Monday, September 28, 2009

My sermon from 9/27/09 – Mark 9:38-50 Chop, Chop! Splash, Splash!

TEXT: St. Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

This is some text, but before we start pulling out our axes we should look carefully at this passage. The text is a continuation of the text from last week where the disciples are digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole and Jesus is getting more and more frustrated and angry with them – to the point where his teaching is becoming more stark and blunt. Can you imagine the shock and revulsion that must have run through this group of disciples when Jesus starts talking about severing limbs. We can hear just the whispers – “can he be serious?

Now if you remember from last week this whole episode begins with the disciples trying and failing to perform an exorcism. Jesus is really put out with the disciples as a result. Then Jesus repeats His passion prediction. Now the first time He told them that he was moving towards crucifixion it had not gone over well; but this 2nd time the disciples don’t seem to be paying any attention because they are too busy arguing about who is going to have the most honor and be the greatest in the new Kingdom of God. Again, Jesus reminds them that if they want to be great – then they need to be a servant of all; if they want to have honor they must completely give up honor.

This brings us to the text for this morning and what I’ll call the “copyright” dispute. The disciples have come upon someone who is successfully performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name. So what is the problem with that? Well, as far as the disciples are concerned this person is not qualified or authorized to do this healing because he is not one of them. The disciples are rather indignant about this – remember that this fellow was successfully doing what they themselves had failed at not so long ago. Our text tells us that the disciples told this guy to stop and it suggests that he basically ignored them, so they comes whining to Jesus, “We met this guy who is doing exorcisms in your name, but he’s not one of us, so we told he had to stop.” Jesus is not pleased. “Do not forbid anyone from doing good, from reaching out to others in my name,” he tells them. But as with everything else the disciples don’t understand, they don’t get it. “Doesn’t Jesus understand that His name is really powerful and we need to keep control of it – why so that it can benefit us and put us in positions of importance. You can’t just let anyone use your name!”

That’s why I call it a copyright issue – what is at stake in copyright disputes is control of artistic and intellectual property – which includes ideas, theology and brand names, which is where the disciples are heading with this. The point of copyright laws is that to help us control of what is ours, right? It doesn’t matter if it is a piece of music, a song, a painting, an idea, a belief or our names – we want to keep control of it.

And this is exactly how the disciples felt – Jesus, you must keep control of your name – don’t let others just use it without some kind of authorization. Your ideas and name mean power, and if managed correctly, well everyone would benefit. That makes sense – doesn’t it? Well, but not to Jesus. Jesus had just reminded His disciples that they were heading towards crucifixion – they were on the road towards giving up power and control completely – that this was the only path to the Kingdom of God. So in this way Jesus is re-defining the argument: for Jesus it was not an issue of copyright or control, it was an issue of priority. The question suggested by Jesus response is: what is important? What is important to you, disciples? For Jesus’ disciples the priority is clearly themselves: their position, their authority, their control, their honor and importance.

But for Jesus the priority is people; especially those people who are in need; especially those people in whom faith is beginning to bud (he calls them the “little ones’). What matters to Jesus in this situation is not control of His name, it is that people are being freed from whatever is oppressing them. If that is done by you disciples in my name, great; if it is being done in my name by someone who I don’t know then that is great too; because the important thing is reaching out and caring for and healing people.

So then, what about all this chop, chop stuff – severing of limbs and so forth. Where did that come from? It follows from what has gone before – Jesus’ priority is people, caring for and reaching out to people. The disciples are called to be free from the need to control every detail, free of the need to acquire power because if you are driven by control and power that then will take over as the most important thing in your life and consequently people become less important and the “little ones” get hurt. “If your priorities are such,” suggests Jesus, “that they are hurting the “little ones” then you would be better off if we hung a millstone around your neck and dropped you into the sea. If your priorities are such that they are hurting the little ones it would be better for you to cut off all the body parts that lead you to grasp for control and power. If your priorities are such that they are hurting the little ones, then you need to die!”

And that is it – That is the point! Jesus had started this whole discussion with reminding the disciples that they were heading towards crucifixion and death. Jesus will die and be raised; we too must pick up our cross and die with Him – in order to be raised with Him, in order to be freed and to completely live.

Splash, splash! There it is – right in front of me – the Baptismal Font! In Baptism we are buried with Christ, we die in Christ and we are raised to new life and freedom in our Baptisms into Christ. In Baptism the millstones are hung and disintegrated, and our bodies and souls are restored and renewed. The disciples don’t get it of course – not yet anyway, their time will come. We don’t always get it either, but God nevertheless has restored and freed us in our baptisms and called us to a life of making people priority number #1.

I will close with a story from the sports pages from a few years ago. It was a story about university softball finals in Oregon from a few years ago. With two runners on base and a strike against her, Sara T. did something she had never done before. She hit a home run. But then as she started to run around the bases, she missed first base. Realizing what she had done she started back to tag it but in the process of stopping and turning around she ripped something in her knee and she collapsed with searing pain. She crawled back to first base but couldn’t go on. Now the dilemma: She would be called out if her teammates tried to help her. The umpire said a pinch runner could be called in, but the homer would have to count as a single.

Then, the some members of the opposing softball team did something that stunned spectators. The girl who was playing first base asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Sara. The umpire consulted with her colleagues and then determined that there was no rule against it. So a couple of the infielders put their arms under Sara’s legs, and she put her arms over their shoulders. The three players headed around the bases, stopping to let Sara touch each base with her good leg. The three-run homer would count. But that is only part of the story. This act of sportsmanship and kindness by the opposing team contributed to their own elimination from the playoffs. There was a price for their compassion.

Of course! There was a price for Jesus, and for the disciples down the road as well. But it is our calling to open ourselves to God’s love and grace, allow Him to help us set aside our need to control, at least a little, and reach out of ourselves to “the little ones,” those whom God has set in our path. There is also a gift – we can expect God to stand with us throughout everything and to grant us a sense of His peace and love and grace.

Thank you to TextWeek for inspiring the title.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pastoral Letter - Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009 – Holy Cross Day
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ at Peace Lutheran Church,
I am writing to you to address some of the concerns that some have expressed regarding the actions taken at the ELCA national assembly in August.
The actions themselves are as follows:
1. The Social Statement on Human Sexuality was adopted by 2/3 of the assembly.
2. The church affirmed that in the future implementation of any changes and commitments adopted, it will make decisions so that all in this church bear the burdens of the other, and respect the bound consciences of all. This means that nothing will be imposed on any synod or congregation that go against its understanding and will.
3. This resolution committed the church to finding ways “to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
4. The assembly was asked whether, in principle, this church is committed to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as professional leaders of this church.
5. The last resolution outlined the specifics of how this church can move toward change in a way that respects the bound consciences of all. Again, this means that we are respectful of each other and differences of understanding.

A couple comments and clarifications:
1. I think it is very important to note that the Social Statement on Human Sexuality was about more than homosexuality. It covered a full range of topics – including marital fidelity, sexual abuse and sexual slavery. These are topics that the church needs to speak out about, and about which there really should not be much disagreement.
2. It is also important to be reminded that the ELCA, along with many other denominations, have been ordaining gays and lesbians to serve as pastors for years. However, the expectation was that those whose self-understanding was gay or lesbian were expected to remain celibate. This has been the policy of the ELCA up until this assembly at least since the ELCA was constituted. The only thing that will change is that now a gay or lesbian pastor may enter into a committed, monogamous relationship and still be available to serve as a pastor if approved by a synod and if properly called by a congregation.
3. The resolutions make it very clear that nothing will be imposed on congregations or synods that disagree in part or on the whole. Bishops are to use pastoral discretion and congregations will be free to choose to call or not call any pastor presented to them during the call process.
4. I do not expect there will be much change for us here in Southern Illinois. There will be no immediate affect of these actions on the congregations of Southern Illinois and I suspect this is also true for of our Synod (see the attached email from Bishop Freiheit).

Personal reflection:
I have deep respect for the feelings and convictions of people on both sides of this issue. There is a strong feeling among some that this action goes against biblical understandings of marriage and sexuality. This is not a position that can be ignored and is an important concern which I deeply respect. At the same time folks on the other side of the argument point to the fact that the biblical injunctions are not always clear and that they are few and far between (there are only 7 verses that even remotely refer to this issue, and this is out of 66 books – far fewer verses than other issues such as heterosexual adultery and poverty.)
As your new pastor I would ask only that you prayerfully keep an open mind. Please do not pre-judge this issue or rush to conclusions. There is so much, especially in the media, that paints an incorrect picture of what it means to be gay and what the decisions of the ELCA assembly will mean. For example, it is not true that gays are predominantly pedophiles or child molesters; it is not true that gays are sexually irresponsible as a group. There are some who fall into all of these categories – just as there are heterosexuals who fall into these categories. My view is that these decisions will have no impact on us here in Steeleville at all for a very long time to come.

Please resist the temptation to over-react or to respond in a unilateral way. We only hurt ourselves when we do this. Leaving the congregation or withholding and diverting contributions are simply not helpful or appropriate ways of responding to this ELCA action. The only ones who will be hurt by doing this are those who are engaged in ministry here in this parish of Peace Lutheran Church. A better way is to remain engaged in dialog with the ELCA. You can call the ELCA or attend one the forums that are being planned. Also, we all need to be open to dialog and to learning. None of us have a complete and fully “correct” understanding of this issue. We need to be careful that we do not fall into the trap of thinking we are right and we have all the answers.

Finally, let us look to our Lord Jesus for guidance. When asked what rule or law was the most important Jesus was unambiguous: “Love the Lord your God, with all your mind and with all your heart… and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is what we are called to. We are called to love. We can debate and struggle with each other on various issues, we can disagree – but in the end we are to love each other and be willing to reach out of ourselves to love those who are different from us. This is our calling. It is up to God to judge – it is up to us to love. And we are called to trust: trust in the Lord to preserve and keep us and our beloved church through every storm. God has kept the church and sustained the church through all kinds of things in the last 2000 years. I believe that God will continue to keep us all in his hands; to strengthen, feed and sustain us through this and all future struggles. This is the promise of the Gospel:
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!
Pastor S. Blake Duncan+

Sexuality in the Headlines - by Pr. Peter W. Marty - St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Davenport, IA

I found this (and everything) Pastor Marty writes to be very meaningful and filled with a profound understanding of grace.  He has agreed to let me share it....

Sexuality in the Headlines
By Peter W. Marty
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made headlines last week, and it wasn’t for its commitment to try and wipe out malaria in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015. It was for actions taken regarding the eligibility or fitness of homosexual persons who may have gifts for ministry. Specifically, the buzz emanating from the Minneapolis Convention Center revolved around Resolution 2: “Resolved, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.”
The resolution passed 559-441. It was an affirmation that didn’t come as a surprise to many. For one thing, the church has studied and deliberated over the issue for years, much of it very considerate conversation. For another, all of us have grown accustomed to gay and lesbian people being a valuable part of our everyday lives. They deliver our mail, pilot our airplanes, and write the books we read. They are busy doing cancer research, teaching in our colleges and universities, and playing symphony violin. Why wouldn’t they also be in the church? There is yet another reason why many predicted the vote outcome. Celibate gay clergy have been a part of the ELCA for decades. No one wants to pretend that all gay Christians lack gifts for ministry; the issue in Minneapolis was clergy in same-gender relationships (of a monogamous and lifelong character). The vote tally caused many to rejoice, many to lament, and plenty of others to simply wonder, “Does this have anything to do with my life?”
Each of us has to decide what our response will be. Here is my suggestion for a St. Paul Lutheran Church response:
Over-reaction is not a virtue. A pastor friend emailed his disgust to me: “The ELCA has just broken with 2000 years of church history, ignoring every sound Biblical and theological principle.” Such words are inflammatory. If we are going to speak like this – which I don’t recommend – then we must also say that the church broke with 1850 years of Christian history and biblical interpretation when it finally stopped putting up with the Bible’s failure to condemn slavery. And, we should say that the church broke with 1950 years of Christian history and biblical interpretation when it finally determined that women had a place in society and church leadership equal to men.
Nothing is being forced on congregations. The actions of the ELCA assembly create options and opportunities for local congregations. They do not constitute high-handed decisions that demand change on a congregational level. 
The absence of a landslide vote is positive. It reminds us that it’s just fine for a church to lack consensus on any number of contemporary issues. In the ELCA, we are not a single-minded people who inhabit a church that has no room for others who differ. Jesus spent his last night on earth underscoring love – not agreement – as the most important thing in life. Our daily prayer could be: “Lord, help me be sure to love those with whom I disagree.”
Boundary markers provide a secure feeling, but Jesus detested them. Throughout his ministry, he smashed them every place he could. They may provide a neat mechanism for establishing a sense of moral superiority. We all imagine forfeiting our integrity as Christians if we’re not vigilant in keeping plenty of boundary markers up. But we’d be hard-pressed to call such demarcation “The Jesus Way.”
Let’s keep perspective on scripture and how we use it. In 66 books of scripture, only seven verses have anything to do with certain homosexual behaviors – behaviors that are equally condemned along with certain heterosexual ones. Seven verses pale in comparison to the larger biblical witness about heterosexual adultery, loving one’s neighbor, and injustice to the poor. Jesus never uttered a word about homosexuality. The Ten Commandments ignore the subject completely. Homosexual orientation was an unknown concept in Biblical times. At least, every Biblical writer skipped reference to it, if it was known. We have no idea, for example, if the Apostle Paul was gay or straight. If someone were able to prove he was homosexual, it’s hard to picture the church removing his letters from scripture as suddenly without authority. Also absent from biblical writing is any mention of what we know today as a faithful, loving, non-exploitative, and lifelong same-gender relationship.
Suitability for ministry is about giftedness and grace. As for “giftedness,” ministry had better not be primarily about the sexual elements of a pastor’s life (or other church professional). I certainly want to be known for attributes other than my heterosexuality. As for “grace,” if the church let me in, grace must be at work!
Wherever you find yourself navigating this whole matter, count on me to walk the journey with you. I’ll be there.