of the 21st century under the Papacy of the wonderful Pope Francis is not the church of the late Middle Ages.  We have come a long way from those days and it is time we recognized that.  Also, Roman Catholics and Lutherans have made great progress in healing the medieval rifts.  Agreements on a variety of theological issues have been reached, most notably one on the doctrine of “Justification.”  Last fall the Pope himself joined with Lutherans for worship.  This is worth celebrating.
Do we agree on everything?  No.  Is that necessary?  I think not.  The fact is that we need each other and we need to join with each other to address some of the serious problems of our time.  Lutherans and Catholics and other protestant Christians all have the work of the Kingdom to do and this includes – addressing issues of systemic poverty and violence; reaching out, assisting and working to re-settle the masses of refugees; opposing injustice and working together to see that all people are respected no matter their cultural background, their race, skin color or even their creed.  Christians have an obligation to work in this manner.  Hate and exclusivism is never acceptable for a Christian and it is the work of Lutherans and Catholics and other Christians to boldly speak this word in the midst of our fractured, violent, exclusivist, greedy and hateful world.
And this is why the Reformation matters in 2017!  Our issues today are no longer the same issues of 1517, and we dare not pretend that they are.  Rather we have new issues to which the church universal (the church catholic) needs to address.  Being grounded and reminded of our Reformation heritage is one way to propel this work.  And to this end you can look for Reformation events throughout the year, both on the national, synod and local level. 

During the season of Lent the Wartburg Parish Lenten series will focus on Luther’s Small Catechism.  We encourage you to come to the services and bring your copy.  We will have copies for you there if you don’t have one.  Why not also take the opportunity to review the Small Catechism by reading sections of it each day throughout Lent, even memorizing parts – like Luther’s magnificent explanation of the Apostle’s Creed.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Matthew’s Message: Love, Actually

We have now been studying the Gospel of Matthew in the Wednesday morning Bible study since November and as I get deeper and deeper into the Gospel I would like to share some thoughts on Matthew’s unique focus, meaning and narrative approach.
Often, many of us tend to think of Matthew as the harsh, uncompromising, even judgmental Gospel – “cut off your hand… pluck out your eye… cast out into out darkness, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” and all of that!  And certainly if you take Matthew’s Gospel in small bits then this is exactly what you are left with. But when you explore the Gospel and leave everything in its narrative context a different message emerges and it is a message of radical, unconditional and even illogical love!  In brief, here is a summary: God’s overwhelming love is for all of the creation and all of God’s children (who, are all of humanity, BTW) – it is, however, the distinct calling and responsibility of the ecclesia – the Church, the called out ones – to embody this love, to be open vessels of this love for others who need to experience the love of God in their lives!
So the primary themes of the Gospel of Matthew are God’s presence, Salvation through Jesus (whose name means “God saves”), the calling of the “church” to embody this love and the importance and centrality of forgiveness – God’s forgiveness and our human calling to forgive: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But all of these work together. You cannot extract one theme and separate it from another, and the overarching theme of love itself is woven into the fabric of it all.  So, we are saved by God’s love and we receive assurance of this salvation through our experience of God’s presence that comes through those whom God has called out to be vessels of this love.
The Gospel begins with the naming of Jesus (God saves) and a reminder that this child is Immanuel – God with us!  So in the midst of the incredible darkness of Matthew’s birth story (the Holy family ends up as homeless refugees!) we have the assurance of God’s presence through love and it is this love that saves.  And it is this love that the disciples are told to “go into all the world” and share in chapter 28, along with the promise that Jesus will be present with us always, “even to the end of the age.” That is, God’s love will be present and never-failing even to the end of the age.
And this love is to be extended to all – to ALL! Even to one’s enemies to whom we are to go the extra mile and to give them our tunics in addition to our cloaks.  No one stands outside of God’s love. No one!  And there is absolutely no room for revenge of any kind what so ever!  “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I tell you love those who persecute you and pray for those who hurt you!”  To “get even” is to fall into sin, to turn your back on Jesus and the gift of salvation. Similarly there is absolutely no room for hate.  To hate or reject others is to reject Christ and to disregard the work of the Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  In fact, to reject anyone, to exclude anyone, is to fall into sin and to turn your back on Jesus!
In Matthew 18 we have that famous passage where Jesus tells the disciples that if someone has sinner against you then you should go and show the person his/her wrong; and if that doesn’t work then take 2 or 3 with you and try again; and then if that doesn’t work to have the entire community try again; and if that doesn’t work, then you are to “treat that person as a sinner or tax collector.”  Too often this is interpreted that you should cast that person out and ostracize him/her. Here is the permission from Jesus to reject those who don’t conform, right? Well, no, not at all!   What does it mean to treat someone as a “tax collector or sinner?”  How does Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners?  Far from rejecting them, or pushing them out, Jesus eats with them, he reaches out to them, he cares for them, he loves them and forgives them.  The love of God knows no bounds and the love that we are to show is similarly to go beyond what we think is expected or reasonable = 70 x 7 = infinity (Jesus actually spells it out like this to his shocked and disbelieving disciples).

Love actually, must define the community of Christ.  It is not judgment, it is not to believe my way or else, it is not live the way I think you should or else, it is not even doctrine that has the final word – it is love.  We are to be people of love; we are to be a community of love that is open to an inviting to all people – no matter what; people of different cultures, races, colors, sexual orientation, economic status, political views, life styles, even other religions.  We are to love – there is no exemption according to Matthew.  Therefore here at the end of what I feel was a very, very difficult year and at the beginning of a new year I am committing myself to the love of God and I invite you to join me.  And I do this confident in God’s forgiveness when I fail, but also confident of God’s blessings which extend through me and you and this congregation and to the world outside.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

My Christmas Eve Sermon - December 24, 2016 - Titus 2:11-14

As a child I always loved Christmas so much.  It was for me then such a magical time of the year, and I suspect that our children and even the child still within us continues to enjoys the trimmings of this season – the lights, the cookies, the presents, the carols!  It all mixes together and can generate such excitement, especially in the children.  I remember, many, many years ago, when I was a child not being able to sleep at all on Christmas Eve.  One year I simply couldn’t stand it any longer so I go up out of bed, around 4:00 AM or so and slipped down to the living room where I proceeded to begin to tear through the packages with my name on them that were sitting under the tree.  Suddenly my dad showed up and sent me back to bed with orders to remain there until a “reasonable hour.”  A reasonable hour?  Now, exactly what is a “reasonable hour” on Christmas morning when you are a child?
Of course, one of the things that made the wait especially difficult was the uncertainty of what might actually be in those boxes that were piled up under the tree.  There was, after all, always the possibility (and the threat) that this year I might not have qualified for any real presents; that on the “naughty and nice” scale this year my behavior might have actually tipped more towards the “naughty” part and that inside those boxes might be pieces of coal or sticks.
And I knew that it could actually happen.  One Christmas when I was about 8 my cousins Billy and Rick who were 7 and 5 actually for real, got coal and sticks under the tree. I guess they had not earned any presents that year; that they were just not good enough to qualify for “real” presents. Now, as an aside, let me add here so you won’t be wondering for the whole rest of the service – they actually did get real presents.  After the initial shock and trauma of discovering the coal and sticks it was discovered that their real presents were hidden in a closet.  I have however often wondered if my poor cousins had been scarred for life by this practical joke.  But I am sure that they got the message loud and clear – this year boys - you were not good enough!
Not good enough!  They had not earned the gifts.  I suppose some of us are a little horrified by this story, but this is one of the cultural themes of the season the way our culture celebrates it, is it not?  How does that popular Christmas song go?  He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice….”
There is an old Calvin and Hobbes comic that I used to have cut out and posted, but have managed over the years to loose.  Anyway, the comic has Calvin questioning his belief in Santa and he says, “how can HE know who is naughty and nice?  Does he have spies everywhere?”  Hobbes then asks Calvin why if he believes in God is belief in Santa so difficult.  “Actually,” responds Calvin, “I have the same questions about God.”  This comic points up something important not only about our society’s understanding of Christmas, but about our society’s popular understanding about God as well: We tend to at least unconsciously think about God like we do about Santa – up there, keeping track and ready to punish… “so, we better be good for goodness sake!”
Over against this popular understanding let us hear again the words of the Epistle text for this evening from Titus: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…  Again: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…
God’s grace has appeared embodied and incarnate in Jesus – why? In order to bring salvation TO ALL!  This is not qualified in any way – To ALL.  Not to all who have been good, or all who believe the rights things, or believe a certain way, or who hold certain political views, or who have certain background or culture or lifestyle – No!  To ALL – so you can make a list of all the qualifications you can think of and then you can sweep them all up and throw them out! God’s grace has appeared bringing salvation TO ALL – as a gift!  As an unmerited, unearned and unconditional gift!  God has created you – God loves you without qualification or condition – period!  This is the way Pastor Fred Buechner puts it in his book Wishful Thinking – a Theological A-B-C:  This is grace of God… there is nothing you have to DO; there is nothing you HAVE to do; there is nothing YOU have to do… here is your life, beautiful and awful things will happen – do not be afraid, I am with you!  I love you!
We live in a world that is very graceless.  So it can be very hard for us to accept that there is not some kind of catch.  A part of us just doesn’t want to give up the expectation that we need to do something to earn God’s love and grace and salvation – if only so that we can assure ourselves that THOSE people will undoubtedly not qualify!  But tonight, Christmas Eve 2016, the proclamation of the Gospel is that there is no catch.  God loves you without conditions! The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all!  Which includes all of you; and each and everyone, along with everyone outside as well.
But there is more - is it not the case that whenever we receive a wonderful, beautiful gift that not only do we need to accept it, but that it often engenders inside of us a desire to give something back as well?  That it prompts us to give something of ourselves in response in order to express not only our appreciation but also our commitment?  If God’s grace is just something we have earned, something to which we are entitled then we can take it and there is no reason to give anything back – but a gift – a gift is different – a gift calls for a response – and this gift and the response can transform us! 
              And so on this night – Christmas Eve 2016 – we have come together for worship – to sing together, to hear the word and take the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  And we have brought with us our joys and our sorrows, our worries and our fears as we sit here in this place.  Coming from the frantic rush of preparation we now sit here in silence as a holy hush descends upon us.  On this Holy Night may you catch a glimpse of the gift of grace that God offers to you freely and unconditionally; may God enable you to open your hearts in order to receive this gift and may all of us together taste the joy that Christ brings; may we each catch a glimpse of God’s grace!
Picture at the top of the page: Hanna Cheriyan Varghese (Malaysia). “For unto us a Child is born”. - Malaysian
Picture at the bottom of the page: Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congo). Nativity, 2001

Saturday, November 12, 2016

My Sermon for Nov. 12/13 on the story of Zaccheaus - Luke 19:1-11

You should read all of Luke 18 and 19 up to 19:11

           Have you ever noticed that Luke seems to be obsessed with tax collectors and sinners – They are all over the place:
            Jesus eats with them constantly
            Jesus calls a tax collector to be a disciple
            He uses them as examples in parables – in fact just a few verses before this story of Zaccheaus in chapter 19 we have the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee – do you remember that?
            2 men go up to the Temple to pray – one (a Pharisee) prays – “I thank you Lord that my life is great, that I am a very religious person and that I am not like any of those loosers, like, for example, that tax collector over there…  And then standing afar off a tax collector cannot even raise his head and he prays, “dear Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!”  And who do you think left the temple with their sins forgiven?  The tax collector and not the Pharisee!
            And here we have this story of Jesus encountering yet another Tax Collector, and not just any tax collector – a chief tax collector!  So what is the deal with Tax Collectors?  Why is Luke so focused on Tax Collectors?
            To be clear, we are not talking about IRS agents here.  These are not public servants in the way we think of them today.  In Jesus’ time tax collectors were collaborators with the occupiers.  The Romans designated locals to assess and collect taxes for them.  And if needed the Romans would provide the muscle needed to extract these taxes.  So it worked this way – the designated tax collector would go to his neighbors and inform them that they owed a certain amount to the Romans – for the privilege of being occupied of course.  Now the amount assessed was determined by the Tax Collector himself.  He could collect whatever he could and then after Rome got its fair share then the Tax Collector got to keep the rest.  This is why someone like Zach is described as being very wealthy (in a context when most people lived in poverty, btw).  He was very good at collecting large amounts and he got to keep the excess.  As you might imagine tax collectors were not very popular, in fact they were despised.  But not for Luke – Luke seems to have a soft place in his heart for them.  Maybe he understands the pressures they are under.  How for them they saw no other option – so rather than living in poverty they chose to sell out their neighbors. But it must have been a painful and lonely existence. They would have been cut off from the Temple and, as the text constantly reminds us, they are counted as sinners, which meant they were shunned, since, after all they were unredeemable sinners.
            But not for Jesus – and this is the point that Jesus makes over and over again in Luke: No one is unredeemable – No One! Not even the Pharisees – but what distinguishes the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the parable is the inability or the unwillingness of the Pharisee to see the sinner in himself.  The Pharisee is just as much of a sinner as the anyone else, but they can’t see it.  They are thus guilty of perhaps the most destructive sin of all: the inability to see themselves honesty, or to see themselves as sinners and consequently to recognize their need for God’s grace and forgiveness.  “I thank you that I am not like that looser over there – I am so pure and holy and right – thank you God for making me such a great and righteous person!”
            This is the key to understanding these texts. There is no inner or intrinsic righteousness about any of these folks.  It is not that the Tax Collectors and Sinners were basically better people than the Pharisees – not at all.  But rather the Pharisees had closed themselves off while the Tax Collectors and Sinners were honest about themselves: “be merciful to me, a sinner” says the one in the parable.  And this openness is what enables transformation and grace.  The key is sight.  And guess what healing story takes place right before this story of Zaccheaus?  Jesus heals a blind man on the side of the road.  And then a few verses later we read that this great sinner – the chief tax collector – wants to see Jesus.  This is not accidental.  The key to this entire section is seeing.  And it begs the question?  Can you see?  Do you want to see Jesus? Or maybe not, because it can be uncomfortable and it might even change your life. 
            When we read this story in English we get the distinct impression that Jesus is being so genial and kind - "hurry and come down Zaccheaus, for I must dine at your house today!"  We can just hear the laughter in Jesus' voice.  But in Greek there is a different feel to it.  There is no geniality or laughter in the voice.  The children’s song we did a bit ago actually captures the Greek feel pretty well.  Jesus looks up in the tree and sees Zach and commands him to come down, in no uncertain terms!  “Zacchaeus get down here right this minute.”  It is a harsh imperative command. And Jesus is coming to his house – whoa! That is intense! No one is going to like that - the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – no one! They are all going to grumble and complain and criticize and condemn.  And it is going to be uncomfortable for Zach as well.
            But you see Zach has something to tell Jesus: “I have decided to restore the money that I have gotten by cheating my neighbors.”  The verb tense indicates that this has been brewing for a while.  In other words Zach didn’t make this as a spur of the moment decision, inspired by having Jesus as his guest.  No, he has been moving in this direction for a while and struggling with it.  This is what prompted his desire to SEE Jesus in the first place!  Ultimately Zach determined that life that is all about accumulation of money and stuff is hollow – and that a life lived alone, separated from community is very life denying.  Jesus’ statement that “salvation has come to this house today” is an interesting statement when you consider that the Greek word which is translated as “salvation” can also be translated as “healing.”  So Jesus tells the community that “Healing has come for Zaccheaus – and healing means salvation for healing in this case means a refocusing on others and on community.  Healing means that the blind can now see!
            Maybe you all are getting tired of hearing me preach about the importance and centrality of community all the time. But I simply can’t avoid it – because it is embedded and intewoven in the Gospel text.  This story as well as everything that went before and everything that comes after is all about community and relationship; it is about the importance of community and how we experience God’s love and grace through community and how community is to be at the center of the life of faith.  But we sure get a different view in the general culture: “go for all the gusto you can get” – it’s all about me, me, me – and even the talking religious heads repeat over and over about how faith is about personal this and personal that.  Except – it’s not!  You have to ignore the Gospel and pull out your favorite selfish verses out of context to get that impression.  The Gospel is about being a part of community and not letting anything – anything get in the way!  In this story in chapter 19 Zach has come to a point in his life where he began to see the truth of this and then made the effort to seek out Jesus as a result; and he was healed/saved in the seeing and seeking!
            What about us?  Are you the Pharisee or the Tax Collector in the parable?  “I thank you Lord I am not like that person, I am not like that looser?”  Do we think that, I mean deep down do we think that?  Do we focus exclusively on ourselves?  Do we care about others?  Especially others who are really different than us?  Others who live different lives and have different traditions and different situations and different lifestyles and priorities and different politics than us?  Do we care about any of those others?  What about others in other parts of the world who are really removed from us – Haiti, Syria…?  Do we care? Can we see their suffering?  Do we think about them?  Or… do we subconsciously pray “I thank you Lord that I am not like them….”
            The key to Christian faith and life is relationship and community! And not just our little community here in Southern Illinois – we are, by virtue of our baptism – in community and in relationship with all the world and we are responsible for them; we need to care about them; we need to listen to those who are hurting and scared and suffering and we need to be ready to do something about it.  Can you SEE?  Like Zach, are you willing to climb up the highest tree just to be able to see – so that healing and salvation will come your way?
            These are hard questions – but hard questions are appropriate for stewardship weekend, because stewardship is ultimately about seeing and responding to the call to work to restore community and relationship.  Stewardship is about seeing and hearing and caring and loving and giving…

Let me conclude with the words of Jesus:

Jesus said to the blind man, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

Then Jesus said to Zaccheaus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”