A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Preaching My Way Into Hope

I have begun to despair lately.  I have come to wonder if there is anything left to say which will have an affect on anyone who does not already agree with the speaker.  We seem so divided, so fearful, so angry.  This week I found myself writing a sermon which ended up being my own attempt to preach my way out of despair and back into hope.  Thought I would share it in case others are feeling similarly.  Here it is:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…(Luke 3:1)”  Thus the gospel reading begins by trumpeting the name of the emperor and follows with a litany of men of power: governors, rulers, high priests.  Contrasted against this rapid fire list of the influential and the commanding, the word of God drops instead into the wilderness.  The word of God comes from the mouth of John, preparing the way for Jesus with a call to repentance, a call to turn in a new direction.   The word of God comes from the wilderness, not the temple made by human hands with ulterior motives.  Not from the high priest whose religion is undermined by benefitting from the ways of the world.  Mention of the wilderness brings forth many associations for people of Israel whose history is punctuated by difficult and dangerous journeys through the wilderness.  The wilderness is often where the children of Abraham encounter God. 

Finding God in the wilderness rather than places of power ought to make some sense to us as well.  After all, we do not come to be followers of Jesus as princes and princesses born into our faith through our ancestry nor by our own power.  We come as children of God by God’s grace, by God’s love, welcomed home from our own wilderness wanderings and taken in and adopted by the power of love not inheritance or might.  Sometimes we seem to forget this, calling this a Christian nation as though we have inherited some special treatment and privileges, as though the history of this nation is pristine and without sin.  We are called to the wilderness, to turn away from worldly powers, away from prestige.  We are called to repentance not recollections of some supposed glory days but remembering our own hardships and learned humility, recalling who we are, the wildernesses of our past, and what we have learned.  

This time of year is a time of waiting.  We are waiting for God to show up.  Don’t get me wrong, I trust God is all around us and within us.  Yet my trust is hazy at times as it is felt dimly through the clamor of day to day life and hammered repeatedly by the despair,violence, and selfishness present in our world.  I long for God to show up in a way obvious even to my hazy sensibilities.  This time of year such longing fits with the season.  We are awaiting God’s presence through a babe born in circumstances both extraordinary and oh so ordinary.  We are waiting for God to show up in new and unexpected places in that time when all things will be made new.  We are waiting for God to show up in our lives in a way which will renew our faith, our trust.  But we are called to do more than just wait.  We are also called to turn in repentance.  We are called to turn toward those who speak truth whatever they look like.  Then it was camel’s hair clothing now it might be a hijab, a hoodie, or someone drenched in dirt and grime from a desperate journey fleeing a shattered homeland.  We are called to turn to the wilderness of the powerless, the impoverished, the broken, the wounded, the outcast, and hear their voices as fellow adopted children of God.

If we listen to words bandied about on our televisions and computers, in our neighborhoods and stores, by politicians and reporters we will hear much fear.  Certainly there is much in this time which is uncertain.  But fear is rarely the source of good decision making.  Time and again throughout scriptures God calls us to “be not afraid.”  So, this season let us pray God will show up in a way that will rebuild our trust, our faith, and our hope.  Let us pray this is not a trust which sits back and does nothing.  Better yet, let us repent of apathetic trust, blind trust, trust which washes our hands of all responsibility beyond a few mumbled prayers.  Let us repent and pray for a renewed trust and faithfulness which sees brothers and sisters not threats, which breathes in hope and steps forth in compassion, a stalwart faith which stands, struggles and fights alongside those in need.  Let us pray for God to show up in the midst of our waiting and kindle within us anew a faith which lives out love.  Come Lord Jesus.  May it be so.  Amen.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Religion Interfering With Altruism?

There has been some mention, lately, of a study which showed children who are raised without religion tend to be more altruistic.  The scientific validity of this study is uncertain but to me this is beside the point.  The undertaking of such a study combined with the response to it calls to attention the number of people for whom this study would simply verify their own experiences with Christianity.  For example, those who have been wounded by religion and those whose only exposure to religion is hate mongers who fill the media with the portrayal of an angry, judgmental, anti-homosexual, anti-sex, misogynistic, God with a persecution complex.  For such people the idea religion might interfere with the development of altruism might seem rather obvious.  As a person familiar with both the good and the bad of the church,  even for me several reasons why religion might hamper altruism immediately sprang to mind. 

It seems to me the underlying problem which has created a church with a reputation quite out of tune with “they will know we are Christians by our love” is a view of Christianity which emphasizes obedience to God before love of neighbor.  To many there seems to be no problem with such an approach but to me this seems highly unhealthy.  If God is the God of love then obedience to God would be love of neighbor and anything which looks like blind obedience would be contrary to that love.  In fact any God worthy of the label “God of love” and worthy of our faith would demand of us such a great commitment to loving one another that we would stand up even to God, for the sake of our brothers and sisters.  

There are even scriptures which support this idea.  Moses stands up to God for the sake of the people.  Abraham stands up to God multiple times for the sake of Sodom.  The Syrophoenician woman stands up to Jesus for the sake of her daughter.  True, there are other scriptures which seem to demand blind obedience.  But, if I have to choose between scriptures which portray God as a petty, fickle, arrogant jerk who demands obedience or God as one who calls us to stand up for justice, mercy, and peace then I think I will go with the latter.  Because any God worthy of faith would rather we turn our back on God than we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.  God is God.  God can take it.  Our brothers and sisters need us.  They need us to be a stalwart, persistent, and passionate voice for justice, mercy, and peace.  They need our love.  They need our action.  And, for the sake of all that is holy, they need us so committed to love we would fight with all that is in us against the remotest possibility our religion might get in the way of teaching our children things like altruism and compassion.  

Let us set aside defensiveness in favor of introspection and repentance.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reformation and Cultural Amnesia

In honor of Reformaion Day, I thought I would share my Reformation Sunday sermon.  Happy Reformation Day/Halloween/All Saints/Dia de Los Muertos!

“Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.’“ (John 8:31-33)

There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this passage, either of which paint it in somewhat of a humorous light.  Possibly, Jewish leaders have forgotten their history and have disconnected themselves from the story of Israel as slaves in Egypt. Or, when Jesus talks about being slaves, they are thinking about their cultural context in which many worship and sacrifice to idols.  Sometimes enslaved can refer to being enslaved to idols.  Even in this interpretation these children of Abraham are practicing some selective memory since the history of Israel is not without its ventures into idolatry.  

As Americans, we have no room to scoff at these Jewish leaders’ historical amnesia.  The land of the free and the home of the brave is also the land of the slave and the ransacked home of the victims of nearly genocidal systematic violence.  The “good ole days” tended to be far from good for minorities and paradoxically perilous for both foreign immigrants and those original natives of this land.  Yet we often practice cultural amnesia by lauding ourselves as fiercely independent pioneers who pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps completely ignoring all those shoeless folks we ground under our boot heels in the process.   The church practices similar selective forgetfulness as we too often speak harshly of other faiths and ignore  our own dark history from the crusades to our own Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism.  

And so it is not a stretch to hearken to the words of today’s gospel as if they were spoken to us.  Jesus says, ”If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31) Lest we too protest we are slaves to none and nothing Jesus elaborates, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) Even if we succumb to cultural amnesia and blindness to the contemporary sins of our nation, and the harmful actions of the church throughout history, personal failings confront us more directly.  Who among us can even truly live up to the most essential tenet of our faith to love our neighbors as ourselves?  Who among us can say, without a glimmer of a doubt, our beliefs and the actions based on those beliefs are right? 

Jesus tells us the truth will set us free.  The truth of God’s love as revealed through Jesus, the truth of forgiveness and grace, sets us free to live and love boldly.  We are set free from past mistakes.  We are set free from concern for right belief.  Freedom means we let go of concern for our own salvation, leaving such in the loving hands of God, so that we might see and serve our neighbor in need.  

Sometimes I despair at hearing Christians say heartless things in order to justify self-righteousness or inaction in the face of suffering.  Freedom feels no need for self-righteousness because all has been made right through grace.   Freedom does not seek an excuse for loving less because there is no need for excuses, no one keeping score, only forgiveness and growing in love. 

We will all make mistakes.  We will all fall short some times.  Martin Luther certainly did by falling into bigotry against Jewish people.  But even this horrible sin did not define all of who he was.  He was also a person with a particular message to deliver in a particular time in history.  Just as all of us are.  We each have a message to bring.  Not all of our audiences will be so large as Luther’s, nor will we all use words. But we are free of our failings, free of our strivings, free to be a message of love delivered in our unique way in our unique moment in place and time.