Monday, May 4, 2015

Abide in Love - I John 4:7-21

Throughout the season of Easter we have the opportunity during worship to hear a series of lessons from the letter of I John.  In many ways I feel that these readings and this letter is very timely.  Whenever I read I John I feel like it is speaking to our own time and place.  So what is going on?
Well, this community of faith is in crisis.  The issue is over the question of the humanity versus the divinity of Jesus. This is an issue that was eventually resolved by the early church.  But what is particularly important to us I think is not so much who was right and who was wrong about this particular issue but rather the behavior of the members of this community and how they chose to relate to others during this conflict.  Especially how they related to other Christians who disagreed with them.  And what we see does not look good.  This community was divided over the issue and one group took the position that anyone who disagreed with them were not real Christians and could and should be ignored and treated with contempt.  Only the true Christians – the ones who believed all the right things - deserved to be treated with respect and love.  Only the true Christians were welcome. And so they not only set themselves apart from the wider community of the world, but they also pulled apart and were hostile to the other Christian believers with whom they had disagreements.  As far as they were concerned to interact with those who believed wrong or accepted beliefs they considered sinful, or who were even tolerant of these things was to taint themselves and make themselves unclean in God’s eyes.  This fear of wrong doctrine and of others forced them into their own little corner where they huddled together in their fear and spewed forth their hate.  The love of Christ, which had given them new life and a calling to share this love had, by this fear turned into hate.
This is what the letter of I John has to say about this:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  19We love because he first loved us.  20Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John 4:16-21)
There is obviously no effort to be tactful or subtle here.  This is laid out for us in pretty stark terms: if you hate, or support hate you have separated yourself from God. If you pull yourself apart from others, looking for special treatment or refusing to interact with those who don’t believe like you do, then you have separated yourself from Christ.  I think we all need to take this seriously.  The behavior of those who claim the name of Christ lately has been an awful lot like the behavior of these believers to whom the letter of I John is written.  Hate and fear are the words that characterize a lot of this behavior.
The issues are perhaps no longer theological so much, but it hardly matters. The point is the same whether the issues are ethics or politics or theology: hate towards those with whom we disagree is not appropriate; self-righteous anger which leads to false witness is not acceptable; fear that blinds us is unfaithful and not acceptable.  Star War’s Master Yoda sums it all up with this famous line:
The letter of I John would agree.  Hate and the products of hate are rejected out of hand.
So what are we to do?  We don’t have to agree with everyone, but we do so in love.  Because that is the bottom line – Love!
7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  9God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  (I John 4:7-12).
Or, in the words of an old camp song: … and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” 

Will they?  It is to this we are called!

The audio of this sermon can be found on the "media" page at wartburgparish.com

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.
Forgive Us Our Sins, as We Forgive Those Who Sin Against Us
Of all of Jesus’ parables probably one of the best known is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This story that Jesus tells is a powerful story of betrayal and forgiveness.  And the betrayal is so great that it makes the act of unconditional forgiveness extremely radical.  Which is the point. God’s willingness, even compulsion to forgive us is excessive and radical, completely beyond human comprehension.  God is not only willing to forgive in this story, but God as the father, is eagerly waiting throughout the story to forgive.  The difficulty of this story for us is that often we are like the youngest son who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge our failings and our need for forgiveness.  We tend either to be so self-righteous that we refuse to recognize and acknowledge our need for forgiveness or, on the other hand, we get so used to feeling guilty and put upon that we begin to enjoy wallowing in our guilt and use the excuse that we are unforgivable. Both attitudes are wrong – both attitudes lead to broken relationships both with God and with others – Neither attitude is consistent with the Gospel.
Perhaps it would be useful to offer a couple definitions at this point.  Forgive us our sins.  The word “sins” is a loaded, churchy word that carries a lot of baggage.  But in the Lord’s Prayer it refers to the condition of human self-centeredness that puts us, ourselves in the center of our own universe at the expense of our relationships with others and with God.  This leads to brokenness.  And so when we pray this petition we are asking God to restore our broken relationships to wholeness and to heal the brokenness in our lives. 
The Good News is that God, like the father of the parable of the Prodigal Son, is ready and willing and even anxious to heal our brokenness and to restore our broken relationships.  This image of the Father from this parable is an important one, and one that we must all keep in our minds whenever we pray for forgiveness.  The Father is always ready, willing and anxious to forgive us and heal our broken relationships.  The real question is not about God but about us – do we want God’s forgiveness? Are we willing to be honest about the way we are – the hurts we have caused and the brokenness we have created?  Are we able to see in ourselves the one who is self-righteous, always right and never wrong; or the one who is happy to wallow in the mud of guilt and self-pity?  Are we able to see our self-centeredness  that refuses to see anything in terms other than our own narrow self-interest? Are we capable of seeing the apathy and lack of concern that we show for others?  Do we refuse to recognize our own culpability for much of the misery that surrounds us?
The point is that we stand in the way of God’s forgiveness.  We refuse to reach out for it, we refuse to take it, we refuse to come home.
There is a scene in John Bunyan’s “A Pilgrim’s Progress” where the Pilgrim, after being arrested and condemned is found to be languishing in a prison cell.  There he moves between two poles – Self-righteousness and self-pity.  After wallowing in this much for a while he accidently touches his heart and realizes that in his breast pocket he has a key – the key of promise.  And this key will unlock the prison in which he is confined.  Not only that but he has had this key with him the entire time.  But he had forgotten it.  But this key represents the promise of forgiveness, the promise of love and the promise of grace.  “Oh fool that I am.  In my bosom lay the key of promise, wherefore shall I lie in bondage, when I might walk at liberty on the King’s Highway.  The key, the way of freedom.”  Then taking the key he unlocks the prison that disappears and the Pilgrim now finds himself in a beautiful, open and sunlit expanse.  And now he sings praises to God who has restored him to wholeness.
We too have the key of promise in our hearts and this key will unlock the prisons we have created for ourselves.  The question which this petition of the Lord’s Prayer asks is the same one the Pilgrim asks: “Wherefore shall I lie in bondage, when I might walk at liberty on the King’s Highway?”  Why do we refuse to acknowledge our need for forgiveness?  Why do we insist on continuing to live in a state of brokenness?  When God is ready and willing and anxious to restore us to wholeness.
The promise of the Kingdom come is that the age of forgiveness is not off in the distance but it is here in our midst now.  And God is ready and anxious to receive you, to set you on the way of wholeness and freedom and to welcome you home.

An audio recording of the preached sermon can be found on the media page at wartburgparish.com

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.
Give us today our daily bread
In many ways this petition is the heart and center of the Lord’s Prayer.  This petition acts as a kind of railway switch that moves us in a different direction from the “thou” petitions (hallowed be THY name; THY kingdom come; THY will be done…) to the “we” or “us” petitions (give US today our daily bread; forgive US our sins; save US from the time of trial; deliver US from evil).  But while noting this, it is still important for us to recognize that this is only a slight change in focus.  This prayer continues to be a Kingdom prayer that is concerned with both affirming the values of the Kingdom come and recognizing that these Kingdom values have direct consequences for us, how we live our lives and how we relate to others.  As we ask God to help us keep God’s name holy, recognize the Kingdom come into our midst and allow God’s will be done in our lives now and always, we at the same time are also expressing the practical implications of these opening petitions in the prayers for bread, forgiveness, deliverance and protection.  In other words, the Kingdom is about God’s action here in our midst, because God loves people, is committed to the creation and cares passionately for you and me and all of God’s human children.
But exactly how then does this prayer accomplish all of this.  Quite frankly, how we understand this petition centers around how we translate and understand one particular word: the Greek word that stands behind the word that is rendered as “daily” in English.  I suspect that it will be surprising for many of you to learn that this particular word is not so easy to translate and in fact appears in the New Testament text only in this one place.  The phrase “daily bread” has become so familiar to us that I suspect we don’t give it much thought.  But this phrase is actually very complicated and can be translated in several different ways.  And so, I would like to explore briefly 3 different ways of translating and phrasing this petition.  This will allow these different understandings then to show us 3 different dimensions of meaning for this petition.
First, the traditional – “Give us today our daily bread.”  This tradition translation of the petition is valid and important.  In order to live we all need nourishment, we need food, we need clothing, home property, work, income, family, an orderly community, good government and the like, just as Luther expresses in his explanation of this petition in the Small Catechism.  And we need this each and every day.  What would it be like to go through one day without, say the love and presence of our family, or without food or good government?  It would be difficult, to say the least.
In the Gospels, Jesus himself is very concerned with “daily bread” for those who travel with him and also for those whom he encounters.  Sometimes it almost seems that the only thing Jesus did was to eat.  He is constantly sharing a meal with different folks, mostly outcasts and sinners.  And he becomes notorious for this, so much so that some of Jesus’ opponents begin to refer to him as a glutton and a drunkard.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds twice, and on the last night of his life he sits and dines with his disciples at the Last Supper.  And even after the resurrection Jesus dines with his disciples on the beach.  Jesus is very concerned with daily nourishment.  And, please note, there is no division between the spiritual and earthly, or sacred and secular in Jesus’ concern for the health and physical nourishment of his followers.  In fact, Jesus links his concern for the physical needs of those who he encounters with their spiritual needs.  Jesus’ concern is with wholeness, all dimensions of our lives together.  “Give us today our daily bread.”
The 2nd way of translating and understanding this petition is: “Give us today the bread that we need.” Not more – not less – but what we need for today.  Looking at this petition in this translation brings up all kinds of issues for us, especially as regards the question of needs verses wants.  We Americans in particular seem to struggle a lot with this and we have a hard time sometimes discerning what are needs and what are simply wants.  Consequently this raises issues of justice.  For in the midst of a society that uses more than its fair share of the earth’s resources and has a tendency to hoard, this petition calls us to account.
In the Old Testament book of Exodus as the people of Israel are wandering in the wilderness God is so concerned with their well-being that God sends Manna to provide nourishment. But it is not an unlimited supply.  The people of Israel can only take what they need for that one day, if they try to hoard the excess will rot.  This then requires them to trust that God will supply what they need each day.  The key to this story is trust and it raises the trust question for us. Do we truly trust God to give us what we need from day to day?  Or are we instead more like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable who works and works and works to fill his barns with grain, more grain than he will ever, ever need and is destroyed in the process?
“Give us today the bread we need.”  Give us today!  This petition brings with it a global consciousness as well.  The pronouns are US and WE – not ME or MINE – but rather US, all of us are one family of God’s children.  And as we take only what we need we are thus enabling others to receive what they need as well.  This petition is a prayer for justice. To quote one well-known theologian: In “asking for daily bread we are asking for a change in the modern social order, which rests on exploitation and profit.  We are asking for the overcoming of greed and fear, for fair pay for fair work, for the ending of unemployment, for the disappearance of alcoholism and prostitution, for adequate health care being available to all, for the saving of nature from destruction by a technology that works in the service of false gods.” (1)
In short, this petition is a prayer that God would give bread to those who hunger for bread; and that God would give to those who have bread and are full a hunger for justice.
The 3rd way of understanding this phrase is this: Our bread for tomorrow, give us today.”  Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” In the simple nourishment of the Kingdom meal of Holy Communion we receive none other than Jesus, himself.  In this ordinary taste of bread we receive a taste of the Kingdom come.  For “the bread which Jesus proffered when he sat at table with the publicans and sinners was everyday bread, and yet it was more: it was the bread of life… Every meal Jesus’ disciples had with him was a usual eating and drinking, and yet it was more: a meal of salvation, a messianic meal, an image and anticipation of the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom come.” (2)  Our bread for tomorrow – give us today!  Give us, today an experience of the Kingdom.  Let us see the light of Christ burning in the darkness of this world.  Grant to us, O Lord, a foretaste of the feast to come.
The bread and wine of the Sacrament of Holy Communion are the 1st answer to this petition.  For in the Eucharist, we today receive our bread for tomorrow.  We come as honored guests to the heavenly banquet.  In receiving ordinary bread in our hands we are also given the bread of life – none other than Jesus our Lord.  And in this way we are nurtured, nourished and empowered to bear the light of the Kingdom of God to others in our daily ministry.  This is why the Sacrament is not optional for Christians – we need it, or we will starve spiritually.  We need this taste of the Kingdom of God regularly.  For in the Sacrament we are embraced by Christ as he tells us he loves us and bids us to love others. 
“Our bread for tomorrow, give us today.” “Give us today the bread that we need.”  “Give us today our daily bread.”
Ultimately this petition is a prayer of thanksgiving for, in the words of the Psalmist, “the eyes of all look to you, O Lord, for you give them (us) their (our) food in due season.  You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
Or in the words of the hymn: “O living bread from heaven, how well you feed your guest!  The gifts that you have given have filled my heart with rest.  O wondrous food of blessing, O cup that heals our woes!  My heart, this gift possessing, with praises overflows.”  Amen.
1. From "The Lord's Prayer" by Jan Milic Lochman, Errdman's 1988, page 98
2. From "The Lord's Prayer" by Joachim Jeremias, Fortress Press, 1964, page 26
An audio recording of the preached sermon can be found on the media page at wartburgparish.com

Monday, March 16, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.
Your Will Be Done, On Earth as in Heaven
It should be clear by now that this prayer is no ordinary prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer is a Kingdom prayer – a prayer that affirms the presence of the Kingdom come NOW in Christ; a prayer that turns the expected on its head; a prayer that is downright radical.  When we pray this prayer this is what we are affirming: God, Our Father, Abba, is nearer to us that we are to ourselves; God, Abba, has named us and we belong to God who has given us the name of the Son, Christ Emmanuel – God with us – as a promise.  God has gone even further by going ahead and inaugurating the Kingdom of God in our midst now.  No need to wait for some kind of future event, God is so anxious to give us the Kingdom that he has brought it into being now in Christ and we live as citizens as a part of the, as yet incomplete, Kingdom which will be brought to its glorious fullness in the time to come.
Set in this context then this petition – your will be done – is not prudent resignation or pious capitulation, nor is it some kind of spiritual anesthetic, it is rather a joyous affirmation that God’s will is being established in spite of and in the midst of the darkness. 
Ok, so then what exactly is God’s will?
To answer this question we need to go back to the creation story in Genesis.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the creation was good, TOV, fantastic because it was perfectly balanced and all creation was one with itself and the creator.  And the crown of creation was the creation of humanity – men and women.  And again, all of the creation was in harmony, creation and creator coexisted in Shalom or wholeness and unity. But then we humans tried to stage a coup, we wanted to displace God and take over and become the masters of creation, to become like gods ourselves, and so creation was broken by human self-centeredness and the creation began its slow plunge towards its ultimate destruction. 
But then God does something unique, something unexpected, something incredible – God enters into human life and is born in Jesus in order to begin to bring the creation back to its created wholeness; God enters into human life and is born in Jesus in order to bring all of God’s children into perfect unity with God and with the creation.  THIS then is the will of God: God’s will is that we are restored to wholeness and unity with God and each other, and when we experience this in any way, even if it is a fleeting experience within a moment, we nonetheless have experienced a taste of the Kingdom Come.
So, what then is God’s will?  God’s will is joy, healing, wholeness, love and unity for all the creation – for you and for me.  All that is opposed to this is contrary to God’s will; evil, suffering, death, selfishness, hate – these are contrary to God’s will.  God does not will human suffering.  But yet, there is much suffering because we still live in a broken and fallen world where human self-centeredness and evil still are active and present.  This is contrary to God’s will, so then what is the response?  Does God ignore it?  No, God deals with the presence of evil and human suffering and death by entering into it; by staying right by our sides throughout everything no matter what and creating and bringing life from death, joy from suffering and good from evil.  This is the meaning of the cross.  When we look on that cross it should remind us that God has entered into the darkness of this world and turned on the light.  And this is the promise that we can hold on to: that no matter what, God’s Will that the creation be restored to its original state of Shalom or Wholeness will prevail, and in the meantime God is present with us in the midst of the ups and downs of our lives.
“Your will be done on earth as in heaven.”
This is a difficult petition for us.  It is even a dangerous petition.  For it is easier for us to simply see this petition as pious submission, for that demands nothing of us.  But this petition in the context of this prayer is in fact an affirmation that it is God’s will which will ultimately prevail.  And that it is God’s passionate desire that the creation be whole and that unity will be restored.  When we pray this petition we are also opening ourselves to God’s will and putting aside our own will, our own desire and need for control and asking God to continue the work of helping us all to be brought into conformity with God’s holy will and to help each of us to continue the work of the Kingdom of God – allowing us to experience and to be an open vessel of the Kingdom Come.  SBD+
The audio for the preached sermons is available at this site - sometimes they are very different from the text: http://wartburgparish.com/#/media