Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reformation Sunday – “No Password Needed”

As our society has become more and more technologically based I have found that I am constantly being asked to create and remember new passwords. Almost everything we do online requires a password. We have passwords for our email accounts, bank accounts, credit card accounts, online stores and merchants, social networking sites and on and on. Now, if we could use one password for everything then it would be no problem, but we can’t. Each site has its own requirements and these requirements are placed there for good reason: in order to limit access, to us alone. So that no one else has access to our accounts, we then have to remember so many different and sometimes complex passwords and this is also why we may have to change them from time to time.

Of course the idea of a password as a digital key is relatively recent. But having special knowledge or even special status or completing a special action in order to limit access to something is not new at all. This has be a part of our history going to back to ancient times. And it is not just civic or personal management things to which these conditions are applied, they have also been applied to relationships and especially to our relationship with God. Stretching all the way back to Old Testament times we find that people have a hard time accepting the idea of God’s love and grace as being a free and unconditional gift with no passwords needed. So we find leaders like David and Solomon limiting access to God by requiring people to come to the Jerusalem temple, which itself is compartmentalized to provide different kind of access to different kinds of people. So, if you want to experience God’s presence you now have to go to the temple. The Gospels are also filled with conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of the day because Jesus keeps saying – No Passwords Needed. But the Pharisees keep pointing to this and that and eventually Jesus is crucified because he is not willing to go along with the need for limiting access to God. But as Jesus breathes his last breath, the veil of the temple is torn and in three days the tomb is empty. God again repeats loudly and clearly: No Passwords Needed!

In Luther’s time, the Medieval church also created limits to God’s presence, love and grace. You must do these works, act like this, think like this! Luther points to the Gospels and Paul and repeats – No Passwords Needed! God’s love and grace are free and unconditionally given to all. In our own time there are so many voices that would impose limits on access to God. We hear things like: If you are really a Christian, if you are really saved then – you will believe this, you will act like this, you will think like this, vote like this, hold these positions, only go to these churches, and on and on and on. Like the experience of being online, the number of passwords which are needed is limited only by one’s imagination. The Gospels make it clear that No Passwords are Needed when it comes to access to God! God’s love and grace and forgiveness and presence are available to all – without condition. And the call to follow in response (not as a condition) is itself a gift of grace.

So on this Reformation weekend we again are reminded by Luther that God’s love and grace is free and available to us all, without condition – No Passwords Needed!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"On God's Side" - Sermon for Proper 25C - Luke 18:9-14

If you wish to read the parable you can find it: HERE! St. Luke 18:9-14

On God’s Side
Charles arrived early for church on that rainy October Sunday morning.  He was always a little early for church.  He liked to be early.  He was committed to coming to worship and he was there every week, without fail.  He had been a member for a long time.  He and his wife had been married in this church, they raised their children in this church.  He had also been an active member, serving on council and participating in lots of other activities over the years.  Charles was a good man.  He strove to do what was right and to live a Christian life.  And so, on this rainy Sunday morning he and his wife slipped into their favorite pew to wait for the service to begin.
Zeke had also been a member for a number of years, but had not always been very regular in his worship attendance.  In fact, this particular Sunday was the first Sunday he had been in church for some time.  But on this day he felt compelled to come.  He was alone.  He and his wife were separated and he was now living alone.  His children were also grown, but he didn’t get along with them very well.  There was something else that was bothering Zeke on this Sunday morning.  He knew that come Monday he might be getting fired from his job.  Money had been tight in this economic crunch and he had “borrowed” some petty cash from work.  He had planned to pay it back, but hadn’t been able to.  He knew he had done wrong; he knew it was his fault that his family was broken.  So, here he was – on a Sunday morning, slipping into a pew almost un-noticed.
But he was noticed.  Charles noticed him immediately.  Charles had heard about all of the goings-on at the place where Zeke worked; he had heard rumors about other things too.  So, he was surprised to see Zeke and maybe a little angry too.  “Does he think coming to church will fix all of these problems?”  Charles found himself scoffing at Zeke, and not a little offended at his presence.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…”  the Pastor began the service with the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness.  Almost by rote the men followed the service in their bulletin.  “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires know and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse…… “
Charles’ mind began to wander.  “No secrets are hid, yeah Zeke, you better watch out.  You can’t pretend you are all righteous here.  God knows your heart.  God can see through you.  God knows who the righteous and good people are and who the fakes and sinners are.  Thank God, I have spent my life living a Christian life.”
“…. Let us take a few moments for self-examination….. most merciful God, We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves….”  Charles spoke the words automatically, but his mind was still elsewhere, he thought of that Facebook conversation he had participated in where he had made it clear that on that particular moral issue he was on God’s side, and that those who argued with him had chosen to oppose God; he thought about that conversation with his neighbor where he had “witnessed” to the prevalence of sin in the world and how he was certain that all of the problems in the country, the community and the church were all because of sin.  Other people’s sin – people like Zeke.  “… We have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, for the sake of your Son have mercy on us, forgive us, renew us and lead us, so that we might delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name…. “  “I am on God’s side,” mused Charles as he lifted his head and looked at the Pastor for the words of absolution.
Zeke could hardly stand, the words of the confession had weighed heavily on his spirit and he felt like he needed to sit, so he braced himself with one hand on the pew in front of him.  “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,” he kept repeating over and over again in his mind as he felt tears well up in his eyes.  He could not look at the Pastor and simply listened with his head bowed, “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake, God forgives you all your sins….”  Forgiveness, me?  Is it possible?  Is it possible to heal the broken relationships in his family and what about the consequences for stealing?  Well, all of that was still there.  But, as the organist began the first hymn he could raise his eyes and smile, he felt a burden gone.  Forgiveness is the first step.  And as Charles opened his hymnal all he could think about was, why can’t that organist play the hymns faster!
So which of these men do you identify with?  The Pharisee or the Tax Collector?  Charles or Zeke?  Or Charlotte and Zoe?  The characters are male but they represent all of us.  Perhaps, we see some of ourselves in both of them?  This well-known parable is timeless in the way it represents two ways of approaching God: the Pharisee who is a little too proud of his righteousness and the tax collector who is well aware of his failings.  It is easy for us to scoff at the one and lift up the other as a role model.  But before we do this, it would be a good thing for us to take a moment and reconsider some details of this parable.
First, as easy as it is to turn these two characters into stock characters we need to try to resist that.  Casting the Pharisee as the bad guy and the Tax Collector as the good guy is just too simple.  Let’s look at these characters – first the Pharisee.  Jesus is always butting heads with the Pharisees in the Gospels.  The Pharisees were an important group in Israel at this time.  In fact after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 by the Romans, the Pharisees were the only group to survive and they are the ancestors of today’s Rabbinic Judaism.  And the reason – the Pharisees lifted up and focused their lives and faith and tradition on Torah.  And they interpreted the Torah in a very strict manner.  But make no mistake, they were good men, they were honorable men, they were righteous men.  The problem with this particular Pharisee is not his righteousness.  It is his self-righteousness.  Count the “I” statements in his little speech: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  He is a good guy, but his righteousness has turned into self-righteousness; his completely admirable and honorable way of life has turned into his elevating himself above others and thus his relationships with others and even with God are threatened.
Now the Tax Collector: we like the Tax Collector.  As we listen to this parable we are perhaps reminded of Zacheaus, the short, head Tax Collector who climbs a tree and then gives all of his wealth away in response to Jesus; or Matthew the Tax Collector who leaves his booth to follow Jesus and become a disciple. But, we need to be careful that we are not too overly disposed towards seeing the tax collector as the good guy.  He wasn’t.  Tax Collectors were collaborators with the Roman occupiers.  And in order to fund the occupation the Romans needed to collect money from the population.  So, they employed these volunteers who would collect the taxes and the deal was that they had to submit a certain amount to Rome, but whatever else they collected above and beyond what was expected and required they got to keep.  That is what Zacheaus is so rich and why he is so hated.  The Tax Collector is a swindler, a cheat, one who uses the law and any other method he can to get money out of people, especially those who are workers and farmers and those who are poor and struggling. 
Jesus tells us that in the end the Tax Collector was justified or made right with God, because of his humility and honesty.  In other words, the Tax Collector was the one who left the Temple on the path to having his relationships with God and others restored, and not the Pharisee.  Why?  It is the Tax Collector who recognizes that his life is filled with broken relationships – with God, with others.  The Pharisee does not see this.  He is so proud of himself that he can’t see that his pride about being on God’s side has actually distanced him from God and that he is now guilty of placing himself in God’s place and presuming that he knows the mind of God.  This parable is not only about humility, it is also about honesty and relationship.  In the end, the possibility that is held out is the possibility of healed relationships.
So which one are you?  Which character do you identify with?  And does it make any difference? Self-righteousness is a problem in our society and it is a problem many of us struggle with.  Self-righteousness is a problem which divides us, which separates us from each other and from God.  This parable is a call to repentance and a call to look at ourselves honestly.  God offers to us forgiveness and relationship, but accepting this is only the first step.  Then the hard work of rebuilding our relationships begins.  Repentance is the first step towards the restoration of relationship; Forgiveness is a promise of God’s presence with us through the process of restoration.  
Charles and Zeke stayed through the service and participated.  When it finally came time for Holy Communion by some quirk of the ushers they found themselves kneeling next to each other at the altar rail.  “The body of Christ, given for You.”  “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Given and shed FOR YOU.  In those words we have the power and promise of God’s love and grace;  FOR YOU Jesus has given Himself so that you might live a new life, forgiven and renewed, and in relationship with God and with others.
As they got up from kneeling on that particular morning Zeke stumbled a little and Charles reached out to keep him from falling.  They exchanged warm smiles and returned to their pews.  Forgiven, renewed, gifted, loved – they had both been touched by the gracious presence of Christ. 


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Persistence Pays - St. Luke 18:1-8 - Proper 24C

If you wish to read the parable you can find it - HERE - St. Luke 18:1-8

This past week I watched some of the “God in America” series on PBS’ “American Experience.” If you have not seen any of this go to their website and watch it – FIND IT HERE!! This series is a series of vignettes from the history of the lives and events that have shaped the development of religious thought and experience in the USA. One of the stories that I found particularly captivating was the story of Anne Hutchinson. Anne was a puritan living in Massachusetts. The puritans had come from England to escape persecution and to be able to worship freely, but they had fallen into the same kind of trap so that life in the puritan villages was just as oppressive and strict as life in England, if not more so. In this context Anne started women’s bible studies and she began quietly and later not so quietly challenging both the theology and the male leadership of the colony. In particular Anne was lifting up issues of grace. This did not sit well and so she was tried before the governor (John Winthrop) and eventually she and her family were exiled. They were exiled for the principals of freedom of religious thought and practice, principals that eventually find their way into the US constitution (1st Amendment). Between Anne’s trial and the ratification of the constitution there are about 150 years. It didn’t happen overnight and Anne, unfortunately, never got to see it. But the principals for which she prayed, and struggled and suffered prevailed.

This brings us to the parable of the Unjust Judge. Every so often Jesus tells a parable which is odd and difficult to understand. Such is the case I think with the parable of the Unjust Judge. But also like many of Jesus’ parables this on is also rich in meaning.

The first point to be made about this parable is that we must avoid the mistake of equating the judge with God. Jesus is not drawing this parallel at all and it is a mistake to presume this. Jesus is drawing a comparison: If even an unjust and corrupt and greedy judge will be swayed to do the right thing with persistence then how much more will God, who is just and loving, be inclined to hear and answer your prayers! The key is not to give up, not to get discouraged, but to keep praying and to continue to pray fervently.

This parable is set within a discussion between Jesus and his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom has come into the world through Jesus, the Son of God, but it has not yet come in all its fullness. The Kingdom is already and not yet! We as disciples of the Kingdom have a calling to work so that others might experience the already of the Kingdom in their lives, where the not yet seems to dominate. In this context then it is easy to get discouraged, it is easy to look around and see only the not yet and give up. The parable is a call to keep your eyes firmly fixed on Christ, to recognize that the Kingdom has come into our midst, but it is still incomplete. But we are to be like the widow in this parable, constantly knocking at the gates of heaven with our prayers; lifting up our concerns, calling for justice, caring for those in need constantly.

To this end there are three main points that can be derived from this parable: 1. The parable encourages us to not be afraid to tackle difficult issues with confidence. 2. The parable cautions us not to expect immediate results. 3. The parable assures us that God’s justice will prevail in the end.

Of these three points I think that the 2nd is probably the most challenging for us. We live in a society that is not very patient. We are a people who like to have things happen, now – instant gratification. We don’t want to wait and if we don’t see an immediate answer to our prayers we tend to give up and figure that they are not working; or we just take matters into our own hands and try to force the issue. Neither of these is faithful or appropriate. We are rather called to be persistent in prayer, recognizing that God’s ways are not our ways and that God’s time is not our time.

Anne Hutchinson’s prayers were answered, but not in the time she may have expected. Nevertheless, God did bring transformation to this land. Anne was faithful and persistent – just like the widow. And, just like the widow in the parable, she was vindicated in the end.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Deserve It!

I Deserve It!  - Some Reflections on II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 / St. Luke 17:11-19

There is a current TV ad for a car rental company which has a well dressed young executive walking through an airport talking and going out to the parking lot.  When he gets there he picks a nice car, looks at the camera and says: "I deserve it?"  I always want to yell at the screen - "Why?"  Why do you deserve this car, why do you think you "deserve" anything? This seems to be a theme in our society - entitlement.  We think we "deserve" this and that, and lots of money and a nicer house than we can afford and a fancy car and a pretty generic family and no debt or illness or anything else.  And when hard times hit, then we get angry - "it isn't fair; I don't deserve this!"  We get angry with our job, or politicians or with God because things aren't for us the way they are supposed to be.  Or we find others to scapegoat - it's those politicians, the president, the free-loading poor, the immigrants, anyone and everyone who is different than us.  It is their fault that things are this bad, and doggone it, I don't deserve this!
In our readings for today the Old Testament and the Gospel stories are very similar.  Both stories recount a healing, but at the core of both stories lay issues of gratitude and grace.   In our Old Testament story we hear of a wealthy and powerful general who is suffering from a skin disease.  This is a man of entitlement and his behavior displays this "I deserve it" attitude throughout the story.  When he finally stands in front of the tent (cave?) of the Prophet and receives his instructions he throws a fit because he wasn’t received appropriately.  The prophet didn’t even come out to meet him directly and simply sends a message to him: go wash in the Jordan River seven times.  What is the deal?  Naaman was expecting a little more attention.  Maybe the prophet could at least make a sacrifice and come out and do a dance and some hocus pocus.  Namaan didn’t deserve this!  And he is just about ready to go away in a huff when his servants (tactfully) prevail upon him to just give it a try, go and follow the prophet’s instructions.  He does so (reluctantly) and he is healed.  He is healed, not because he deserves it.  He is healed because of the grace of God – only!  Finally he recognizes this and returns to the prophet to offer thanks to God (and maybe an apology?).
In the story from Luke, Jesus, like Elisha, heals in a very quiet unobtrusive way.  In this story there are 10 lepers.  When they realize they have been healed they all run off to get started on their new life.  Life has been hard up until now, and they didn't deserve that, so now they are entitled to get on with their lives.  So, all run away in excitement.  All, that is, but one – one of the men returns to Jesus to say Thank you.  And we learn from Jesus that while they were all healed, it is only this one who has been made completely whole, this one who has received salvation.  Why, because it is only this one who has room for gratitude, and thus only this one who has faith.
Is it possible to have faith without gratitude?  I suppose it depends on how you define faith.  If faith is just a list of propositions that you believe or if faith is a mental attitude towards certain events or things then perhaps it is possible.  But that is not how faith is defined in the bible.  In the bible faith is manifest in action.  One doesn’t just believe a list of things in the bible, faith is demonstrated by the way one lives and the way one acts.  The disciples all demonstrate their lack of faith when they run and hide when Jesus is arrested; the women followers of Jesus demonstrate their strong faith in their willingness to stand vigil at the cross and care for the body and go to the tomb.  Faith is action, and gratitude is an important part of faith.  It is the part that gives faith life, or a spark or even a sparkle.
These stories today call us to faith and gratitude!  Thank you Lord for all that you have given to me; thank you Lord that despite the fact that even though I do not deserve it you nevertheless love me and have reached out to me in grace and love and that you continue to stand with me throughout everything.  These stories encourage us to take stock of what it is that we are grateful for and then to take the time to give thanks.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Singin' The Blues - Some Thoughts on Habakkuk for Proper 22C

The Blues are a distinctive musical expression that emerged from the African-American experience of slavery and reconstruction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries here in our country. The form is simple – we can all write a blues verse: 1. Identify a basic situation you want to express from your life’s experience (usually based on a hardship of some sort). 2. State the situation in a line of 13 beats – example: I was with you, baby, when you didn’t have a dime. 3. Repeat. 4. State the complaint (lament - how it directly affects you) in 14 beats – example: Now since you got plenty money, you’re gone now all the time. This example is by the great blues singer Besse Smith. And you can go on and on and on. This particular blues has a number of verses and by the end of it all she has gone from lament to resolution; from the complaining that he is a no good bum to resolving to dump him!

We talk about “singing the blues” when things are not going well. And usually it is a way of expressing that things are not going well and that these things have got us down. Even if we don’t go to the extent of actually writing or composing a blues song we have all “sung” the blues at some time or another when things have not been going well.

The prophet Habakkuk is certainly one who knows how to “sing the blues.” Things are not good for him and the people of Judah. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help…. All around him he sees violence and injustice. Those in authority are only interested in their own agendas so that they and their friends can get rich and maintain their power. Those in power pervert justice, abuse the poor and powerless. And not only that, but over the horizon looms a great threat: Babylon. And in the midst of all of this, God, YHWH, where are you? Why do you remain silent? Why do you allow such horrid things to happen?!?

We are not used to such blunt talk directed at God. But this is part of the Old Testament tradition of lament. We can find many examples of this kind of blunt talk in the Psalms (the most well-known example is Psalm 22, which Jesus spoke from the cross). The Hebrews are not afraid to confront God and this is what Habakkuk does. And after he finishes his complaint, his lament – the first verse of his blues – he states that he will take up his place on the ramparts and watch and wait for an answer. This is extraordinary. He is willing to wait for an answer. In instant gratification world the image of the prophet Habakkuk standing in the watchtower waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting until he receives a word from the Lord is a profound image for me and it tells me that 1st – God has a timetable that is different than mine and 2nd – that God will answer in due course.

At the end of it all, God does respond and states clearly that out of death will come resurrection; that justice will sweep away injustice; that peace or shalom will bloom everywhere and that the love of God will triumph. This is the proclamation of the cross. God is working to bring this about and it will happen – not in ways we expect or on our time timetable – but God will accomplish it. The mustard seed of the Kingdom of God is planted and is growing in our midst - even if we can't always see it. And in the meantime? Hear the closing words of the book: Habakkuk writes: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. Amen! (Actually, read 3:17-19 – it is a powerful and beautiful statement of faith). No matter what I will continue to live my life faithfully as a follower of Jesus and will look to God with thanksgiving and praise!

Suggested reading - the entirety of the Prophet Habakkuk - 1:1 to 3:19
Bibliography: Why Habakkuk? By Don Gowan
Statue below by Donatello