Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sermon - Jesus is Coming - Advent 1C – 11/28-29/09 – Luke 21:25-36

The date was Tuesday, October 22, 1844 – The Rev. William Miller and his disciple Samuel Snow had carefully calculated and announced that this date would be the date for Jesus’ 2nd coming. As the date drew closer and closer a near hysteria gripped Miller’s numerous followers. A mix of fear, terror and excitement spread through the community. 1000’s of followers throughout the country prepared for this day faithfully – some had given away all of their possessions in anticipation. That night many climbed up onto their roofs to wait for Jesus. So when the sun rose on Wednesday morning, October 23 there was great anguish and disappointment – in fact historians call this event “The Great Disappointment.” Henry Emmons – one of Miller’s followers wrote the following in his diary:

“I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.”

We have a fascination with end times. There is now a movie that has just been released – perhaps some of you have seen it – it is called “2012” and is based on some Mayan calendar’s prediction that the end of the world will occur in 2012. Others scour the scriptures and extract obscure verses here and there out of context to justify all kinds of strange and unusual end of the world scenarios. Some of these are pretty creative and have become very popular. For example, the theology of the rapture has become so widespread and popular that it has even spawned a series of popular books – despite the fact that it is completely unbiblical and even destructive. And in other cases we see groups and even individuals attempting to manipulate current events in the Middle East so that these events will at least mesh with their end of the world theories and at most so that they might induce God to usher in the new age.

But as the Rev. Miller discovered – God cannot be manipulated and God will act in God’s own time. This is an issue that Jesus had to contend with as well. In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus is addressing this subject in his teachings in the temple courtyard – shortly before the events of the passion take place. Now in this group of people listening to Jesus teach there would have been, in addition to his own disciples, groups of Pharisees and Saduceees and zealots and probably even a mystic group called the Essenes. All of these had one thing in common – they were anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah. But they differed about how and in what manner the Messiah would come. The Pharisees and the Essenes both believed that God was waiting for Israel to return to following the law – and so they went to extreme measures to try to adhere to the law. The Pharisees, realizing that it was impossible for all Judeans to follow the law redefined who could be classified as a Jew – in hopes that by excluding those most likely to break the law they could induce God to send the Messiah. The Essenes went farther by completely withdrawing from society and creating a very strict commune in the Dead Sea region.

But Jesus, has little to no time for all of this. Jesus is constantly criticizing the Pharisees for their efforts to induce God to send the Messiah. When the Pharisees would criticize Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath, or for eating with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus was not impressed or intimidated. I think sometimes when we hear these stories we do not completely understand the seriousness of these issues for the men who were the Pharisees – we are too inclined to turn them into paper opposition to Jesus. But for them this was serious. For them, Jesus was imperiling the future of Israel by doing these things; Jesus, in their view, was preventing God from sending the Messiah.

But for Jesus, these guys all had it wrong. Jesus’ attitude is – look, forget about dates – forget about inducing God to act – instead recognize that God has already acted and that God’s top priority is people. God loves people! The reason for breaking the Sabbath – was to reach out to care for other people in need; the reason for making oneself impure and reaching out to help someone injured or sick (like the Good Samaritan did) was that we are to care for people; the reason Jesus eats with Tax Collectors and sinners is that God loves people and wants to reach out and bring in all those have been scattered! The reason Jesus dies on the cross is that people are God’s top priority! And because of this - because we see people healed and fed and cared for and forgiven and received through love and grace – because of this we know that God’s Kingdom has already burst into our own time through Jesus. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to bring about the Kingdom of God at some far distant time in the future, because we are living in the Kingdom – NOW. It is ALREADY here – But it is also NOT YET come in its fullness – nevertheless it is HERE, NOW. And do you know how you can tell, Jesus asks? Well, can’t you tell that summer is coming when the leaves begin to appear on the trees. Well – look around – can’t you see the evidence of the Kingdom in your midst – people are fed and healed and clothed and loved and forgiven and God’s grace is evident in so many unique ways.

Those who would have us believe that God will come with violence and destruction – that God would throw away hundreds of thousands of precious lives do not understand the Gospel of Jesus. The Gospel is about hope and forgiveness and grace – that is what we celebrate during Advent. “Come Lord Jesus” we repeat throughout this season. “Come Lord Jesus.” These words are a prayer of hopeful expectation, of waiting and longing; but they are also an affirmation that God has ALREADY come into our midst. And so Advent is waiting – 1st we wait the celebration of the birth of Jesus in child who has come to us in the past; at the same time we wait and look for the 2nd coming of Jesus sometime in the future when Jesus will come and transform the world through the power of his love and grace. But ultimately and most importantly in Advent we celebrate that through Jesus, God has come into our midst, and we experience Christ NOW in so many ways. Lillie experienced the power of God’s grace through her baptism last night – those of us who witnessed this or affirmed our baptisms this morning celebrate the fact that we have all been received into God’s heart through our own baptisms; we experience God’s presence through the bread and wine of Holy Communion; God stands with us in our grief and pain; God brings light to our darkness and joy into the midst of sorrow. God is always present with us.

All of this – the sacraments of Baptism and Communion – the liturgy of healing – the opportunity to prayer – is evidence that God has come to us in the midst of our lives. God loves us and God is present with us no matter what. The word of the Gospel today is that as we look for the coming of the Messiah – past and future – we must always recognize that Christ is already come – NOW – into our midst. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pastoral Reflections - December 1, 2009

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…. The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. St. John 17:20, 22

I have been reflecting on the name of this parish in my last few newsletter articles. The name of the congregation is The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace – which we shorten to Peace Lutheran Church. So what is behind this name, I am asking. And so far I have reflected on the words “Peace” and “Evangelical.” If you missed them you can find those reflections on my blog (see below for the URL). This month – December – as we prepare for Christmas, I would like to share some thoughts about the word “United.”

The words above from what is called the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus’ in the Gospel of St. John ask God to make the disciples (and by extension all believers) one in Him. What does this mean? Does it mean we are to loose our individuality or that we are to have one mind? Does it mean that we all have to agree and that there can be no disagreement in the church? Does it mean that we are to conform to some kind of “Christian” model or expectation? The answer to all of these questions is no – a thousand times no. Being one in Christ is not about agreeing, conformity or the loss of our individual uniqueness. We are all unique creations of God, with unique gifts and insights and experiences. These gifts are of God, and we are called to share them in the community of Christ, the church.

But, conformity seems to be a spirit of the times. Our political discourse, in particular, has gotten so incredibly strident, and conformity with the status quo or the views of certain “experts” or media personalities seems to be demanded. How many times do I see on various television shows the host really lambasting a guest because the guest expresses an opinion which is divergent in some manner from the host’s beliefs. Even in the church there seem to be those who believe we must all hold the same beliefs and opinions about any range of issues and there is no patience for a divergence of opinion. Those who don’t agree are called names and branded as a non-Christian.

This is contrary to the Gospel, I believe. We are all unique creations of God’s, with unique gifts and insights and experiences. We have much we can learn from each other. To be “United” or to be “one in Christ” does not mean we all agree about everything. It means that we hold at the foundation of our lives and our faith a belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and that we have all received the gift of God’s unmerited Grace and love and forgiveness through our Baptisms. We are saved by Grace – not by works, by our opinions, by our positions, - we are saved by Grace! God has reached out to us and brought us all together into this church and this congregation where we experience community and God’s love through each other; where we strive to reach out in this love; where we are regularly fed by the bread and wine of Holy Communion and where we continually struggle and study in order to learn and grown and follow Jesus. This is what it means to be one in Christ. And in this way we are one with each other here at Peace, in the synod and the ELCA, with those who have gone before us in this church through the ages – including the disciples. For, as Paul states in his letter to the Ephesians: “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4

Thursday, November 5, 2009

An open letter regarding the withholding or diverting of giving to congregations of the ELCA as a way of expressing dissatisfaction.

An open letter regarding the withholding or diverting of giving to congregations of the ELCA as a way of expressing dissatisfaction.

The decision by the ELCA churchwide assembly to open the clergy roster to those who are in a committed, publicly accountable same sex relationship has for some church members been cause to celebrate, and for others it has been upsetting. In passing these decisions, the ELCA has made allowances for those who disagree, but some members have found these allowances insufficient. A group (of mostly pastors I believe) who met in Indianapolis in late September is now calling on those who disagree with these decisions to withhold their giving to their congregations, unless the congregations discontinue paying their benevolence assessment to synod. Whatever their purpose in suggesting this action, the effect of it is to threaten the church's most vulnerable ministries, and those who depend on them will be hurt.

When we give as Christians, we are giving of ourselves – our time and our financial resources – out of a sense that everything we have and everything we are is given to us from God. So we give back to God what is already God’s so that the love of Christ can be proclaimed through the ministry of the church. The money I give to my congregation pays for the ministry of the whole church: for the hospital visits, the food pantry, the worship services, the bread and wine of communion, the Sunday school, confirmation. Besides funding our local ministry, a portion is sent to the synod as benevolence. This benevolence pays for Lutheran Social Services’ work of feeding and helping those in need; it pays for synod staff such as the new outreach coordinator who is now working directly with the Wartburg Parish; it provides resources to keep struggling congregations open and serving their communities in places where the need is great but resources are few – such as Trinity Lutheran Church in Kankakee; it pays for the First Call continuing education program for new pastors. A portion is also sent on to the ELCA, where it pays for churchwide youth events, disaster response, new congregational start-ups, campus ministry, Lutheran World Relief, and on and on. The money I give to my congregation each week does all of this! And this is possible only because my congregation is a partner with both the Central/Southern Illinois Synod and the ELCA. To stop giving is to imperil these ministries and risk hurting the most vulnerable programs and people.

It has been suggested that people and congregations who are unhappy with church-wide decisions can channel their giving to those programs that they approve of and thereby have more money to contribute to those programs. But Christian giving is not like donating to charity or an arts organization, where it is appropriate to single out only those programs that appeal to us. Christian giving is Stewardship. It is involving ourselves in the whole ministry of Christ. And this includes working together to resolve disagreements as we continue our larger ministry. Look at the variety and scope of the ministries which are supported by congregational giving and benevolence. There is no way to reach out in that many directions except through the congregation.

To those of you who have been diverting your giving or have stopped it altogether: I would respectfully and humbly ask that you prayerfully reconsider this move. Please prayerfully reconsider your calling to support the ministry of Christ through your home congregation. We must all continue to respect each other's perspective on this critical issue and maintain an open heart as we move forward in exploring the sincere disagreement within our church. But the ministry of the church must not be suspended as we engage in this discussion, and it cannot continue, either on the local or broader level, without continued support from you, its members. I respect that you disagree with this decision, but I would also respectfully suggest that this is not the most effective way of registering that dissatisfaction, for what you are doing is hurting the ministry of the church and those who depend on these ministries on the local, synod, and national level. For my part, I am proud to be a pastor of the ELCA, proud to be a member of an ELCA congregation and honored to be able to give to my congregation so that my money is utilized in so many varied, important and wonderful ministries.