Monday, November 13, 2017

Sermon – 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 – November 2017

Sermon – 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 – November 2017

14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
First and absolutely essential to understanding Paul is his focus on the Cross and Resurrection.  This is absolutely the key to understanding Paul’s letters.  It is the key to every single thing that Paul says – it is the key to faith and the key to salvation. It is the Key to what it means to live in Christ, and to the believer’s relationships with God and with one another.  The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son, is the foundation of Paul’s theology.  So – here, in my words, is how Paul understands the New Creation:

God’s incredible creation as described in Genesis 1 to 3 has been undermined and is abused by those to whom God has given the gift of creation; abused by those to whom God has also given the gift of the responsibility to care for the gift of creation.  God’s incredible and incomprehensible love has been and is rejected by human disregard, selfishness, greed, violence and hate.
Initially, God called Israel and gave Israel the responsibility of being God’s representatives or “ambassadors” in the world in order to set the creation right – to restore wholeness, well-being or Shalom.  But Israel failed – they fell into the same human behaviors and traps that everyone else had fallen into.
Therefore in Jesus, God enters into this world, and at the same time God enters into human disregard, abuse, selfishness, greed, violence and hate in the Cross. God takes all of that on in the Cross and then overcomes and destroys their ultimate power in the Resurrection.  The seemingly overwhelmingly destructive powers of human self-centeredness are burst apart by the resurrection – so while these powers appear formidable, ultimately their power will crumble before the power of God’s love.
In the Cross and Resurrection (they go together BTW) God has brought forth a New Creation!  And it is into this New Creation that we are baptized – It is this New Creation that gives us both our Identity as Christians and our agenda. 

That is the basic understanding, but then Paul goes on to raise and address a couple important questions. He actually raises more questions than we have time to focus on, but the principal question that jumps out at me for us is this:

• Do we willingly take on this gift, this identity – or do we push it away?  Do we gratefully live into the gift of New Creation – or do we reject it by trying to modify it so we can, as they say “have our cake and eat it too.”  So we can experience the benefits without taking on any of the responsibility?

It is not enough to say we accept that we are a New Creation in Christ!  The issue is: Does our life and the way we live our lives reflect this new identity?  Do we stand against the abuses of creation that happen all the time? We do stand against the exploitation of our environment and the exploitation of other peoples?  Do we stand against violence and hate in the way we live and act and relate to others?

This is where we get to what Paul calls The Ministry of Reconciliation.  So, do we take on this ministry of reconciliation that is what it means to live into our status as a New Creation in Christ?  Do we work to bring about healing rather than division; love rather than hate; forgiveness rather than retribution; hope rather than fear?

Taking on the identity of the New Creation in Christ means that ultimately we are called to be Ambassadors of Christ – we are representatives of Christ’s love in this world!  Whenever we speak or act our words and our deeds must reflect God’s love – God’s grace – God’s forgiveness!

• So, here is the question I would like to invite you to ponder and pray about: Do you believe in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus - Do you believe that you are a New Creation? If yes, how is it reflected in your lives?  How do you live into this identity?  Do you live a life that embodies the ministry of reconciliation?  Are you an effective Ambassador?

Our calling to be a New Creation in Christ begins here in this space with Word and Sacrament and fellowship and then goes out beyond these 4 walls into the worlds in which we live and touches the people with whom we encounter in our daily lives.  Do they experience God’s New Creation in Christ, through you?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reflections from the Pastor

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations  Matthew 28:20

I had planned to use this space for some reflections on the Eclipse and the beginning of the school year.  But the events of the last few weeks have been so disturbing that I feel that I cannot ignore them and must address them in some way.  The white supremacist/neonazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA seem to be a culmination of a wave that seems to be sweeping the country.  That these demonstrations resorted to violence and that at last count several innocent people were killed is both tragic and deplorable. It seems to me that this needs to be a wake up call for us all.  I don’t like to think of myself as racist.  But because of my upbringing and the experiences I have had in my life I know that there is inside of me a tendency to sometimes react in ways that are in fact racist.  In fact, we all struggle with this whether we are aware of it or not.  Anthropologists called it “ethno-centrism” and it is a human characteristic.  But when unchecked and when fear, resentment and anger are added to it then it can transforms into racism and can lead to violence. We must all take it upon ourselves to examine our attitudes and priorities and make an effort to address this within ourselves.  Something as simple as catching ourselves before we make a statement that generalizes another race or religion or makes fun of another race or religion might be a good place to start.

I want to make it clear, in case there is any question: I stand firmly for equality and justice and against racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism or anything that belittles, excludes or victimizes other human beings in any way. My faith and Scripture teach me that we are all God’s children and that the diversity of culture and race and even religion is one of God’s great gifts to us. We have so much we can learn from others, we are stronger as a church, a people and a nation when we embrace this gift of diversity.  I invite you to join with me in making a commitment to follow God’s call to us to reach out and embrace all those who are considered “other” no matter who or where they are.

Below are excerpts from Pastoral letters by our Synod Bishop John Roth and then from the ELCA Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton:

First from Bishop Roth:
“We must be absolutely clear and unambiguously forthright here.  We the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stand against all forms of racism. Let me quote from the ELCA social statement “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture”: “Racism—a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice—is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity.  The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity.  Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.”
“Lutherans confront racism with law and gospel.  Condemning racism as sin is a word of law.  In traditional Lutheran terminology, this is the second use of the law: that word of God that condemns sin and sinners.  We need to hear this word of law.  The hope is, of course, that ultimately this condemning word of law will drive a person to contrition, to rejection of racism, and to redemption from this sin through Christ. 

Creating and enforcing civil laws that protect people against racism is also a word of law.  In traditional Lutheran terminology, this is the first use of the law: that word of God that supports orderly community and just government.  This is a word of God demanding an end to racial violence, an end to racial intimidation, and an end to racial discrimination and marginalization. 

Finally, there is the hope of the gospel.  Martin Luther King, Jr., interpreted the Civil Rights Movement of nonviolent love not simply or even primarily as political action on behalf of oppressed blacks, but as redemptive suffering, living out Christ’s love for white, racist enemies, to redeem America’s soul from the sin of racism.  Ultimately, we trust not in being able to proudly congratulate ourselves on not being racist (a theology of glory), but in the grace of God through Jesus Christ, that it is Christ’s righteousness and not our own by which we are reconciled to God and to one another (the theology of the cross).” 

And the Last word from Bishop Eaton:
“The ELCA is a church that belongs to Christ and Christ’s church universal, where there is a place for everyone. The job of Christ’s people today is to celebrate the diversity of God’s creative work and embrace all people in the spirit of love, whatever race or ethnicity, economic status or gender.”

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Lutheran Theology 101

As you all know by now this year – 2017 – is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  Specifically it is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.  As I stated in an earlier article, (see below) even though we trace our faith heritage back to that moment in time there are plenty of other events yet to come.  Even so, the events in history that we call the Reformation have certainly shaped our world and our culture and our nation, and continue to do so.
Over the summer I am taking the opportunity during worship to focus on various theological issues that became a part of Reformation or Lutheran theology. For many of these Luther capsulated them in a brief saying – such as “Justification by Grace through Faith;” or “the Priesthood of all Believers,” "simil justus et peccator," or “Theology of the Cross.”  There are others.  These sayings were designed to make these concepts and understandings available and comprehensible to Christians of all walks of life, but after 500 years they have become encrusted and to some extent just as confusing as the scholastic theology they challenged.  But they are important.  So, during my sermons I will be raising some of these and discussing them in ways that I hope bring them alive and make them relevant and applicable to our lives now. 
The first point I want to make which is absolutely essential is that each and every one of these are rooted in the Bible.  Luther didn’t invent them.  They come directly from the text.  “Theology of the Cross” is rooted in the passion narratives of the Gospels; “The Priesthood of All Believers” is rooted in I Corinthians 12.  And the foundational theological plank or “Justification by Grace through Faith” is rooted in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 3 in particular.   Here is a portion of that passage: 
21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
As is the case with most of Paul, there is a lot going on here.  Paul has spent the first two chapters laying out human sinfulness – or the human inclination to put him/herself in the center of their universe, thereby shutting God out and replacing God with him/herself.  Oh no, we want to argue, but stop and think carefully about that.  We are all guilty of this.  Paul (and Luther’s point) is that we do not need to feel guilty or spend hours in self-centered penitential rituals, rather we simply need to recognize it and own it so we can move forward, and it is God through Christ that enables us to move forward.  Because we have been “justified,” “made righteous” which doesn’t mean that God is pretending that we’re innocent.  No, we are sinners – we are self-centered – we regularly put our own needs first.  This in and of itself breaks our relationship with God, but it is God who takes the initiative and restores us to relationship.  This is what it means to be “justified” or “made righteous:” We have been restored to relationship with God.  How?  Through God’s grace.  And “grace” is a word that encompasses all of God’s gifts to us.  God’s grace includes God’s unconditional love, God’s unconditional forgiveness, God’s never failing presence with us in the midst of all of life.  Grace is the box that contains the gifts God is so anxious to bestow upon us.
And since the gifts are unconditional all we need to do it to be willing to accept the gift; the receive the gift.  And that is faith.  Faith is not mentally accepting a bunch of theoretical truths.  Faith has little to nothing to do with our attitudes and opinions.  Faith is action – faith is reflected in how we act, how we relate to others.  So there it is – We are justified by grace and we receive it through Faith! And this means God in Christ restores us to relationship through God unconditional love and forgiveness and we receive this gift through living lives that reflect God’s gifts of unconditional love and forgiveness and presence, and this is what faith is.
This is the primary theological plank of the Reformation, it is also central to Paul’s understanding of what it means to be Christian.  And ultimately it comes down to how we live in this world and how we relate to others – all others!
Blessings for the remainder of the summer!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Death & Darkness – Easter 2017

Based on Matthew 28:1-10

It is still dark outside this morning.  Though as I look at the windows I can see just a hint of light and I know that it will not be long before the sun will rise in the sky and light will flood through these windows.  But inside we have our lights on and we are comfortable.  The candles we have lit are for symbolic use since they have no practical use anymore.  We do not need these candles to see!  I think that we take light for granted and that we really don’t take darkness seriously any more.  After all we are dependent and comfortable with our electricity, our lamps and industrial lighting and so forth.  The fact is that we can get up at any time of the night and turn on a lamp and essentially create day in order to do whatever we want at any time.
But, can you imagine a world where that is not the case.  A world where there are no artificial electric lights and instead the world is lit only by fire?  This is the world of antiquity: of the 1st century, the time of Jesus and actually continuing on for centuries afterwards.  Sure, they had oil lamps, maybe some candles, maybe some torches soaked in oil, but the oil and the wax were expensive, and besides they didn’t produce all that much light anyway.  Most folks simply surrendered to the darkness when it came.
This is why darkness is such a potent symbol in the Gospels – You are the light of the world! Teaches Jesus; Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven; No one would set a lamp under a bushel basket but on a lamp stand… those from Matthew; and from John: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehends it not.  The people to whom Jesus ministered and the disciples were well acquainted with darkness!  And they also knew death! 
Matthew begins his Gospel in darkness and death with his account of Jesus’ birth.  A teenage girl who is betrothed turns up pregnant – this has the smell of death already; Joseph resolves to “put her away quietly” – more death; the infant Jesus is visited by odd strangers from the east who unwittingly alert the dictator, death-dealer Herod to the birth of a potentially rival King and the holy family only barely has enough time to escape before Herod’s troops swoop down on Bethlehem bringing murder and bloodshed and grief and intense sorrow - Bringing more darkness and death!  And throughout the Gospel, Jesus constantly encounters darkness and death and wherever he goes he reaches out to bring life and light into these dark encounters.  Jesus heals, Jesus feeds, Jesus loves, Jesus accepts the unacceptable, Jesus eats with the hated, Jesus cares for the stranger and the foreigner, Jesus offers forgiveness to the unforgivable.  “THIS” Jesus tells his disciples, “this is what the Messiah does: the Messiah Loves, the Messiah forgives, the Messiah dies!”
Impossible say the disciples!  Impossible & blasphemy say the Pharisees and the authorities.  A loving Messiah, a forgiving Messiah, a Messiah that showers grace and peace upon all? This can’t be!  The Messiah is supposed to be on OUR side; the Messiah is supposed to hate what we hate, and despises whom we despise, and rejects who and what we reject, and applaud our violence against those who we judge deserving of violence and as being less than human!
“No!” says Jesus: the Messiah Loves, the Messiah forgives, the Messiah dies!  The Messiah dies! Into this culture of darkness and death Jesus, God incarnate, enters into this very darkness and death himself.  Jesus enters into the illness and the grief and the suffering which he encounters; and Jesus finally on the cross enters into death.  And, that is that! Or so everyone thought!  Darkness and the death have won the day!  Jesus dies abandoned on the cross (except for a few women) and he is placed in a tomb and a stone is rolled in front of the entrance.  And not only that, but the authorities post a guard, in order to make sure that death would have the last word.  That is that!
But…. Early in the morning, when it is dark and the light is just beginning to dawn a group of women find their way to the tomb and according to Matthew they suddenly experience the ground shake and they see the stone rolling away from the tomb and they see a bright image which announces that death does NOT have the last word!  “He is not here, for he has been raised!!!  HE HAS BEEN RAISED!  And then as they run back away from the tomb they encounter Jesus themselves! Jesus = Emmanuel = God with us is there even in the midst of death and darkness! But Jesus has now transformed the darkness into blazing light and death has given way to life!  A world controlled by darkness and death is a hopeless world, a world of pain and struggle – but a world where light and life have overcomes darkness and death is a world of hope, and love and grace and peace!
He is Risen!  He has Risen indeed!
He is Risen!  He has Risen indeed!
He is Risen!  He has Risen indeed!
And when we say that – when we proclaim and shout that from the hilltops and in the valleys we are proclaiming that we stand with the powers of light and life and that we know and assert that ultimately the powers of darkness and death will have no power and be finally completely overcome!
This is why we are all here today; this is why some of us assembled in the dark this morning for the Vigil!  Even though it still appears as though the powers of darkness and death are winning the day in our own time. Today – Easter day 2017 - we proclaim that light and life will prevail in the end and darkness and death will be wholly defeated!  But yet we look around and what do we see?  Rampant hate; active racism and Anti-Semitism; death camps in Chechnya for gay men; gas attacks on innocent children in Syria; desperate refugees looking for a better life and finding the doors slammed in their faces; reckless destruction of our environment for the sake of profits; irrational bombings; both spontaneous and systemic violence; threats and intimidation; and a whole lot of fear!  Fear of course is the most effective tool in the quiver of the darkness and those who would manipulate others and maintain a world ruled over by death use it to great effect!
But when we proclaim that Christ is risen we proclaim that fear has no power and that we refuse to manipulated by fear!  As the darkness is dispelled by the light we can begin to see the faces of all of those others who we are being taught to fear, all those others who are different than us in any number of ways; and low and behold the light allows us to look into their eyes and shows us that they are in fact our brothers and sisters - they are our neighbors whom we are to love as we love ourselves; and even our so-called enemies we can begin recognize as brothers and sisters whom we are also called to love (Matthew 5!)!  To proclaim resurrection is to say NO to fear; NO to hate; NO to judgment; NO to violence of any kind!  To embrace resurrection is to accept God’s love and to start seeing with the eyes of Jesus, and to start walking with the feet of Jesus, and to start reaching out with the arms and hands of Jesus and to start loving with the heart of Jesus!
When we proclaim that Jesus is Risen we proclaim that Love has won and will win in the end!  And when we proclaim that Jesus is risen we affirm that there is always reason to hope.  For no matter how dark the darkness, the light will disperse it completely; and no matter how dead death appears it is not stronger than our risen Lord!
Christ is Risen – He is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!