Monday, September 27, 2010

Sacraments -The Foundation: Baptism and Holy Communion

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (St. Matthew 28:20b)
            With these words the Gospel of St. Matthew’s comes to an end.  We began this Gospel with the proclamation of the birth of “Emmanuel” – God with us; and we end with these words from the risen Jesus which conclude the great commission.  Jesus says – remember (make present in your life) that I am with you always!  What an amazing promise.  In the Judaism of Jesus’ time access to God was limited to the temple and to gain access to God’s presence one had to come to the temple and offer a sacrifice and offering.  But in Jesus - because of the crucifixion and resurrection, this access is opened up.  The risen Jesus is with us now and always and because of this God’s presence is always available.  What an amazing gift.  But one that we need to remind ourselves of on a regular basis, for I think it is too easy for us to take this gift for granted.  Out of this concern come the Sacraments of the church.
            The word Sacramentum is a Latin term used to designate an object which represented the presence of the Emperor with the Legions of Roman soldiers.  It was a pole with an eagle on top and with colored streamers attached.  This “sacrament” indicated to the troops that the Emperor was with them in battle.  If this object fell then this meant that they had been abandoned.  Later the church took over the word Sacrament and redefined it to indicate something through which people could experience God’s presence in a central and profound way.  The Mediaeval church designated 7 Sacraments.  Martin Luther pared those down to two: Baptism and Holy Communion.
            For Luther a formal Sacrament needed two things: a physical element and the Word of God.  These two things in combination came together to provide a formal experience of God’s presence.  So in Baptism – water + God’s Word (see Matthew 28:19) – God brings us into community, we take on the name and story of Christ as we are symbolically drowned and raised again (Romans 6:4).  In Holy Communion we celebrate God’s presence and receive the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins and are spiritually strengthened and nourished through our taking the bread & wine: bread & wine + God’s Word (I Corinthians 11:23-26 - and all 4 Gospels!). 
            Baptism and Holy Communion are the two foundational Sacraments of our life in Christ.  We need to regularly remind ourselves of our Baptism and weekly receive the Spiritual nourishment of Holy Communion.  Luther suggested that every time we encounter water it should remind us of our Baptism and that we should dip our hands into water in the morning upon rising and in the evening before going to bed, make the sign of the cross and give thanks that through our Baptism we are a part of God’s family.  This is why we leave the Font out after a Baptism so that you can dip your hands in the water, make the sign of the cross and remember your Baptism.  Occasionally, on certain Sundays (like All Saints and the Baptism of Jesus and others) we will use the longer Affirmation of Baptism which includes a sprinkling of water.  This is all to help us deepen our faith by remembering – getting us in touch with the moment when we were adopted into the family of God and when we took on the name of Christ: Our Baptism.
            The bread and wine of Holy Communion are "For You!"  And the celebration of Holy Communion is both an essential part of our worship and of our lives as Christian disciples.  Through the regular reception of Holy Communion we are spiritually strengthened and nourished for service in Christ’s name; we are sent forth to bear the presence of Christ to those whom we encounter – in other words – we are sent forth to be a Sacramental presence of Christ in the midst of the world.  This is why the regular celebration of Holy Communion is essential and why we at Peace celebrate it every week.  Admission to the table is open, as it should be, because it is the Lord's Table - not the pastor's or Peace's or the ELCA's - it is the Lord's.  All who have been Baptized are welcomed to the table and this includes children.  There is a tradition in our church to have children go through First Communion instruction when they are in the 3rd/4th grade.  It is important to note that this is not a condition or a prerequisite - it is an opportunity to help the children deepen their respect for the Sacrament before they commune for the first time.  God's Grace is operative and central here as it is in Baptism.  Just as there is no condition that children understand and affirm their faith before they are Baptized, there is no condition of understanding before admission to Holy Communion.  It is the Spirit which gives understanding in both cases - our calling is to offer the gifts of God in Water, Bread and Wine.   
            And so, Baptism and Holy Communion are the foundational Sacraments of our Christian discipleship.  But what about those other 5 Medieaval Sacraments and what does it mean that we are a “Sacramental presence” in the midst of the world?  We will continue next month to look at these and other questions. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rich and Poor – Some Thoughts on Luke 16:19-31

You can read the Gospel text for Ordinary 26C - St. Luke 16:19-31 - HERE!
Our Gospel text for today is a hard text, especially for those of us who live in the 1st world.  The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus clearly sets out for us God’s “preferential option for the poor.”  This is a theme which is particularly prevalent in the Gospel of Luke.  Take note of these examples:  Mary’s Song from Luke 1:53 - …He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…”  From Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:18 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”  The “Blessings and Woes” from the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke 6:20-26 – “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry…” 
And this Sunday we come to the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus where Jesus makes the same point.  And, let’s be clear, Jesus is not spiritualizing poverty in Luke. The Gospel is clearly talking about the economically poor and rich.  In short, he is talking about us, and we are on the rich man’s side of this story.  But we are not rich, we might protest.  Well, I suppose that depends on what scale you use to judge that.  The fact is that those of us living in the United States are much better off than millions others around the world.  I found this really interesting web site called – The Global Rich List.  When you go there you simply enter your income into the box and it tells you, in comparison to the rest of the world, how many in the world are richer than you and how many are poorer.  I did it and discovered that I am in the top 97% of the richest people in the world; and that I am the 58,252,719th richest person in the world.  I encourage you to stop by there and try it out.
So what does this mean for us?  First, we need to remember that, as we confess weekly, “we are captive to Sin (I actually prefer the old LBW wording: We are in bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves…).  Our wealth is a sin and a stumbling block for us.  But, we are forgiven and saved by Grace!  And being saved by the grace of God calls us to respond to God’s gift, not by going along as usual living a wasteful and indulgent lifestyle, but to take stock of our resources, and how we use them and how we live.  How do we use the blessings which God has given to us? 
Lastly this parable raises another issue which I think is particularly important.  The rich man feasts sumptuously, Lazarus begs at the door.  Now, the rich man in this parable is never mean, or cruel to poor Lazarus; he does not do anything to make Lazarus’ life harder.  The rich man ignores Lazarus.  For the rich man, the beggar Lazarus is invisible; the rich man pays no attention to his plight; the rich man is apathetic.  This is an issue for us as well, isn’t it?  How many of us are like the rich man in this way?  Ignoring the plight of those in need around us or, worse, coming up with all kinds of reasons why those who are poor are not worthy of our consideration.  Whether it is the images of the poor and starving in different places in the world or those who struggle here in our own community, it is easy for us to become hardened or de-sensitized to their plight.  This parable calls upon us to be aware of this and recognize that we do have a responsibility to care for and reach out in different ways to those who are in need.  
See also Dylan Lectionary Blog for this Sunday -

Friday, September 10, 2010

You've Got To Be Taught...

You've got to be taught To hate and fear, You've got to be taught From year to year, It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught!

In 1949 the great Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific premiered with this song embedded into the middle of the 2nd act, sung by Lt. Joe Cable.  Nellie Forbush, an Arkansas Naval nurse, who has fallen in love with the French planter Emil DeBeque, discovers that her French lover has Polynesian children by his first Polynesian wife.  The mixed race of the children freaks out Nellie (there is no other way to describe it) and she breaks off the relationship.  When confronted by DeBeque as for an explanation she owns up to her prejudice, but cannot explain why she feels that way.  “It is the way I was born, I can’t describe it any other way,” she says.  Angrily DeBeque counters, “I do not believe that is born in you.”  “It’s not,” says the recovering Marine Lt. Cable, who has his own issues with a mixed race relationship, “It’s not born in you, it happens after you are born!”  Then he plunges into the song.
Not surprisingly the dramatic situation surrounding the song and the song itself were harshly criticized at the time.  Mixed race relationships and racism were considered too heavy for a musical.  According to Wikipedia: “Rodgers and Hammerstein risked the entire South Pacific venture in light of legislative challenges to its decency or supposed Communist agenda. While on a tour of the Southern United States, lawmakers in Georgia introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow."  One legislator said that "a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life." Rodgers and Hammerstein defended their work strongly. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, "The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in."
Isn’t it wonderful that we as a nation (and especially as Christians) have grown so much and that this kind of attitude is a part of a long ago past?!?  (Sigh) If only!  So we fast forward to September 11, 2010 – the anniversary of the horrible World Trade Center attacks and this week we the airways are filled with news of potential Qur’an burnings in Florida, anti-Muslim protests in New York, arson aimed at a Mosque construction site in Tennessee. It appears as though hate and fear and scape-goating are alive and well.  The clarion voices speak out: “Islam bombed the towers;” “we are at war with Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan;” “President Obama is a secret Muslim,” we hear spoken by various politicians and media personalities.  Well, none of it is true. But since we now seem to be inclined to make up our own facts and our own news and look only for the “facts” that support our narrow viewpoints, does it really matter?  Who cares about the facts; who cares that to paint all of Islam with the broad brush of terrorism is simply untrue and unjust; who cares that there were faithful and courageous and patriotic American Muslims who died in the 9/11 attacks and who continue to put their lives on the line for all of us by serving in our armed forces; who cares that the kind of rhetoric and hate which has been spewing about Muslims (and others too) is completely unfair and disrespectful, and wholly un-American (not to mention Unchristian)?  Who cares?  “Does anybody care?  Is anybody there?”  (That is a quote from another musical – and it is chosen pointedly – can you guess it?)
Christians care don’t they?  Or they should, right?  What I find particularly appalling is the deep involvement of “Christians” in all of this fear-mongering and hate talk.  “It is my duty as a Christian to stand up against the evils of Islam” I heard one Ground Zero site protester say when interviewed on NPR.  Curious.  And you do this by misrepresenting the plans to build an interfaith cultural center in lower Manhattan, burning the Holy Book of Islam and torching construction projects?  That is not what it means to be Christian to me.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says some things that I think are really pertinent to this discussion:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  (Matthew 5:38-26)

            So, how is this hate justifiable for Christians?  It is not!  Debra Dean Murphy in her insightful blog (see the blog "Intersections..." listed below) points out that Jesus called us to love – not tolerance – but love.  She writes: Jesus preached — embodied, actually, in a way that got him killed – love. Risky, radical, costly, inconvenient love. Messy, complicated, difficult, demanding love. Love of neighbor, of stranger, of enemy.
     Tolerance costs me nothing. Loving others — seeking their good, willing their prosperity and happiness, genuinely desiring their companionship — this is the hazardous business of community, of relationship-building, of making and sustaining friendships for the long haul. Tolerance is all too happy to avoid all this. Tolerance turns out to be a means for keeping us estranged from one another while we pride ourselves on our progressive politics or our general open-mindedness whatever our politics. 

Amen.  We are called to love!  So why is it – Christian brothers and sisters – that we are so inclined to react with hate when we are fearful or things don’t go our way?  Oh, and not just garden variety hate – arrogant hate; as if God shares our hate, and agrees with our politics and our priorities.  It seems to me that if we are going to presume to speak for God we need to demonstrate a whole lot more humility.
Terry Jones is just a flash in the pan – hopefully he will disappear from our TV screens soon.  But the deeper question for me is not really the irresponsibility and a lack of any pastoral sense from this pathetic man – the deeper issue for me is the issue of hate.  If we are to be true to our calling to follow Christ, to follow the Lord who loved us all so much he died on a cross for us, then there is no place for hate – period!  We all need to look inside ourselves, repent of our arrogance and judgmentalism and ask God for the strength and ability to be humble and to help us love – as Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us all!

Monday, September 6, 2010

"But God remembered Noah…" (Genesis 8:1) - Some thoughts on the Sacramental...

This summer we focused on the stories of the pre-history in the book of Genesis. I preached on the two creations stories, Adam & Eve and the Serpent in the Garden; Cain & Abel; Noah & the Flood & the Rainbow and, finally, on the story of the Tower of Babel. I enjoyed getting inside of these stories and I hope you found this meaningful. (BTW - I would very much like to hear your feedback on the series.) These stories as a whole are pretty well known, but often misunderstood. Way too much time is devoted to arguing about historical details with the result that many miss the point of the stories themselves. These stories are stories of Grace. The God who created the universe, who created humanity and lovingly fashioned a garden for them, and then made clothing for them when they were expelled from the garden is a God of grace and love.

One of my favorite verses in the whole pre-history is the one quoted above - "But God remembered Noah...". Noah had built the ark, filled it with animals and his family, and then floated alone on the water during the rainstorm uncertain when or if they would survive the ordeal. And then the text tells us: …God remembered Noah… God remembers! God remembers God’s whole wonderful creation and God is engaged and present with, and at work actively with the creation. And when the bible talks about “remembering” it is not just a mental exercise. To “remember” in the bible is to actively engage with something; to bring something actively into the present. When God remembers Noah it prompts action on God’s part. The text of this story also tells us that God places a “bow in the sky” to symbolize a covenant between God and humanity. And this “bow” reminds us that God remembers – we are not forgotten – God is engaged with us – God loves us!

There was a popular song from about 25 years ago called “From a Distance.” It was sung by Bette Midler and the chorus went something like this: God is watching us, God is watching us, from a distance. Many found this song to be comforting, but this is not what Genesis or the Gospels tell us. God is NOT watching us from a distance. God is right here with us – in our midst! God stands with us, besides us during our times of struggle and illness and suffering and loss; God weeps with us; God loves us and is engaged with us, actively. This is the promise of the Gospel! And we need to constantly remind ourselves that God does remember us and is present with us - always. This is what we celebrate at Christmas when we celebrate the incarnation; and this is what each one of these stories in Genesis point to as well.

So, where to from here? Genesis chapters 1 through 11 are ultimately all creation stories and at the end God accepts the creation and begins the process of finding ways to be involved intimately with creation. Beginning with chapter 12 we will hear the stories of how God calls Abraham and Sarah and the patriarchs and matriarchs and ultimately how God, Himself, enters into our world through the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem on a dark and lonely winter night.

Finally, God remembering us leads us to remember as well. And the principal way that we remember is through the Sacraments, which then gives Sacramental meaning to all kinds of other life experiences. I will continue this reflection next month with a look at Sacraments and the Sacramental. Blessings….

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Counting the Cost – The Consequence of Faith - Preliminary Thoughts on Luke 14:25-33 and Philemon

You can read the Gospel text for Ordinary 23C - St. Luke 14:25-33 HERE!
You can read the Epistle text for Ordinary 23C - Philemon HERE!  

Counting the Cost – The Consequence of Faith
There are consequences for every action we take.  And as we grow into adulthood, one of the important lessons we need to learn is to assess and accept the consequences for our actions and decisions.  Those who, as children, never learn to accept these consequences often have a tough time as adults. 
In the Gospel for this morning (Luke 14:25-33), Jesus is talking about consequences.  There are consequences for following Jesus; there are consequences for faith.  Have we taken stock of what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus?  Have we “counted the cost” of discipleship before embarking on the journey of faith? 

In John Bunyan’s wonderful allegorical novel “A Pilgrim’s Progress” the Christian encounters Mr. By-Ends who comes from the town of Fair-Speech and who desires to travel to the Celestial City with Christian.  Christian however responds to the request with these words:
“If you will go with us, you must go against wind and tide; the which, I perceive, is against your opinion: you must also own Religion in his rags, as well as when in his silver slippers; and stand by him, too, when bound in irons, as well as when he walketh the streets with applause. 
“By-Ends protests: You must not impose or lord it over my faith; leave me to my liberty and let me go with you. 
“Christian: Not a step further, unless you will do as I do in what I propound. 
“By-Ends: I will never desert my old principals, since they are harmless and profitable.”[1] 

Like Mr. By-Ends, I think we do not completely count the cost of what it means to follow Jesus.  We want the benefits but are not too keen on the sacrifice; we are thankful that Jesus died on the cross for us, but we are not so anxious to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.  When Jesus says “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” he means it.  If we are bound to the things we own, and to acquiring more and more – then we are not free to follow Jesus.  And if we choose to follow Jesus, this means that we must give up our dependence on things; and that we need to begin to see others in a different way as well.

The Epistle lesson this morning – the letter of Paul to Philemon – is a wonderful example of the surprising challenge, opportunity and paradox which the call to follow Christ creates.  Philemon is a very wealthy resident of Colossae.  He was wealthy enough to own property and have a large household, which included slaves.  Like every other patrician living under Roman law and administration, Philemon had absolute power over the life and death of his slaves and was expected to deal with them strictly.  So, when a young slave named Onesimus steals from the household and runs away Philemon would have been expected to deal harshly with this boy when he was finally caught (and he would be caught – there were no safe havens, or underground railroads for slaves in the Roman Empire). To put it mildly – Onesimus was in trouble!
But, Philemon had become a Christian, and being a Christian means that Philemon is called to a different response.  This different response will be very hard for him.  It will subject him to scrutiny by his peers and possibly by the authorities.  Paul doesn’t leave him much wiggle room.  There is a consequence for faith and it means, in this case, that the social conventions of rank and authority are no longer valid for Philemon.  As Paul says in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 3:28)
What would you do if you were Philemon?  What kinds of social conventions are challenged by our discipleship?  What are the consequences of faith for our lives?  Who needs us to reach out to them in mercy and justice? 

[1]  John Bunyan, “A Pilgrim’s Progress” published 1678 – p. 82