Monday, April 17, 2017

Death & Darkness – Easter 2017

Based on Matthew 28:1-10

It is still dark outside this morning.  Though as I look at the windows I can see just a hint of light and I know that it will not be long before the sun will rise in the sky and light will flood through these windows.  But inside we have our lights on and we are comfortable.  The candles we have lit are for symbolic use since they have no practical use anymore.  We do not need these candles to see!  I think that we take light for granted and that we really don’t take darkness seriously any more.  After all we are dependent and comfortable with our electricity, our lamps and industrial lighting and so forth.  The fact is that we can get up at any time of the night and turn on a lamp and essentially create day in order to do whatever we want at any time.
But, can you imagine a world where that is not the case.  A world where there are no artificial electric lights and instead the world is lit only by fire?  This is the world of antiquity: of the 1st century, the time of Jesus and actually continuing on for centuries afterwards.  Sure, they had oil lamps, maybe some candles, maybe some torches soaked in oil, but the oil and the wax were expensive, and besides they didn’t produce all that much light anyway.  Most folks simply surrendered to the darkness when it came.
This is why darkness is such a potent symbol in the Gospels – You are the light of the world! Teaches Jesus; Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven; No one would set a lamp under a bushel basket but on a lamp stand… those from Matthew; and from John: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehends it not.  The people to whom Jesus ministered and the disciples were well acquainted with darkness!  And they also knew death! 
Matthew begins his Gospel in darkness and death with his account of Jesus’ birth.  A teenage girl who is betrothed turns up pregnant – this has the smell of death already; Joseph resolves to “put her away quietly” – more death; the infant Jesus is visited by odd strangers from the east who unwittingly alert the dictator, death-dealer Herod to the birth of a potentially rival King and the holy family only barely has enough time to escape before Herod’s troops swoop down on Bethlehem bringing murder and bloodshed and grief and intense sorrow - Bringing more darkness and death!  And throughout the Gospel, Jesus constantly encounters darkness and death and wherever he goes he reaches out to bring life and light into these dark encounters.  Jesus heals, Jesus feeds, Jesus loves, Jesus accepts the unacceptable, Jesus eats with the hated, Jesus cares for the stranger and the foreigner, Jesus offers forgiveness to the unforgivable.  “THIS” Jesus tells his disciples, “this is what the Messiah does: the Messiah Loves, the Messiah forgives, the Messiah dies!”
Impossible say the disciples!  Impossible & blasphemy say the Pharisees and the authorities.  A loving Messiah, a forgiving Messiah, a Messiah that showers grace and peace upon all? This can’t be!  The Messiah is supposed to be on OUR side; the Messiah is supposed to hate what we hate, and despises whom we despise, and rejects who and what we reject, and applaud our violence against those who we judge deserving of violence and as being less than human!
“No!” says Jesus: the Messiah Loves, the Messiah forgives, the Messiah dies!  The Messiah dies! Into this culture of darkness and death Jesus, God incarnate, enters into this very darkness and death himself.  Jesus enters into the illness and the grief and the suffering which he encounters; and Jesus finally on the cross enters into death.  And, that is that! Or so everyone thought!  Darkness and the death have won the day!  Jesus dies abandoned on the cross (except for a few women) and he is placed in a tomb and a stone is rolled in front of the entrance.  And not only that, but the authorities post a guard, in order to make sure that death would have the last word.  That is that!
But…. Early in the morning, when it is dark and the light is just beginning to dawn a group of women find their way to the tomb and according to Matthew they suddenly experience the ground shake and they see the stone rolling away from the tomb and they see a bright image which announces that death does NOT have the last word!  “He is not here, for he has been raised!!!  HE HAS BEEN RAISED!  And then as they run back away from the tomb they encounter Jesus themselves! Jesus = Emmanuel = God with us is there even in the midst of death and darkness! But Jesus has now transformed the darkness into blazing light and death has given way to life!  A world controlled by darkness and death is a hopeless world, a world of pain and struggle – but a world where light and life have overcomes darkness and death is a world of hope, and love and grace and peace!
He is Risen!  He has Risen indeed!
He is Risen!  He has Risen indeed!
He is Risen!  He has Risen indeed!
And when we say that – when we proclaim and shout that from the hilltops and in the valleys we are proclaiming that we stand with the powers of light and life and that we know and assert that ultimately the powers of darkness and death will have no power and be finally completely overcome!
This is why we are all here today; this is why some of us assembled in the dark this morning for the Vigil!  Even though it still appears as though the powers of darkness and death are winning the day in our own time. Today – Easter day 2017 - we proclaim that light and life will prevail in the end and darkness and death will be wholly defeated!  But yet we look around and what do we see?  Rampant hate; active racism and Anti-Semitism; death camps in Chechnya for gay men; gas attacks on innocent children in Syria; desperate refugees looking for a better life and finding the doors slammed in their faces; reckless destruction of our environment for the sake of profits; irrational bombings; both spontaneous and systemic violence; threats and intimidation; and a whole lot of fear!  Fear of course is the most effective tool in the quiver of the darkness and those who would manipulate others and maintain a world ruled over by death use it to great effect!
But when we proclaim that Christ is risen we proclaim that fear has no power and that we refuse to manipulated by fear!  As the darkness is dispelled by the light we can begin to see the faces of all of those others who we are being taught to fear, all those others who are different than us in any number of ways; and low and behold the light allows us to look into their eyes and shows us that they are in fact our brothers and sisters - they are our neighbors whom we are to love as we love ourselves; and even our so-called enemies we can begin recognize as brothers and sisters whom we are also called to love (Matthew 5!)!  To proclaim resurrection is to say NO to fear; NO to hate; NO to judgment; NO to violence of any kind!  To embrace resurrection is to accept God’s love and to start seeing with the eyes of Jesus, and to start walking with the feet of Jesus, and to start reaching out with the arms and hands of Jesus and to start loving with the heart of Jesus!
When we proclaim that Jesus is Risen we proclaim that Love has won and will win in the end!  And when we proclaim that Jesus is risen we affirm that there is always reason to hope.  For no matter how dark the darkness, the light will disperse it completely; and no matter how dead death appears it is not stronger than our risen Lord!
Christ is Risen – He is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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