Thursday, October 29, 2009

Some Pastoral Reflections - November 2009

Jesus went throughout the Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. St. Matthew 4:23

“Extra, Extra, Hear all about it!!!” Such was the proclamation of the newsboys back maybe a century ago. Of course their “news” was a mixture of good and bad news from around the community, the state and the world. We too have something to proclaim, but for us Christians it is Good News – the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again.

Last month I began a series of reflections on the name of our congregation. While we usually refer to our community as “Peace Lutheran Church,” the official name is: “The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace.” Last month I wrote a few words reflecting on “Peace.” (You can read this reflection on my blog if you missed it – see below for the URL). This month I want to take a couple moments and write about the word “Evangelical.”

What comes to mind when you first hear this word? Does the word hold positive or negative connotations for you? For many of us, unfortunately, the first thing we think about when we hear this word “Evangelical” are people handing out tracts, pushy door-to-door visitors and television preachers. If that is what you think of, then probably “Evangelism” means primarily proselytizing or trying to convert others to our version of Christianity. But this is not what “Evangelical” really means. To be Evangelical – or to engage in Evangelism is not primarily trying to convert folks to our way of thinking. But this has become the image we associate with “Evangelism.” Perhaps this is why it is so hard to recruit folks to serve on the Evangelism committee in many parishes, because the impression is that it is all about proselytization.

But that is not what this word means. “Evangelical” means Good News. And as stated above the Good News is the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again. So to be “Evangelical” or to engage in “Evangelism” is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. But this doesn’t only mean talking, it doesn’t mean passing out tracts, going door-to-door or any of that. It might include that if done with care and grace and respect, but that would only be a tiny part of what being “Evangelical” is all about. Being “Evangelical” is really a way of being in the world. When we “proclaim” the Good News of Christ, we might sometimes talk about our faith – but the most important way we “proclaim” is in the way we act and relate to others. We “proclaim” the Good News when we are open to others; when we are kind, gracious and caring; when we reach out to others in service; and when we give of our time, talents and treasures. “Evangelical” is a way of being Christian in the world.

That our forebears have chosen to call this church “Evangelical” means to me that they understood this calling; that they understood that the members of this community of Christ would engage in “Evangelism” – reaching out in love and service to the community. Evangelical is a word then that defines all of the ministries of the this congregation – Worship, Music, Sunday School, Confirmation, Food Pantry, Wednesday All-Stars, Property and so forth. For in each of these ways we are proclaiming the love and grace of God through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Pastor S. Blake Duncan+

Monday, October 19, 2009

Winning The Prize - Sermon – Pentecost 20B – Mark 10:35-45 – Peace Lutheran Church

What follows is my "inaugural sermon" preached this weekend at Peace Lutheran Church during regular services. My installation followed Sunday afternoon

Winning The Prize - Mark 10:35-45 - Pentecost 20B

Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone grew up in the Italian town of Assisi during the 12th century. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant who had been very successful. Francesco, as his father called him, lived a privileged life as a child and a young man. His youth was given over to drinking and street brawls and the love of pleasure. Always looking for adventure he enlisted in the army of the Count of Brienne and during this experience of war and imprisonment something happened to Francis. When he returned to Assisi discouraged, and ill with fever, he was changed. He began to pray and study, he went on pilgrimage and began to have visions. His father was furious and finally dragged Francis before the bishop where Francis then returned everything to his father – including his clothing. Standing in the village square of Assisi, he removed all of his clothing and rings and returned them to his father. He rejected all of his possessions and embraced a life of poverty and service. We know him now as St. Francis of Assisi.

This morning brings to an end our series of readings on Jesus’ teachings about discipleship from the Gospel of Mark. It has not been an easy experience for the disciples and, quite frankly, it is going to get worse before it gets better for them. But a new stage of Jesus’ ministry is about to begin. Jesus has tried to prepare his disciples for this new stage – but they just have not understood. They have fought with each other about who was to be the most important in the kingdom, they have argued with Jesus about crucifixion after the first passion prediction, they have gotten jealous of another who was healing in Jesus name, they have tried to keep the children away from Jesus and they have generally misunderstood the ministry which Jesus has invited them to participate in. They were looking for glory and power. After all isn’t that what a Messiah is suppose to be about? They wanted to be important – they wanted to win the prize! As Peter explained to Jesus last week, they had given up everything to follow him – shouldn’t they expect something in return? Shouldn’t they be in line to receive some kind of prize? Throughout all of this Jesus repeats over and over – look, we are on the road to crucifixion and resurrection; you must pick up your cross and follow me to Calvary; if you want to be great you must be least of all and be a servant of all; the last will be first and the first will be last; you cannot earn your way into God’s Kingdom, it comes as a gift which must be received with the innocence and openness of a child.

By the way, in case you have not picked this up yet – we are the disciples in these discourses. Mark is writing this specifically for us to see ourselves standing with the disciples. And it’s true isn’t it? We are just like the disciples – fighting over who is the most important among us, looking to be important, putting our own needs, wants, opinions and ambitions above those of others, looking to the church – Christ’s community to provide for us, instead of understanding that it is specifically a place which provides us with opportunities for service; putting conditions on our giving and service to the church; and expecting that Christ’s priorities are the same as our own. We are the disciples. We are the ones who are wanting to be served instead of serving, and who completely miss the point of Jesus’ teachings – just like those 12 disciples who walked with Jesus – just like Mark’s fledgling Christian community in the generation or so after Jesus – just like the congregations of Luther’s Saxony at the time of the reformation. These teachings are for us – we are Jesus’ disciples.

Understanding this then – let us review our Gospel text for today once more. The passage really begins a few verses ahead of where the lectionary reading actually started. Beginning at verse 32 (instead of verse 35) in chapter 10 St. Mark writes: “Jesus and the disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; the disciples were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. Jesus took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." And then, immediately following this, James and John come up to Jesus and try to manipulate him into giving them a special honor or prize. “Teacher, we want you to promise to do whatever we ask you to do.” This sounds like something a child would say in order to get her parents to buy her candy in the grocery store – “if you really love me, you will do whatever I want you to do.” And the timing is so inappropriate as to be almost comical. Jesus has just told all 12 of the disciples where they are bound – in detail – “when we get to Jerusalem I will be handed over to the chief priests, condemned to death, mocked, spit on, flogged and killed and then I will rise again.” And the response from the Zebedee brothers? “Ahh… ok – but…. When you take over the kingdom could you put us in charge – give us positions on your right and left? Could we get our prize? Pleaseeeeeeeee.” Where have they been – are they really that insensitive and self-centered? What they don’t understand is that Jesus will be crowned – his throne will be a cross and his crown will be made of thorns and on his right and left will be crucified two thieves who will die with Jesus.

When the other disciples realize what has happened they get angry with James and John. It doesn’t say why, but Jesus’ response gives us a hint that it wasn’t because they thought James and John were being so inappropriate but because they, the other disciples are looking for glory too and were upset that James and John might have gotten a step ahead of them. But Jesus doesn’t get angry this time He is gentle but firm; he is loving and gracious and he again reminds them, and us, that our calling is to service; our calling is to give of ourselves in every way; that the prize we are all seeking is to be found in being least of all and serving others; the prize is God’s love – it is forgiveness – it is being received into the arms of God’s amazing grace!

I think we can understand where the disciples are coming from though. We also like to receive prizes – we like to be honored – we like to be considered important. And when our culture or society puts such a strong emphasis on this it is hard for us to compete with it or resist it. Nearly a decade after leaving professional basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decided to return to the sport he loved by accepting a coaching position with the Alchesay Falcons - a high-school team of mostly White Mountain Apaches. Now this is one of the greatest players in the history of basketball – he could have chosen any number of opportunities but it was this team of Native Americans he chose to coach. And he had to learn a great deal about his athletes and the tribe. He discovered surprising cultural traditions that made it difficult to coach the team. But slowly he grew in sensitivity to the special challenges faced by young Native Americans. And by working with these students and coaching them, Abdul-Jabbar moved from a historical appreciation for the Apaches as a people to a new understanding of them as individuals. Did he lord it over them as an NBA superstar? Not at all. He served them. He was first among them by acting as their coach, their teacher, their helper and their servant. In the end, he may have learned more than he actually taught during his season on the reservation. Abdul-Jabbar, a Hall-of-Famer considered great by the world, discovered that true greatness is found in an unexpected place - a place of service.

This is our calling as well – we are called to serve; we are called to respond to God’s calling for us to reach out to others in a variety of ways to serve – not in order to get praise, or win a prize or receive honor, or have our positions and opinions confirmed – but to serve. As we serve others we are serving Christ.

There is one other point I want to make about these disciples – who you remember are us. As I said earlier these couple chapters have been tough. We might have expected these disciples to throw in the towel and quit. They hadn’t signed a contract, they were not even bound by an oath of any kind. They were following Jesus because they had been called – in the same way we are called to follow Jesus. And when the going got rough they could have quit – returned to their homes and families – found another community – joined another church – found a different leader who preached an easier Gospel. They could have, but they didn’t. The disciples stayed with Jesus until the very end. Our Gospel today tells us that despite all of the controversies, the inappropriate lusting after power and glory; despite to intense desire to win that prize NOW, the disciples continued on the road with Jesus – the road to Jerusalem – the road to crucifixion and resurrection.

I began this sermon by sharing about St. Francis. Like many of the saints, St. Francis can seem larger than life. His public embrace of poverty is really dramatic. We could never do what he did and we are not called to do what he did. But yet, the life of St. Francis is best understood as a life of service – a life filled with simple acts of love and grace. For example, during the early years as his group of brothers were getting established they made an impression on all the people they encountered because, as they would hike through the mountains and villages they were said to be always full of songs and happiness – blessing all who they met in various ways. Later in life Francis traveled to the Holy Land and spent some time with the Muslim Sultan Malek-el-Kamel – this at the time when the European crusades were in full swing. But yet, in their conversations and debates Francis is said to have treated his host with graciousness, respect and even love, to the extent that the Sultan was deeply moved. For 100’s of years afterwards, from the late Middle Ages and to as late as the 17th century, as the fractured relationship between European Christians and the Muslim world continued to fester, the Franciscans alone were permitted to live in the Middle East and were permitted to establish hospitals and other avenues for service: all because of Francis’ attitude of service. This we could stand to learn from St. Francis. Instead of searching looking for what’s best for me – instead of looking for position – power – strength; instead of seeking after winning the prize – may we learn from St. Francis something about an attitude of humility and service.

Jesus said: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

And St. Francis prayed: “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sermon from 10/4/09 - Pentecost 18B – St. Mark 10:2-16 – Peace Lutheran Church – Marriage, Divorce, the Kingdom and the Cross

Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

I wonder how many of you were a little uncomfortable with the Gospel lesson today. I was, I would have preferred a different text, at least for a few months. But here it is – Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus is rather blunt about what he says and it’s uncomfortable for us 21st century Christians. Let’s face it – divorce is a part of our culture. There is probably no one here today who has not been touched by divorce in some manner or another. And for the sake of full disclosure – many of you already know that I am divorced, so when I talk about this I am speaking from my own experience as well.

But we can’t get around the text – this is Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce and it appears in Mark, Matthew and Luke. So, as uncomfortable as it might be, we need to look at this text carefully – because there is Gospel here; there is Good news in this text as well as law.

Now, this text from chapter 10 is linked to the texts which we have had in the last few weeks from chapter 9. Most importantly these readings begin with a passion prediction – Jesus tells His disciples that He is on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified and raised again on the 3rd day; and that this is the path to the Kingdom. Now none of Jesus’ disciples understand or accept this. Consequently, Jesus’ teaching gets more and more blunt and stark and uncompromising as a result. Today Jesus is cornered by a group of Pharisees who begin to question Jesus – not because they want answers – but because they want to trap Jesus in some way. And so, they ask Jesus the question about divorce. This is where we often run into difficulty in understanding this text. In our society marriage is about love and relationship. Both men and women choose their partners based on love and compatibility. There is usually some kind of courtship involved and marriage is the culmination of all of that. This is, however, not the experience of men and women at the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. For them marriage was essentially a property transaction. Women were the property of their fathers who would determine the marriage partner; then the woman would become the property of the husband. These girls had no choice in the matter. And if a man decided to end a marriage – then it was his call and there was nothing the woman could do about it. And since women had value in that society only on the basis of their relationship to a man – either a father or husband – a divorce would be bad news for the woman because it meant poverty and homelessness. Women who were discarded in this way often would have to turn to begging or prostitution in order to survive.

It is then in this context that Jesus quotes the book of Genesis to these religious men. Now, these Pharisees were men who knew their scripture backward and forward and were very intent on following the law. “For this reason a man shall leave His father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” But Moses allowed for divorce, you can hear them arguing back. Jesus is not swayed – marriage knits a man and a woman into one – “Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.” Here Jesus is deliberately undermining the male prerogative by asserting that in God’s eyes these men do not have the right to just put their wives aside. Jesus appeals to the creation story and asserts that when it comes to marriage both the man and the woman are equal in the relationship. The disciples, as usual, are surprised and confused and they question Jesus about this later – “Can you be serious?” Jesus reiterates this point again for the disciples and makes it even more blunt – what is good for one is good for the other – both the man and the woman are equal in marriage. It is hard for us to understand how radical this would have been to Jesus’ audience at that time.

So, a couple of observations about what Jesus says about divorce: First, Jesus makes it clear that in God’s eyes marriage is not just another property transaction. God takes marriage seriously and both partners are equal in the eyes of God when it comes to marriage. One is not the servant or property of another. When we pray and ask God to join a man and woman and knit them into one in marriage God answers this prayer and husband and wife are knit together. Divorce is thus a ripping of this unity that God has brought about through marriage. Divorce is a sin – in that it is not what God desires and breaks the bonds God is creating. It is a breaking of the vows we have made to each other and before God. Finally, divorce hurts. It is painful – it hurts everyone who is involved. When you rip apart something that has been knit together it is going to hurt. I have never met anyone who said that divorce was no big deal – no matter how necessary and inevitable, it is painful.

But is that it? Should those of us who are divorced just slink away and hide? By no means! Divorce is a sin – but it is not the unforgivable sin. Sometimes divorce is inevitable; sometimes divorce is necessary; sometimes people break their promises, people are unkind, people get themselves into places in their relationships that they’re unable to set right again; they do things they shouldn’t, they hurt each other and themselves, sometimes severely; they misunderstand, misinterpret, misbehave; they’re too self-centered, or they’re too inattentive to their own needs; they give too little or too much; sometimes the trouble in our marriages affect just us; sometimes it extends to our children, our parents, and our wider families. We all recognize ourselves in these patterns of brokenness: we all have lots of experience of falling short of God’s vision for our relationships with each other.

But… Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. It is so common and tempting in our society to extract these passages of scripture – pull them out of their context and make new laws out of them. It is not hard to turn Jesus into a new Moses who brings a new and more severe law. Luther himself warned against this. Luther writes in an essay*: “Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples…. As if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings and laws.” For Luther, in order to understand the bible and specifically the teachings of Jesus we must always begin with the cross and the resurrection!! In fact, this passage itself is set in the context of Jesus’ 2nd passion prediction. Divorce is a sin; vows are broken. But is divorce the only sin where vows are broken? Is divorce the only sin that separates us from God and others? Is divorce the only sin which causes pain? No, we must guard against the temptation to judge divorce more harshly than we do other sins; we must guard against the temptation to judge ourselves or others. We are not called to judge. Rather, we are all invited to lay our sins – all of them, our divorces, our unfaithfulness, our tendency to judge, our selfishness, our disregard of others – we are invited to bring these sins and lay them at the foot of the cross. And we know that God will grant us all forgiveness; God will be present with us in the midst of our pain and struggle. And because of the resurrection we know that through Christ, God can bring new life out of death; that through forgiveness God will bring us new life, new love, new joy.

In the Gospel of John, a group of men drag in a woman who had been caught in adultery. Now this sin was punishable by death according to Mosaic law. The men are ready to stone her to death, but they ask Jesus what he thinks. After a pause he simply suggests that whoever is without sin in their lives may go ahead and cast the first stone. Slowly the men disappear and leave the woman alone. “Who condemns you?” Jesus asks her eventually. She looks around, “No one, sir.” “Well,” says Jesus, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Let me repeat these words of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In these words of Jesus there is forgiveness; there is the promise of renewal and there is a call to responsibility.

We are all sinners. We are all guilty, but because of Jesus we are forgiven and renewed. May we all be able to forgive others, and ourselves – to accept the forgiveness with is ours in Christ and allow God to fill our lives with His love and grace. SBD+

* From A Brief Instruction on What to look for and Expect in the Gospels by Martin Luther

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Some Pastoral Reflections:

And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

The inscription on the cornerstone of this church reads that the church was established in1896, and that the church was built in 1935. And the name of the established church was Evangelisch Lutherische Friedens Kirche – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace. Somewhere along the line the word “United” was added so the congregation we lovingly call “Peace Lutheran Church” has a long official name: The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace.

I would like to reflect a bit on this name over the next few newsletter articles and I am going to start with the word “Peace.” In our culture this word peace has the strong connotation of the absence of conflict. I suspect that our forebears who built this church in 1935 may have had this definition in mind at least somewhat considering that one great war had just concluded and in 1935 the world was moving quickly towards another. So Peace church was, I am sure, a place to pray for the end of and to look forward to the conclusion of this worldwide conflict; and a place to pray for those who were caught up in the conflict in some manner. This is one of the important places that the church holds in our society. We do need a place to come for support and to pray and to have a respite from the conflict of the world. This was true then, and it is true now. In this way Peace Lutheran church is there to meet this need.

But this also points to something else which includes but also goes beyond the church being a cultural place of respite. And that is the Biblical understanding of peace. The Old Testament word which is translated as “Peace” in English is the Hebrew word Shalom. This Hebrew word means much more than the absence of conflict. Shalom is a promise and a gift of complete well-being. Shalom is being in perfect harmony with God and with one another. And while we can choose to initiate the end of hostility and establish peace, Shalom is not something we can create for ourselves. It is a gift from God through Christ. We experience Shalom in all kinds of unusual circumstances. Sometimes when we least expect it God will give us a moment of grace or a moment when His presence is with us in a profound way – this is an experience of Shalom. We experience Shalom at times in our interactions with others, in times of deepest need, in the midst of joy, in times of loss, in times of laughter and in times of tears.

Most importantly we come to Peace Lutheran Church with the expectation and the confidence that there we will experience a taste of this amazing grace and peace which passes all understanding. As we sprinkle the water, take the bread and wine, pray, sing and reach out to one another in prayer, friendship and fellowship there we find God’s Shalom; there we are given a “Foretaste of the Feast to Come.” Praise be to God for this wonderful gift – which, like all of God’s gifts, is given unconditionally out of love.
Pastor S. Blake Duncan+