Sunday, December 25, 2016

My Christmas Eve Sermon - December 24, 2016 - Titus 2:11-14

As a child I always loved Christmas so much.  It was for me then such a magical time of the year, and I suspect that our children and even the child still within us continues to enjoys the trimmings of this season – the lights, the cookies, the presents, the carols!  It all mixes together and can generate such excitement, especially in the children.  I remember, many, many years ago, when I was a child not being able to sleep at all on Christmas Eve.  One year I simply couldn’t stand it any longer so I go up out of bed, around 4:00 AM or so and slipped down to the living room where I proceeded to begin to tear through the packages with my name on them that were sitting under the tree.  Suddenly my dad showed up and sent me back to bed with orders to remain there until a “reasonable hour.”  A reasonable hour?  Now, exactly what is a “reasonable hour” on Christmas morning when you are a child?
Of course, one of the things that made the wait especially difficult was the uncertainty of what might actually be in those boxes that were piled up under the tree.  There was, after all, always the possibility (and the threat) that this year I might not have qualified for any real presents; that on the “naughty and nice” scale this year my behavior might have actually tipped more towards the “naughty” part and that inside those boxes might be pieces of coal or sticks.
And I knew that it could actually happen.  One Christmas when I was about 8 my cousins Billy and Rick who were 7 and 5 actually for real, got coal and sticks under the tree. I guess they had not earned any presents that year; that they were just not good enough to qualify for “real” presents. Now, as an aside, let me add here so you won’t be wondering for the whole rest of the service – they actually did get real presents.  After the initial shock and trauma of discovering the coal and sticks it was discovered that their real presents were hidden in a closet.  I have however often wondered if my poor cousins had been scarred for life by this practical joke.  But I am sure that they got the message loud and clear – this year boys - you were not good enough!
Not good enough!  They had not earned the gifts.  I suppose some of us are a little horrified by this story, but this is one of the cultural themes of the season the way our culture celebrates it, is it not?  How does that popular Christmas song go?  He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice….”
There is an old Calvin and Hobbes comic that I used to have cut out and posted, but have managed over the years to loose.  Anyway, the comic has Calvin questioning his belief in Santa and he says, “how can HE know who is naughty and nice?  Does he have spies everywhere?”  Hobbes then asks Calvin why if he believes in God is belief in Santa so difficult.  “Actually,” responds Calvin, “I have the same questions about God.”  This comic points up something important not only about our society’s understanding of Christmas, but about our society’s popular understanding about God as well: We tend to at least unconsciously think about God like we do about Santa – up there, keeping track and ready to punish… “so, we better be good for goodness sake!”
Over against this popular understanding let us hear again the words of the Epistle text for this evening from Titus: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…  Again: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…
God’s grace has appeared embodied and incarnate in Jesus – why? In order to bring salvation TO ALL!  This is not qualified in any way – To ALL.  Not to all who have been good, or all who believe the rights things, or believe a certain way, or who hold certain political views, or who have certain background or culture or lifestyle – No!  To ALL – so you can make a list of all the qualifications you can think of and then you can sweep them all up and throw them out! God’s grace has appeared bringing salvation TO ALL – as a gift!  As an unmerited, unearned and unconditional gift!  God has created you – God loves you without qualification or condition – period!  This is the way Pastor Fred Buechner puts it in his book Wishful Thinking – a Theological A-B-C:  This is grace of God… there is nothing you have to DO; there is nothing you HAVE to do; there is nothing YOU have to do… here is your life, beautiful and awful things will happen – do not be afraid, I am with you!  I love you!
We live in a world that is very graceless.  So it can be very hard for us to accept that there is not some kind of catch.  A part of us just doesn’t want to give up the expectation that we need to do something to earn God’s love and grace and salvation – if only so that we can assure ourselves that THOSE people will undoubtedly not qualify!  But tonight, Christmas Eve 2016, the proclamation of the Gospel is that there is no catch.  God loves you without conditions! The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all!  Which includes all of you; and each and everyone, along with everyone outside as well.
But there is more - is it not the case that whenever we receive a wonderful, beautiful gift that not only do we need to accept it, but that it often engenders inside of us a desire to give something back as well?  That it prompts us to give something of ourselves in response in order to express not only our appreciation but also our commitment?  If God’s grace is just something we have earned, something to which we are entitled then we can take it and there is no reason to give anything back – but a gift – a gift is different – a gift calls for a response – and this gift and the response can transform us! 
              And so on this night – Christmas Eve 2016 – we have come together for worship – to sing together, to hear the word and take the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  And we have brought with us our joys and our sorrows, our worries and our fears as we sit here in this place.  Coming from the frantic rush of preparation we now sit here in silence as a holy hush descends upon us.  On this Holy Night may you catch a glimpse of the gift of grace that God offers to you freely and unconditionally; may God enable you to open your hearts in order to receive this gift and may all of us together taste the joy that Christ brings; may we each catch a glimpse of God’s grace!
Picture at the top of the page: Hanna Cheriyan Varghese (Malaysia). “For unto us a Child is born”. - Malaysian
Picture at the bottom of the page: Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congo). Nativity, 2001

Saturday, November 12, 2016

My Sermon for Nov. 12/13 on the story of Zaccheaus - Luke 19:1-11

You should read all of Luke 18 and 19 up to 19:11

           Have you ever noticed that Luke seems to be obsessed with tax collectors and sinners – They are all over the place:
            Jesus eats with them constantly
            Jesus calls a tax collector to be a disciple
            He uses them as examples in parables – in fact just a few verses before this story of Zaccheaus in chapter 19 we have the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee – do you remember that?
            2 men go up to the Temple to pray – one (a Pharisee) prays – “I thank you Lord that my life is great, that I am a very religious person and that I am not like any of those loosers, like, for example, that tax collector over there…  And then standing afar off a tax collector cannot even raise his head and he prays, “dear Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!”  And who do you think left the temple with their sins forgiven?  The tax collector and not the Pharisee!
            And here we have this story of Jesus encountering yet another Tax Collector, and not just any tax collector – a chief tax collector!  So what is the deal with Tax Collectors?  Why is Luke so focused on Tax Collectors?
            To be clear, we are not talking about IRS agents here.  These are not public servants in the way we think of them today.  In Jesus’ time tax collectors were collaborators with the occupiers.  The Romans designated locals to assess and collect taxes for them.  And if needed the Romans would provide the muscle needed to extract these taxes.  So it worked this way – the designated tax collector would go to his neighbors and inform them that they owed a certain amount to the Romans – for the privilege of being occupied of course.  Now the amount assessed was determined by the Tax Collector himself.  He could collect whatever he could and then after Rome got its fair share then the Tax Collector got to keep the rest.  This is why someone like Zach is described as being very wealthy (in a context when most people lived in poverty, btw).  He was very good at collecting large amounts and he got to keep the excess.  As you might imagine tax collectors were not very popular, in fact they were despised.  But not for Luke – Luke seems to have a soft place in his heart for them.  Maybe he understands the pressures they are under.  How for them they saw no other option – so rather than living in poverty they chose to sell out their neighbors. But it must have been a painful and lonely existence. They would have been cut off from the Temple and, as the text constantly reminds us, they are counted as sinners, which meant they were shunned, since, after all they were unredeemable sinners.
            But not for Jesus – and this is the point that Jesus makes over and over again in Luke: No one is unredeemable – No One! Not even the Pharisees – but what distinguishes the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the parable is the inability or the unwillingness of the Pharisee to see the sinner in himself.  The Pharisee is just as much of a sinner as the anyone else, but they can’t see it.  They are thus guilty of perhaps the most destructive sin of all: the inability to see themselves honesty, or to see themselves as sinners and consequently to recognize their need for God’s grace and forgiveness.  “I thank you that I am not like that looser over there – I am so pure and holy and right – thank you God for making me such a great and righteous person!”
            This is the key to understanding these texts. There is no inner or intrinsic righteousness about any of these folks.  It is not that the Tax Collectors and Sinners were basically better people than the Pharisees – not at all.  But rather the Pharisees had closed themselves off while the Tax Collectors and Sinners were honest about themselves: “be merciful to me, a sinner” says the one in the parable.  And this openness is what enables transformation and grace.  The key is sight.  And guess what healing story takes place right before this story of Zaccheaus?  Jesus heals a blind man on the side of the road.  And then a few verses later we read that this great sinner – the chief tax collector – wants to see Jesus.  This is not accidental.  The key to this entire section is seeing.  And it begs the question?  Can you see?  Do you want to see Jesus? Or maybe not, because it can be uncomfortable and it might even change your life. 
            When we read this story in English we get the distinct impression that Jesus is being so genial and kind - "hurry and come down Zaccheaus, for I must dine at your house today!"  We can just hear the laughter in Jesus' voice.  But in Greek there is a different feel to it.  There is no geniality or laughter in the voice.  The children’s song we did a bit ago actually captures the Greek feel pretty well.  Jesus looks up in the tree and sees Zach and commands him to come down, in no uncertain terms!  “Zacchaeus get down here right this minute.”  It is a harsh imperative command. And Jesus is coming to his house – whoa! That is intense! No one is going to like that - the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – no one! They are all going to grumble and complain and criticize and condemn.  And it is going to be uncomfortable for Zach as well.
            But you see Zach has something to tell Jesus: “I have decided to restore the money that I have gotten by cheating my neighbors.”  The verb tense indicates that this has been brewing for a while.  In other words Zach didn’t make this as a spur of the moment decision, inspired by having Jesus as his guest.  No, he has been moving in this direction for a while and struggling with it.  This is what prompted his desire to SEE Jesus in the first place!  Ultimately Zach determined that life that is all about accumulation of money and stuff is hollow – and that a life lived alone, separated from community is very life denying.  Jesus’ statement that “salvation has come to this house today” is an interesting statement when you consider that the Greek word which is translated as “salvation” can also be translated as “healing.”  So Jesus tells the community that “Healing has come for Zaccheaus – and healing means salvation for healing in this case means a refocusing on others and on community.  Healing means that the blind can now see!
            Maybe you all are getting tired of hearing me preach about the importance and centrality of community all the time. But I simply can’t avoid it – because it is embedded and intewoven in the Gospel text.  This story as well as everything that went before and everything that comes after is all about community and relationship; it is about the importance of community and how we experience God’s love and grace through community and how community is to be at the center of the life of faith.  But we sure get a different view in the general culture: “go for all the gusto you can get” – it’s all about me, me, me – and even the talking religious heads repeat over and over about how faith is about personal this and personal that.  Except – it’s not!  You have to ignore the Gospel and pull out your favorite selfish verses out of context to get that impression.  The Gospel is about being a part of community and not letting anything – anything get in the way!  In this story in chapter 19 Zach has come to a point in his life where he began to see the truth of this and then made the effort to seek out Jesus as a result; and he was healed/saved in the seeing and seeking!
            What about us?  Are you the Pharisee or the Tax Collector in the parable?  “I thank you Lord I am not like that person, I am not like that looser?”  Do we think that, I mean deep down do we think that?  Do we focus exclusively on ourselves?  Do we care about others?  Especially others who are really different than us?  Others who live different lives and have different traditions and different situations and different lifestyles and priorities and different politics than us?  Do we care about any of those others?  What about others in other parts of the world who are really removed from us – Haiti, Syria…?  Do we care? Can we see their suffering?  Do we think about them?  Or… do we subconsciously pray “I thank you Lord that I am not like them….”
            The key to Christian faith and life is relationship and community! And not just our little community here in Southern Illinois – we are, by virtue of our baptism – in community and in relationship with all the world and we are responsible for them; we need to care about them; we need to listen to those who are hurting and scared and suffering and we need to be ready to do something about it.  Can you SEE?  Like Zach, are you willing to climb up the highest tree just to be able to see – so that healing and salvation will come your way?
            These are hard questions – but hard questions are appropriate for stewardship weekend, because stewardship is ultimately about seeing and responding to the call to work to restore community and relationship.  Stewardship is about seeing and hearing and caring and loving and giving…

Let me conclude with the words of Jesus:

Jesus said to the blind man, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

Then Jesus said to Zaccheaus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Chorus of Praise – Sermon for Easter 5C

Psalm 148   Laudate Dominum  (From the Book of Common Prayer)

1       Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
     praise him in the heights.

2       Praise him, all you angels of his; *
     praise him, all his host.

3       Praise him, sun and moon; *
     praise him, all you shining stars.
4       Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
     and you waters above the heavens.

5       Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
     for he commanded, and they were created.

6       He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
     he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7       Praise the Lord from the earth, *
     you sea‑monsters and all deeps;

8       Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
     tempestuous wind, doing his will;

9       Mountains and all hills, *
     fruit trees and all cedars;

10     Wild beasts and all cattle, *
     creeping things and wingèd birds;

11     Kings of the earth and all peoples, *
     princes and all rulers of the world;

12     Young men and maidens, *
     old and young together.

13     Let them praise the Name of the Lord, *
     for his Name only is exalted,
     his splendor is over earth and heaven.

14     He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants, *
     the children of Israel, a people who are near him.


I would like to begin by sharing an experience from my time as a staff Chaplain at Ohio State University Hospitals.  One late night, I received a call to meet a family at the hospital emergency room.  The circumstances were particularly tragic; a young woman had been the victim of a random shooting and was in critical condition. And so upon arriving, I sat with the family for several hours waiting for news; listening as the parents and siblings shared their grief, trials and even a few happy memories.  After a little while other family began to arrive and there was one aunt in particular who immediately began to admonish the parents for not having enough faith.  I cringed and struggled as this very well meaning woman went on and on and on about how we as Christians are supposed to praise God in all circumstances.

I will come back to this.

This morning I would like to focus on Psalm 148, which is the Psalm appointed for today, the fifth Sunday after Easter.  The Book of Psalms is a collection of songs, or song texts.  There are many different types of songs in this collection, including songs of lament, abandonment and anger; songs of wisdom; songs which recount God’s saving works through history; and songs of celebration and praise.  Our Psalm for today is a song of praise.  In fact, Psalm 148 is part of a set of Psalms – numbers 146 through 150, which together form a doxology or a final glorious song of praise to the great book of Psalms.  Each of these five Psalms begins with an exclamation – a joyous shout:  Halleluiah! This literally means “Praise be to Yahweh,” or Praise the Lord!  And then proceeds with a chorus of praise.

And who is to join this chorus of praise?  Well Psalm 148 actually specifies that there should be two choirs.  In music appreciation we would call this a “polychoral” work.  Choir # 1 consists of the angelic host, the sun, the moon, the shining stars, and even all of heaven itself.  Choir # 2 is a to include the sea-monsters from the deep, fire, hail, snow, fog, tempestuous wind, the mountains, hills, fruit trees, cedars, wild beasts, cattle, creeping things, birds, kings and princes and rulers, and all people, men and women, young and old.  Now that is quite a chorus!

In short, all of creation is to join the chorus of praise.  In the creation account in the 1st chapter of Genesis after each day, God surveys His work of creation and declares it is good.  And so, all of this Good Creation is to join the polychoral song of praise to God!

OK, so it is clear who is called to praise – it is also clear from the Psalm that praise is to be the primary calling of all creation.  All the heavens, plants, creatures and you and me are all called to make praise the first and foremost priority of our lives.   We are to praise God in everything we do and in every circumstance.

But how?  How are we to do this?  What about those times when we don’t feel like praise?  Or when the circumstances are filled with loss and despair, like the situation I began this sermon with.  How can we praise God then – in those circumstances?  We need to look closer at this question of how exactly do we praise God?

A few years ago, while I was serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, I attended a worship conference on alternative musical resources for worship.  The first scheduled event was an evening concert presented by the Maranatha! Praise band, which was out of Nashville.  The music was very upbeat, filled with praise and celebrations.  But early on I noticed a few people in the audience starting to raise their hands and wave them about as if they were trying to get the band’s attention.  My initial reaction was to think, “gee, I really don’t think they are going to take questions in the middle of a concert.”  And then it dawned on me: that they weren’t raising their hands to ask question, but as an expression of praise.

This is a valid way of expressing praise.  Raising our hands, singing, shouting, dancing, all has its place.  But that is not the whole story.  I think in our society, were often religious dialogue and expression is dictated by one or two traditions, we have developed the idea that this is how you have to praise God; that praise also requires faith and thanksgiving and joy.   And that praise isn’t possible without these things.  Well, that is simply not true.  That is one valid expression of praise.  But not even the most important or common one.

Remember, people make up only a tiny part of the choir.  How do the sea-monsters, the cattle, the wild beasts and the wingéd birds fulfill their obligation to praise God?  How do the tempestuous winds and the mountains manage their polychoral parts in the choir?  “The problem we have in understanding praise is that we are accustomed to seeing praise as a special offering – a prayer or a song or certain behaviors or attitudes.  We relegate praise to a certain time and place… But the praise of the Lord in this psalm is more than what happens at a special time or place. Verse 6 is a clue to what is understood by praise in the psalm.  ‘The Lord established the heavenly (and earthly) things forever, and fixed their purpose and place in creation.’ In other words the stormy wind fulfils its task of praise by being a stormy wind. All creatures praise the Lord by being the creatures the Lord made them. This is true also of the Lord’s people*… “  We are joining in the chorus of praise as we go about living our lives as faithfully as we can.  We don’t have to be in a certain frame of mind.  We just have to go about living our lives in way that are faithful to our calling.  In the case of the family I spoke of earlier, the appropriate and natural expressing of grief, sorrow, fear and anger, were an expression of praise.  This is what the Aunt didn’t understand.  That by giving full voice to sorrow, grief, even anger – this is praise – this is being faithful!  In fact, I would go so far as to say that to deny these natural expressions and emotions, which are a natural part of life, would display a lack of faith.  We praise God most faithfully when we accept who we are and the wonderful gift of being fully human.

One final thought.  Today is Rogation Sunday, which is when we focus on the natural environment and God’s glorious creation.  Psalm 148 is explicitly clear that we are fellow choir members with all of God’s natural world, who, also in order to fulfill their calling to praise, must be allowed to be what they were created to be as well.  In as much as we are called to cherish who God wants us to be, so also we must cherish all dimensions of God’s creation so that together we can all join in the glorious polychoral song of praise to God.

* Exegetical article  The Old Testament Readings: Weekly Comments on the Revised Common Lectionary, Howard Wallace Audrey Schindler, Morag Logan, Paul Tonson, Lorraine Parkinson, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.