Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reflections from the Pastor: For All the Saints: Witnessing for Jesus

Read the Acts passage here: Acts 1:1-11

For All the Saints: Witnessing for Jesus
I suspect that the title of this sermon/reflection might have surprised some of you.  “Witnessing” is not a word that Lutherans use very often.  In fact, the idea of “witnessing for Jesus” makes many of us Lutherans just a little uncomfortable.  But why is that?  I suspect that it is because that the word has been co-opted in ways that refer to a very specific kind of behavior, and this behavior makes us very uncomfortable.  For most of us, the word “witnessing” refers to a type of in your face, aggressive religious marketing.  “Witnessing” makes us think of people going door to door, or passing out tracts or coming up to us at a mall or some outdoor event and essentially saying – “You need to believe what I believe, otherwise you are going to be lost forever.”  Scare tactics and belligerence, my way or the highway – all of these come to mind when we think of our experience with those who are “witnessing for Jesus.”  And we don’t want to have anything to do with that kind of behavior, so instead we tell ourselves that faith is completely a private matter and if we do anything it is to make our observance of our faith as private and unobtrusive as possible. Perhaps though this is going to far the other way.  Is there another way we might understand our Lord’s Great Commission to “Go ye into all the world…”?
The fact of the matter is that we are called to live our faith.  Jesus is quite clear that we are not to “hide our light under a bushel.”  At our celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism the liturgy always concludes with these words, which are taken right out of Scripture: Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.  We are called to live our faith, and as James says, “faith without works is dead.”  In other words, is it possible for us to be Christians and to simply say or think about faith and have it not impact our life and the way we live?  The New Testament clearly answers that question with a resounding “NO!”
In the Acts passage that is read today we have the disciples and Jesus standing together on the Mount of Olives.  The disciples want to know when Jesus will inaugurate the Kingdom of God (old habits and misunderstandings die slowly!).  But Jesus dismisses their question – “that’s none of your business” – he tells them.  “So instead of concerning yourself with that just focus on your calling.”  For… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem … and to the ends of the earth.  Then Jesus ascends into the heavens leaving the disciples standing there gazing into the sky.  And an angel, or messenger, has to come over, tap them on the shoulders and say – “hey guys, get your heads out of the clouds, time to get to work!”  And what is the work?  Witnessing!
What then is witnessing?  Is it just talking, confronting, or handing out tracts?  No it is not.  In fact, according to the New Testament witnessing to faith in Christ means integrating our faith with our way of living our lives.  Do we live our lives in ways that reflect our faith in Christ?  Are we gracious and loving to all?  Are we always open and willing to forgive? Do we use our time and talents in ways that support and build up the community of Christ – the church?  Do we give of our financial resources in ways that support the various ministries of the community?  Do we work for ways to make sure that those who are hungry are fed, those who are lonely are visited, those who are cold and warmed, those who need clothing are clothed, those who are sick are cared for?  Do we work for justice and peace? This is what it means to witness to faith in Jesus Christ.  Might it also include talking and sharing this faith with others.  Yes, of course, when the situation allows for it.  But never in an arrogant or judgmental way!
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  This is one of the great yearly festival celebrations of the church.  On this day we remember all of those who have gone before us in the faith; those who have passed the faith on to us; those who lived lives that reflected their faith.  So on this All Saints day the question that our texts and the day itself raise for us is this: What difference does it make?  You are a Saint – so what does that mean to you and what difference does it make in your life?  In what ways have you worked to integrate your faith with your life?  How do you use the gifts that God has given you to enable you to live out your faith?  What are the ways that you witness for Jesus?
Here is the King's College choir of men and boys singing this wonderful hymn.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Reflections – Called to be a Community – I Corinthians 13

Read the text here: I Corinthians 13

Most of us are used to hearing the text of I Corinthians 13 read at weddings.  In fact the passage – usually the entirety of chapter 13 – has really become associated with weddings.  And it certainly is appropriate.  St. Paul’s lifting up of self-giving love as a model for a marriage relationship is certainly what couples should be encouraged to strive towards.  So it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Paul did not have marriage in mind when he wrote the words to I Corinthians 13.  In fact, he is not talking about marriage at all, he is talking about community.  Specifically, he is addressing this basic questions: How do we live in community?
The church in Corinth was having problems with community.  They simply could not adjust their community life away from the cultural and societal values and expectations that had been a part of their lives before they became Christian.  Specifically, they had a problem with social class.  In the broader society class distinctions were very, very carefully drawn and people from differing classes simply did not intermingle socially.  These lines were drawn carefully and lower class folks and upper class folks kept themselves apart from each other.  This is what they were doing in Corinth, and this had especially become a problem with the sharing of Holy Communion.  Upper class folks would not eat and commune with the working class and slaves.  The problem is that this kind of exclusivity goes directly against the Gospel of Christ.  And Paul lets them have it in chapter 11.  Paul lets them know in no uncertain terms that to exclude folks from Holy Communion in this way is contrary to the Gospel.  It is to this practice of exclusivity that Paul is referring in this well-known and often misinterpreted passage (I Cor. 11:17-19):
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.8Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
To be exclusive is to deny Christ, according to Paul.  So the very first point that needs to be made in understanding this text is that we, the Body of Christ, is called to be radically inclusive.  No one is to be excluded, no one is to be shunned or denied Communion and fellowship in the Body of Christ.  All the categories that we humans like to put people in are shattered when we come together as the Body of Christ.
That is where we start, then from there we move, in chapter 12, to the issue of gifts and the use of the gifts that God has given to us.  And again the Corinthian church had fallen into the trap of valuing some folks over others; of valuing some gifts over others and thus creating a hierarchy of gifts.  “Since you can prophesy or speak in tongues,” they determined, “then you must be more important than that person over there who can only pray.”  (Does this perhaps sound a little like our Gospel text from Luke 18?)  Paul completely rejects this!  God has given a variety of gifts to a variety of different people and the Body needs every single one of those gifts in order to function.  Not one is more important than others.  It is at this point that he launches into his well-known section (chapter 12:12-27) where, using the metaphor of the human body, he talks about how the different parts and organs are all needed and essential – “…If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of smell be?...” (12:17).  So the 2nd important point to be made here is that God has gifted everyone with gifts that are essential to the Body of Christ, which is the church.  In fact, the church cannot function without everyone and when one is absent or does not contribute the gifts God has given to him/her for the mission of Christ then the Body, the church, is thus impoverished.
This then leads right into chapter 13.  And here is what Paul is saying – you Corinthians have really missed the point of the Gospel.  You have divided yourselves and put people into categories and then further divided yourselves by creating a hierarchy of gifts.  By doing this you are denying the Gospel because you have forgotten one very, very important thing – Love.  Ultimately we are called to love.  The community of Christ is a community of self-giving love; love that puts the needs and concerns of others above my own needs and concerns.  Review again the passage:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is hard enough for married couples, but for a community like the church it can be next to impossible.  But this is what we are called to: Love is the bottom line!  And with the Spirit of God nothing is impossible!  Now, love doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead, but it also means that we are to carefully consider how we administrate, how we reach out, how we do ministry and how we utilize the gifts that God has given us.  From Paul we learn these important lessons: People are God’s first priority and love is the bottom line for community!
This is the first weekend of our stewardship program – Fulfilling God’s Purpose.  And we begin with this important lesson which reminds us that in order for us to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives it means that we must be an active part of a Christian community, and that we must work within that community to reach out to all others welcoming and bringing them in, using the gifts God has given us for the sake of community – and that includes time, talents and treasures.  And most important, that our bottom line as a community has got to be love – self-giving love which is modeled for us by our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again so that we all might have life and have it abundantly. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Reflections on the text – Luke 17:5-10

Read the text here: Luke 17:5-10

Just Do It
The disciples really have it tough in the Gospels.  In this passage from chapter 17, Jesus is continuing on the road to Jerusalem that had begun back in chapter 9 and he has been pushing the disciples hard.  There have been parables like the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Dishonest Steward – all of which have turned their world upside down: forgiveness that is freely available, turning away from the pursuit of riches, a hated Samaritan as a model of faith.  In addition to that, Jesus has bluntly condemned the accumulation and focus on wealth and possessions and has even suggested that in order to be a disciple one needs to give up ALL one’s possessions.  He has taught that family obligations are to be secondary and that to follow Jesus is to pick up a cross and follow to crucifixion!  And he has continued his distressing and alienating habit of healing on the Sabbath and eating with tax collectors and sinners!  In this context the cry from the disciples at the opening of this text – “Increase our faith!” – is completely understandable.  How can they possibly accept and do all of this stuff that Jesus is calling them to accept and do.  They just don’t have enough faith, they don’t understand it, and some of it even offends them.
Can’t we also identify with the disciples in this context?  We know that to be faithful Christians we too are called to follow, to open our hearts to others, to be willing to forgive, to disengage our lives from wealth and possessions and to pick up our cross and follow.  But our society and any number of talking heads constantly tell us – oh no, Jesus wants you to be rich and successful; oh no, Jesus thinks it is ok to reject THOSE kinds of people; oh no, faith is all about me, myself and I it has nothing to do with anyone else.  But then we encounter the Gospel and we realize that those voices are lying and like the 12 disciples we too are called to discipleship which calls on us to open and give of ourselves to others in some deep and profound ways.  And this prompts us to join the disciples in crying, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Jesus' response to this cry is surprising and perplexing.  Jesus essentially dismisses the request!  Using the metaphor of a mustard seed he is basically saying, “You already have enough faith.  You already have all the faith you need, so stop whining and just do it!” 
So what is faith? Faith in the Bible is always active and not passive.  In other words, faith is found in how we act; in our behavior; in the priorities we set and how we act on those priorities.  It is easy for us to get seduced into thinking that faith is only a mental activity. When this happens the measure of faith can become whether or not we can “believe” something that is otherwise unbelievable. Convincing oneself of the believability of something that is otherwise unbelievable is not faith.  It is mental gymnastics that are more like Jedi mind tricks than real faith.  Faith is found in action, in our behavior and how we live our lives.  We confess that we love Jesus and we wish to follow Jesus – how, then is this manifested in the choices we make and the way we live in the world?  How is our faith in Jesus reflected in our stewardship of the gifts that God has given us?  How do we use the financial resources God has given to us?  Do we tithe and support the ministry of the church appropriately? Do we offer financial support to organizations that seek to offer food and assistance to those who are in need?  Do we use the gift of time to participate in ministry opportunities? Do we make Word and Sacrament worship the foundation of our lives in Jesus?  Do we share our talents in ways that allow God’s grace and love to shine through us?
This is action and this is faith!  It is how we live our lives and act and reach out to others that reflect our faith.  And Jesus says, you already have enough faith to live a faith-filled life – so just do it!  Just do it! 
Do what?  Live gracefully!  Live in ways that reflect Jesus’ life, ministry and priorities.   The simplest acts of kindness – a comforting word, a favor, a touch, an anonymous gift – these are acts of faith.  The simplest things constitute acts of faith.  And I am willing to bet that each and every one of us performs many, many acts of faith each and every day.
 “Ultimately what the Gospel is teaching us is this: Faith isn’t an idea, it’s a muscle, and the more we use that muscle, the stronger it gets. Jesus tells his disciples -- both then and now -- that we’ve got all that we need to be faithful.  It’s all the ordinary stuff we do all the time and, taken together and blessed by God, it’s pretty darn extraordinary.
“But faith is not only a muscle, it’s also an adventure. Faith is putting one foot in front of the other and walking toward a future we do see yet but trust God is fashioning. Faith is heading out the door each day looking for opportunities to be God’s partner and co-worker in the world. Faith is imagining that the various challenges put in front of us -- whether solving a problem at work or forgiving someone who wronged us -- are actually opportunities that invite us to grow as disciples and witness to God’s presence and goodness in the world.
“This is everyday faith -- the ordinary, extraordinary faith that we’re invited to practice day in and day out. It’s not heroic, but it is essential. And so what Jesus is reminding us today about faith through this lesson is this -  Just Do It!"
Quotations at the end of this meditation are from the essay “Everyday Faith” by Dr. David Lose.