Monday, November 20, 2017

Playing It Safe

Matthew 25:14-30
November 19, 2017

I read a story in the Christian Century just recently about a church in Chicago that, along with two other churches, invested in an affordable housing development in the 1970’s. They put money and sweat equity into creating this housing, and in the last few years that development was sold for a large sum of money. The church received a big, BIG dollar amount in the sale. While there many needs and demands for the money they received from the sale, the governing board of the church went a different way. They made a bold decision. They took $160,000 and divided it into $500 checks for every active, attending member to use for God’s purposes in the world. There were no dotted lines to sign. There was no fine print. Each active member of the church was given $500 dollars to use in any way he or she saw fit to serve God in the world.
Before this took place, the church had been working through a study on spiritual discernment and decision making; and the day the checks were passed out, the pastor preached a sermon using this passage on this parable of the talents from Matthew’s gospel. According to the writer, there was anxiety on the part of the church elders. Certainly, that money was needed for other things. It was a windfall that could have helped their overall budget enormously. Giving away $160,000 without any accountability was seemingly nuts. It was a risky and pretty insane thing to do. They could be throwing away $160,000! But as the writer put it; that’s how it can feel following Jesus, living the gospel and being a disciple: it feels risky, vulnerable, and nuts in light of the world’s values.
I do not have a series of happy endings for this story. I don’t know what happened next. It would be wonderful to report that members of the church took their $500 and made amazing ministries happen – maybe they did. But I don’t know that. The happy endings are still in the making. And it’s quite possible that not all the endings will be happy. It’s realistic to believe that some of the folks who got the money just gave it back in the offering plate or spent it on something else or are still trying to figure out what to do with their share of the abundance.
Abundance is at the heart of this parable in Matthew’s gospel. The word “talent” is deceiving. It sounds like something small. It is easy to equate it with a gift; such as I have a talent for cooking or writing or gardening, etc. But in that context one talent was equal to fifteen years worth of pay. If you make $25,000 a year and multiply that by 15, that’s $375,000 dollars in one talent! That’s just one talent, and that was a fortune! Now think about how much money the slave who was entrusted with five talents was given. This master was not leaving his servants with scarcity. He was leaving them with abundance; an abundance of money, an abundance of fortune. The master entrusted them to do with this abundance as they saw fit. And as the writer of the story I told at the beginning of this sermon wrote, it was never about the money, it was about the risk.
What would the slaves do with the abundance they were given? What risks would they take? Would they take a chance and make more? Would they hoard what they were given? We see both in this story. The first two slaves took the talents they were given and traded them. The slave given the five talents, traded them and made five more. The slave given the two talents, traded them and made two more. But the third slave was a different story. The third slave was afraid. We could argue that the third slave did not waste the talent he was given. He did not lose it or throw it away. He was not profligate with the talent. He did nothing illegal or immoral with money that was not his. The problem was that he did nothing. He was so afraid of losing it, that he buried it instead. He dug a hole in the ground, put the talent in there and waited until the master returned. Surely the master wouldn’t be upset with him. No, he would have no more than the talent he was entrusted with to return to the master, but he would still have that talent.
But that isn’t how the parable goes, is it? When the master returned, he congratulated the first slave for making five more talents.
“Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
He did the same for the second slave for making two more talents. But when the third slave came to the master, bearing the original talent, the slave said,
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
If the third slave thought that this would be well received by the master, he was wrong. The master was furious.
“You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Huh? To say that is harsh response would be an understatement. There’s so many things happening in this parable, it is challenging to unpack them all. Why did the slave assume these things about the master? Perhaps they were true, but we have no way of knowing what his assumption was based on. How interesting that what the slave assumes becomes the truth, whether it was initially true or not.
It also seems strange for Jesus to tell a parable which ends with someone who has much getting even more. That seems to go against the idea of reversal which is so prominent in the rest of this gospel and the others. However, one commentator urged preachers and teachers to see this parable through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, and in the beatitudes, those who are blessed are the least of these. The slaves who took a chance with what was entrusted to them may be the least of these, receiving blessing upon blessing.
Ultimately, I return to the quote I used earlier, when it comes to the parable of the talents, it was never about the money, it was about the risk.
Some commentators and scholars encourage sermons on this parable to be reminders about not squandering the gifts that we are given. Others urge the preacher to remember that we have unique opportunities to be a prophetic voice – to speak out against injustice. I cannot help but think that when it comes to this parable, all of the above apply, because ultimately it is about not playing it safe. That’s the true sin that the third slave committed. He played it safe. True, he did nothing illegal or immoral. He toed the line and walked the straight and narrow when it came to keeping safe his master’s money. But if it was about the risk, not the money, then he gravely committed the sin of playing it safe. He was afraid to step out in faith. He was afraid to risk doing more. He was afraid to try. He played it safe.
How often, as a preacher, as a teacher, as a disciple, have I played it safe? How often have I feared more the judgment of others more than the judgment of God? How often have I squandered my unique opportunities to further the gospel because I was too afraid of reproach or failure? How often have I played it safe?
But living the gospel is never safe. Following Jesus, being a disciple is always risky. Faith is not a certainty. If it were, then it wouldn’t be faith. To be a disciple, to love with your whole heart, to follow Jesus, is to risk everything. It is not about playing it safe. Think about that church in Chicago. They took a huge gamble by giving each member that money. There are no guarantees, no assured outcomes, no definitive happy endings. But they did it anyway, because to risk in that way felt to them like what it means to be believers.
The coolest way to end this sermon would be to tell you to see Lori this week and pick up your check. But that’s not going to happen. Sorry. But I will encourage you to examine how you are living – I’m not calling you to look for sins. I’m calling you to look at how you are playing it safe when it comes to your faith. How are you avoiding risks when it comes to living the gospel?
I read a quote this week that went something like this,
“The saddest thing would be to do the same thing for 75 or 80 years and call it a life.”
Life and love and faith is risky business. Step out in faith. Take a leap of hope. Walk in trust that God is walking beside you. But whatever you do, don’t play it safe.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Our Glorious God -- Soli Deo Gloria

I Corinthians 10:23-33
October 29, 2017/Reformation Sunday

            “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”           
            “It is better to think of the church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church.”
           “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”
            “Thus, let us drink beer!” These quotes are not from who you would expect; royalty such as Henry VIII or from an ancestor of Anheuser Busch. No, these quotes are attributed to Martin Luther. Martin Luther, whose image can be found on the insert in our bulletin today; who’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle, was the metaphorical opening bell for the Reformation that changed the course of history in Europe and around the world.
            Martin Luther was a theologian, teacher, preacher; he wrote hymns, prayers and committed his entire life to calling the church back to its true vocation of preaching the gospel and being disciples of Jesus the Christ. He also seemed to like beer. Actually, that is no surprise to me. He was German, and I don’t mean this to be a generalized stereotype in anyway, but good beers come out of Germany and Germans are known for liking beer.
            Again, that’s a stereotype. But I come from a long line of Germans. In saying that you would think that I come from a long line of beer drinking Germans, but I don’t. Actually, I do. I don’t but I do. I just didn’t know that I do until my adulthood. My Grampa Busse was a Lutheran pastor, raised in a German household who brewed its own beer. Beer was a common part of their lives apparently. However I grew up knowing only my tee totaling grandfather. I never saw him drink a beer. My parents do not drink beer. There was no beer in our home. I do not know if my grampa railed against drinking in his preaching, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I do know that he did not partake… until he was older. Then he seemed to return to his roots. He would have a beer now and again. That does not sound like a problem or an issue, except as I have heard the story, he was enjoying one at a restaurant and a parishioner saw him. The parishioner was not just upset at witnessing this, the parishioner felt betrayed. This must have seemed the ultimate hypocrisy. Pastor Busse, who did not drink, was drinking a beer.
            “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”
            Paul was not writing about drinking beer in this passage from his first letter to the church in Corinth. He was writing about what people were eating: specifically meat that may or may not have been sacrificed to idols. Jewish dietary laws would have restricted buying meat from the common marketplace because one would not know the origin of this meat. Was it from an idol sacrifice? Was it slaughtered properly according to the Law? For an orthodox Jew, buying and consuming meat from the marketplace would have been too risky. You might break a dietary rule without even realizing it or intending to do so.
            But Paul, who was once a zealot for Judaism, had reversed his thinking completely. “All things are lawful,” he wrote. I understand that to mean that he saw all food as being given by God, and because he was saved through grace in Jesus the Christ, those strict dietary laws to which he had once adhered bound him no longer. So he could eat … and drink … whatever he chose. It was not a sin nor sinful. But Paul did not place a period after the word lawful.
            “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.”
            It was absolutely fine for a follower of Christ to eat meat from the marketplace, even if that meat was offered to an idol. It was completely okey dokey and hunky dory for a believer to go to the home of an unbeliever and eat whatever was served. But it was not okay if doing so caused offense to another believer. It was not okay if it harmed the faith of another. I don’t mean to pick on my grandfather. I am certainly a bundle of hypocrisy myself, and I do not have a problem with the fact that he drank a beer. But I wonder if drinking that beer was akin to Paul’s example of eating meat sacrificed to idols. If drinking a beer or eating suspect meat was not beneficial to another, if it did not build up another, then it was not the right thing to do. It was not breaking a law, but it was causing harm to another believer. While what you eat or drink may not bother your conscience, if it bothers the conscience of another, then don’t do it.
            Yet even with this, Paul knew that his liberty to eat what he chose was sure, and what was more important was that whatever he consumed, he did so with thankfulness. But whatever you eat or whatever you drink, Paul told them, do so giving thanks to God. In fact, do everything for the glory of God. All we have, all we eat, all we drink, all we are comes from God, therefore whatever we do, do it for God’s glory.
            To God alone be the glory is the fifth and final sola or emphasis of the reformers. As I understand these emphases, they were a reminder to the reformers and to the church about what was truly important, about what truly mattered, what truly saved: grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, to God alone be the glory.
            It seems to me that what Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand was that what truly mattered was not what you ate or drank, but that you ate and drank in a spirit of thankfulness. The substance of your meal was not what was important; it was that you ate giving glory to God. In fact, that was what mattered all the time. Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you say, you do it with the full understanding that our glorious God is the foundation of it all, and you give thanks and praise to God alone.
            What truly matters: while I know that the Reformation was not predicated on that one statement, certainly that thought was at its heart. Luther was aghast at some of the practices of the Church: selling indulgences as a means of salvation being a primary one. I would not be a good protestant or a Presbyterian if I did not mention idolatry in the course of this. Idolatry is not just a worshipping of a false god; idolatry distracts us from God. It keeps us apart from God and separate from God. Idolatry makes us forget what truly matters. When Luther nailed his 95 debating points to that door, he wanted to debate and discuss what truly mattered to those seeking to follow Jesus. He wanted the church to get back to what was important, to worshipping not its human made practices and traditions, but instead giving glory to God alone.
            I read an essay by Christian ethicist and theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, which stated that on its 500th anniversary the Reformation is over. It is done. The reforms which needed to happen in what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church have happened. What are we protesting? What are we reforming? The sharp differences that once marked the chasm between Catholics and Protestants are no longer so sharp. The chasm is being bridged. To some, it is not so much a chasm but a shallow dip in our common ground.
            I guess this means that both Protestants and Catholics alike now fully get what matters, what is important. We aren’t just talking the talk of the five solas, we are walking the walk. Yet I wonder if a new reformation needs to happen; not between Protestants and Catholics, but between Protestants and Protestants; between American Protestants and American Protestants in particular. Regardless of what denomination we claim, our lists of rules and regulations are numerous, and our dogma is strong. Yet, is that dogma a distraction? Have our rules, our differences in worship and sacrament, become idols? Do we need, require a new reformation because we have forgotten what matters, and we are not doing everything to the glory of God alone?
            I do not have a specific answer to these questions, and I am not the first to ask them. But I do believe we need to wrestle with them, pray about them, and pray most fervently for one another – especially those with whom we radically disagree. I wonder if in these strange and trying days, we are being called to reconsider and remember what matters and what is important. Perhaps we have forgotten. Perhaps we have lost our way. But the good news is that our glorious God is the God of unconditional love and another chance. The good news is that we never run out of chances or opportunities to turn around, to change course and recommit ourselves to doing everything for the glory of God alone. Thanks be to our glorious God! Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

On Faith -- Sola Fide

Philippians 3:4b-12
October 15, 2017

            I read a story accredited to preacher and teacher, Fred Craddock. He told about a family of Christian missionaries living in China on the eve of Communism. They were told by the military that they would have to leave the country, and they could bring no more than 200 pounds worth of their belongings with them. They were given only a few hours to gather their things. The mother and father spent the next hours frantically going through their household trying to determine what they should take and what they shouldn’t. Should they take great-grandmother’s vase? It was a family heirloom. What about this item or that piece of clothing? Finally, they had packed everything they could take. They had weighed everything they packed. They met the 200 pound weight limit on the money. When the military returned to take them out of the country, they asked,
            “Do your belongings weigh no more than 200 pounds?”
            The parents answered with a determined affirmative. Then they were asked,
            “But did you weigh your children?”
            What?! Weigh the children?! The children were considered part of the belongings?! Forget everything else they were going to bring! If they have to include the children in the 200 pound weight limit, then the children must come first and foremost. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is as precious. There are no family heirlooms that are more important, more valuable. If all they could take out of China was their children, then so be it; the rest was just rubbish.
How true or colorfully embellished this story may be, Craddock described the missionaries as having a “wake up moment.” They woke up to what really mattered. They woke up to what was most vital, most important. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else was important. It was their wake up moment.
Paul seems to be describing his wake up moment in these verses from his letter to the church in Philippi. Paul was reminding the folks there of who he used to be, of his pedigree of righteousness if you will.
“If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish.”
Rubbish is a nice, gentle word. It sounds like something said by the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey. But rubbish is an extremely cleaned up translation of the Greek. It is a word that is only found in this verse, and essentially means the stuff you don’t want to step in out in the barnyard. It is excrement. Paul was not mincing his words or trying to be delicate. What he had before, everything he was before – not only a good Jew, a righteous Jew, but a Pharisee; everything he held dear before under the Law, all of that he now understood to be RUBBISH!!!
This was Paul’s wake up moment. His righteousness did not come from the Law, but only through faith in Christ. It was not a righteousness that he could manufacture on his own, but one that came from God based on faith.
On faith; sola fide or faith alone is the emphasis of our worship this morning. It reminded the reformers – and us – that our salvation is not something we can earn, but something that is given through love and grace. Because that is the emphasis, I understand why this passage was suggested as the scripture for this particular sola. Paul made it clear to the Philippians that he woke up to the reality that his adherence to the Law could not save him; that nothing he did saved him. It was only faith given to him by God that saved him. And through that faith he grew in his knowledge, in his relationship with Christ Jesus. I don’t think it is far-fetched of me to claim that Paul was smug in his former self and identity. He was smug in his confidence in the flesh. He was smug in his zeal and in the status his birth into the tribe of Benjamin gave him. His confidence in all of those things was high, but when he came to know Jesus, he awoke to what really mattered. He awoke to the truth that salvation was through faith alone; sola fide.
So I get the choice of this passage. It is through faith alone – faith given to us as a gift by our gracious God – that we are saved. Everything else is rubbish. Yet, if I were to choose a passage, I probably would have looked to Hebrews.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
I would have looked more for a definition of faith, for examples of faith. It’s not that this passage from Philippians doesn’t make its point about sola fide, it’s that if I am preaching this sermon to me, I need encouragement for a faith that often falters. I need reminders of those who have gone before, on those who stepped out in faith, trusting that God would be there with them. I need examples of those who have taken it on faith that God keeps God’s promises. I crave stories of people who through faith have done wondrous things, who have refused to give up or give in. I need stories and examples and reminders that utilize all the prepositions that go with faith: on faith, in faith, through faith, because of faith, etc. To be honest, I’m not so interested in discussions of justification by faith alone, as I am in finding reasons to keep on going, to stay faithful.
This isn’t because of any particular personal crisis of faith that I am having. It’s just that everyday there seems to be another reason to lose hope. The world and its sorrows batter our faith. There is suffering that cannot be explained away by saying “there is a reason for everything” or that “God has a plan.” What reason?! What plan?!
The suffering of the world is overwhelming to say the least; and for me – and I know for you – part of being faithful is feeling the call to address that suffering, to help alleviate it, to reach out to those who are hurting and alone and afraid, and embody the love of Christ to them.
Yet it is so hard, so difficult. I find that my prayer most days is “I believe, help my unbelief.” As many times as my faith seems strong enough to move mountains, there are equally as many times as it seems to teeter on the edge of disappearing altogether. So, as much as I affirm sola fide, I also want, need, long for, crave examples of faith embodied, faith in action.
I received a strange, unexpected example of this from a completely unlikely source: a sitcom called “Mom.” For those of you who have not seen it, it is a funny, real, sometimes risqué, show about a mother and daughter who are both recovering alcoholics. Much of the show centers on going to AA meetings and dealing with life sober, of dysfunctional families, and the patterns – good and bad – that are repeated and passed down from one generation to the next. But it also talks about forgiveness and letting go of what you cannot control and prayer. In one episode, the older mom, played by Allison Janney, has a relapse. She hurt her back, had to go on painkillers, and they became too much for her. She not only abused them, she started drinking again. Confronted by her daughter and her friends, she has to get sober all over again. Her friends stay with her as she detoxes. But detoxing is rubbish. In one scene, she is imagining or hallucinating that the two sides of herself are talking to her. The devilish, bad girl side is trying to convince her to drink again. She’ll be fine. She can handle it this time. No problem. The good girl side, who looks more like Glynda the Good Witch than an angel, argues for her to stay sober. It was this side of her that worked to repair her relationship with her daughter and her family, etc. Bonnie, the character Janney plays, is arguing aloud with both of them, and finally she cries out,
“Somebody please just help me. God, please just help me.”
And God does. Jesus, or a man who looks remarkably like what Hollywood and American Christianity thinks Jesus looks like with long hair, a beard and a robe, shows up. He sends the two warring sides of her away, and just sits with her. No words are spoken. No judgments are made. He is just there with here, meeting her where she is, staying with her through the worst of the night.
I know, it is a silly example. But in the midst of this show where you would not expect to see Jesus show up, Jesus does. I admit that when I watched that episode, my eyes started to water. That moment did not restore my faith in humanity; there are far better examples of people caring for other people that would do that. But it reminded me that faith is not about believing that God waves a wand and makes everything perfect. Faith is about believing and trusting that God shows up.
Through faith, we can do more than we ever thought we could. In faith, we step out into the world every day, trying to live as God calls us to live, and we take it on faith that God shows up. God shows up for us and calls us to show up for others. This isn’t something we can prove or chart or systematically analyze. It takes faith alone to live in the trust and hope that God shows up.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Word of God -- Sola Scriptura -- Scripture Alone

II Timothy 1:1-7, 3:14-4:5
October 8, 2017

            “Take out your Bibles.”
When my parents were kids, one of the things they did in Sunday school and in church was Bible Drills. I cannot tell you if “take out your Bibles” were the exact words used to get them started, but if not, something similar was most likely said. In these Bible drills, the kids, including my parents, would be quizzed on Bible trivia.
            For example: how many books are there in the Old Testament? How many are there in the New? They would also be given a book, a chapter and a verse, and have to find it as quickly as possible. So I imagine they would hear the words, “take out your Bibles.”
            I remember having some emphasis put on learning Bible verses when I was a kid, but I don’t remember Bible drills like the ones my parents had. The focus in my Sunday school classes and in Vacation Bible School was on stories. But I took a Bible survey class in seminary, in which the purpose was reading and studying the entire Bible in a semester. Our first quiz was to write out the books of the Bible in order and spell them correctly. That quiz was weighted in our favor to help us when we bombed some of the other quizzes which were extraordinarily hard. I admit that there were a few quizzes that I bombed. And just a year or two ago, Ben Williams at Wesley United Methodist Church gave me a mnemonic device for remembering the order of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians: Giants Eat Peas and Carrots. I always struggled to keep those four books in the correct order, but now I struggle no longer, because along with the blood of Englishmen, giants eat peas and carrots.
            There is debate over the value of teaching the Bible in these ways. I understand why my professor wanted us to know the books of the Bible in order. It was more than just giving us a head start on our grade; knowing the books in order helped us find our way through it easier. If you thought Thessalonians was in the Old Testament or that Nehemiah was in the New, you were going to have a hard time keeping up.  And I think there is a spiritual discipline to learning scripture verses. I have had confirmation classes do that. Each week, I would challenge my confirmation kids to memorize verses as a way to keep them reading the Bible. If you are memorizing verses, you are opening up the Bible and reading it.
            But memorization does not necessarily lead to critical thinking; nor does understanding the outline of scripture lead to digging into the depth and breadth of meaning that is found in our sacred book. What does it mean to say that our Bible is a sacred book in the first place? What did Paul mean when he wrote to Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God?” What do we imply when we refer to the Bible as the Word of God?
           There are more answers to my questions than I have time for in this sermon or in a thousand sermons, for that matter. However, questions about what it means for scripture to be divinely inspired are as relevant today as they were when Timothy was beginning his ministry.
            For the reformers, putting an emphasis on scripture alone – sola scriptura – was a response to the church’s teaching of the tradition of the church over and above the teachings of scripture. One of the great gifts that Martin Luther gave to the common person of his day was the translation of the Holy Bible into the German language. Suddenly it went from being in Latin – a language only the most learned, upper class, and often priestly people could read, to something that folks with a basic education could read. It put God in the hands of the people. I call this a gift. Some might call it a curse. But for the reformers, like Luther, like Calvin and Zwingli, etc., scripture was our primary source for learning about God. The traditions of the church may help us in many ways – but they did not outweigh scripture. They were not more authoritative than scripture. Scripture was the inspired Word of God; therefore it was scripture alone, not the traditions of the church that provided the foundations of belief.
            But what does Scripture tell us? Paul told Timothy that,
            “scripture is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
            I agree with all of the above, but I know that I differ greatly from many of my colleagues on what I think scripture is teaching us, and in what comes into my mind and heart when I say that scripture is the inspired Word of God. I do not take the Bible literally. If I did, I could not stand in front of you this morning. I do not think the Bible is inerrant. I think that it was written by human beings, who were trying to discern, just as we are, what God was and is doing in the world – through them and through other people. And I do not discount that other religions have scriptures and writings that are equally as sacred to them as ours is to us. I recognize that for the controversial statement that it is; and I know that it is unfair of me to say something like that in the pulpit, because you have no chance at this moment to respond. Feel free to see me after worship.
            I also do not believe that the Bible is a historical text. If it were, we could not preach on it and study it and gain new understandings from it week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. No one, even one who takes the Bible completely and utterly literally, presents the Word of God without interpretation. It is not historical, it is a living thing. I know that sounds strange, but bear with me. The Word of God is alive – not in an inanimate object, but in our reading of it, our understanding of it, our living of it. This book is not so much the history of God, as it is the story of God and a particular branch of God’s family. But that branch is part of a much larger tree. That branch includes us. We are still living the story. It seems to me that in some ways, we are the Word of God. And if there is some truth to that, then that is an awesome, and perhaps awful, responsibility.
            It is a responsibility, because just as living faithfully requires mindfulness and intention, so does living with the recognition that we represent the Word of God to others. We embody the Word of God in what we say and what we do. I can tell you right now that most days I am a poor embodiment of God’s Word indeed.
            When I say that we are the embodiment of God’s Word, that doesn’t mean that we show the world how good we are at following all the rules – the Ten Commandments and any others we may find in scripture. Rules are important, but just following the fules for the rules’ sake is not so much about righteousness as it is self-righteousness. No, I think being the living Word of God means that we show the rest of the world that we are broken people, but that we know it and we repent when we fail and sin, and we show grace and love and mercy to others when they do the same. I think it means that we try to live out Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner. I believe that being God’s Word in the world is more about walking the walk of faith, or perhaps it’s really limping the limp of faith, than it is talking the talk of faith. That does not mean that we are not called to share the Good News. We are. But if we have received the Good News, if we have felt its power and been overwhelmed by its grace, then just talking about it is not enough. We have to show it and share it and live it and do it and be it.
            Paul began this letter by telling Timothy to rekindle the gift of God that is within him through the laying on his hands, and through remembering the faith that he inherited from his mother and from his grandmother, Eunice and Lois. May this be a moment for our faith to be rekindled, to be stirred up. Think about the shoulders you stand on, the people who have gone before you, who taught you what it meant to be faithful, who taught you how to live in love and grace. One person whose shoulders I stand on is my Gramma Trudy. Who are you thinking about? Whose shoulders do you stand on?
Think about the people who were the living Word of God to you, then go and do likewise. And take out your Bibles again and again, not only to memorize, but to study and to learn and to be reinspired, so that you may go and do and live and be … the Word of the Lord.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Gift of God -- Sola Gratia -- Grace Alone

Ephesians 2:1-10
October 1, 2017/World Communion Sunday
             I thought I remembered the majority of commercials and ads that Garrison Keillor created on his brilliant radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion”. But I read about one just recently that I either never knew or had completely forgotten. It was for “Mourning Oatmeal.” Mourning as in grieving, not morning as in “morning, y’all!” The tagline to this was “Mourning Oatmeal: it’s like Calvinism in a box.” I guess the reasoning for this kind of ad and this kind of product is that if you were growing up in the harsh winters of the upper Midwest, you would want oatmeal that reminds you of Calvin’s belief that humanity was completely fallen and totally depraved. Why start the day happy and carefree when you’re about to face a world full of cold and snow? So forget that gentle Quaker. Go for Mourning Oatmeal, because it’s like Calvinism in a box.
            Actually, I read about this ad in relation to this passage from Ephesians. It was part of a commentary and the writer compared the first verses of this chapter to Keillor’s oatmeal.
            “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”
            You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived. You were dead following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, and you know who that ruler is? Satan. And it is his rule that is at work among every person who is disobedient. Every single one of us lived that way, we lived according to our flesh; we followed the desires of our flesh and our senses. We were, at the very core of our being, by our very nature, children of wrath, of anger, of sin, of death.
            Here’s your oatmeal.
            But if these opening verses were the essence of Calvin’s theory of total depravity, then the next verses are explications of God’s grace.
            “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
            But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us…. Those words are the preface to every good thing. Our merciful God, because of his love for us, made us alive in his Son, our Christ. God, who is rich in mercy, abundant in mercy, has saved us not because of what we have done, but because of grace! Out of love for us, because of God’s rich mercy, God has saved us by grace, through grace, because of grace. God has shown us kindness through God’s grace. We have done nothing to deserve it, nothing to earn it. It is not because of any of our works, but because it is God’s gift to us. Our God, who is rich in mercy, has given us this great gift, this tremendous gift, this gift that cannot be adequately described in words, God has given us grace.
            And God has not just given us grace; God has saved us through grace. Remember those first verses? We were not just on life support or living half lives. We were dead. We were completely fallen. We were captives to the wages of sin and to the ruler of the air. We had no true life in us. If we got what we deserved, we would have stayed dead. But that is the funny thing about grace. It isn’t what we deserve. That’s why it’s grace. And I think that’s why we struggle with it. We welcome it when it is given to us, but if we’re honest, it’s harder to swallow when it’s offered to others. And what about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “cheap grace?” Is grace just a cure all for whatever we feel like doing?
            Author Michael Horton wrote that he was confronted by Jimmy Swaggart over scripture’s radical gospel of grace. Swaggart told Horton that if he kept trusting in God’s justifying grace that he would just end up living in sin before too long, and then he would lose his salvation and go to hell. Horton wrote that Paul anticipated the religious community of his own time misunderstanding grace in that way as well. If you trust in grace, than you’ll just go out and “live like the dickens.”
            Horton also used an example of Martin Luther. Someone challenged Luther when Luther rediscovered this biblical understanding of justifying grace,
            “If this is true, a person could simply live as he pleased!”
            “Indeed!” Luther answered, “Now what pleases you?”
            As Horton explained, and as other scholars have clarified, grace is not just a cheap cover from God for endless sin. When we receive God’s grace, what pleases us, really pleases us, is living a life that pleases God. That doesn’t mean that we still don’t mess up. But grace opens us – our hearts, our minds, our eyes – to seeing God’s children and God’s world a little more like God sees them. As we receive grace, maybe what pleases us is to be more gracious.
            This is both World Communion Sunday and the first Sunday of October, 2017, the beginning of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. As you have already read in other places, we are dedicating each Sunday this month to one of the Five Solas of the Reformation. The Five Solas are the five emphases that the reformers lifted up: Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, and To God Alone be the Glory. On this day when Christians around the world gather at table to share the bread and the cup, I can talk and talk about grace or I can tell you a story about what I think grace looks like.
            Reporter Steve Hartman does a series for CBS news called On the Road. It is a series of human interest stories that generally make you feel a little bit better about your fellow humans. One of these stories was about a young high school student named Mitchell in El Paso, Texas.
            Mitchell has a developmental disability, but he LOVES basketball! He has always loved basketball, so although he couldn’t really play for his high school team, he was the manager. His coach and the other teammates clearly cherished him, and on the final game of the season, his coach told him to suit up. Mitchell would have been thrilled just being in uniform, but the coach had a surprise for him. Regardless of the score, his coach was going to let him play in the last minute of the game. Mitchell went in and his teammates did everything to help him get a basket, but nothing was working. He would miss the basket or the ball would go out of bounds. The ball went to a player on the other team. And in the last seconds of the game, when the other player was supposed to throw the ball to his teammates, he called Mitchell’s name, threw him the ball and Mitchell shot and scored. The other player, Jonathan, told Hartman that he was raised to treat others as he would want to be treated. So he wanted Mitchell to have a final shot. It was not a game winning shot. Steve Hartman referred to it as a moment of such sportsmanship that left both teams winners. True. But it seems to me, it was also a moment of grace, a moment not just of pleasing humans, but of pleasing God. It was a moment when the people we were created to be shone through.
            Grace alone covers us, lifts us out of death and darkness. It is God’s gift to us out of God’s rich mercy and abundant love. May we live our lives, today and always, in gratitude for that grace, changed by that grace, and showing that grace to others. Now, what pleases us?

            Let all of God’s grace covered children say “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

God Gives Enough

Exodus 16:2-15
September 24, 2017

            I have concluded that if the Israelites that we read about in Exodus were around today, they would make a perfect candidate for a Snickers commercial. You know the commercials I’m referring to: think of the one where a bunch of guys are playing football on a muddy field. Betty White is playing with them. She goes for a pass only to be tackled. Her teammates call a time out and they tell her she’s “playing like Betty White out there.” Her girlfriend runs in from the sidelines and offers her a Snickers bar. One bite and suddenly Betty White is back to being a young man. Now that he’s had a Snickers bar, his hunger is assuaged and he can play ball like he normally does. Tag line: have a Snickers because you’re not you when you’re hungry. 
            Clearly the Israelites were not who they were supposed to be because they were hungry. I don’t know if the current slang word “hangry” was coined out of these Snickers commercials, but that would make sense. Hangry is hungry and angry combined, and if ever there were people who were hungry and angry, it was the Israelites.
            Verse one, which we don’t read, gives us the time frame for the rest of the verses that we do read. It was the fifteenth day of the second month since the Israelites were freed from captivity in Egypt. That means that approximately six weeks had passed since Moses, Aaron and Miriam led the people out of captivity, across the Red Sea into the wilderness. Six weeks and the people were complaining. They were hungry. They were thirsty. They were wondering what Moses had really done to them by bringing them out into this wasteland. What was the point of taking them out of Egypt if only to starve them in the desert? They were promised a Promised Land, but as one commentator put it, the only land they were seeing was sand upon sand upon sand. What provisions they brought with them were dwindling fast, and they were hungry and thirsty and tired. So the murmuring and the complaining began in earnest.
            I am not making light of the Israelites complaint. Nor am I making light of their fears. I imagine they were afraid, perhaps very afraid. They had put their trust in this guy Moses to lead them out of Pharaoh’s slavery, and now they were wondering whether that was a mistake. It is funny how fear and hunger and doubt play tricks on your memory. Captivity under Pharaoh was brutal. They were worked mercilessly; for many of them they were worked literally to death. They were starved and beaten. They had no freedom. They had no reason to hope. They had no reason to believe that their future held anything but more of the same.
            But if you were dropped into the reading of this passage without any knowledge of what had come before, you would think from their telling that their lives in Egypt were an ongoing delight. They were not starving in Egypt; indeed they sat by the fleshpots and had their fill of bread. Slavery under Pharaoh sounds like paradise on earth, a return to the Garden!
            But it wasn’t. We know that. The Israelites knew that. But the evil you know is better than the one you don’t, and I imagine the Israelites were terrified of the potential unknown evils they would soon find themselves in. Would they actually starve to death here in this wasteland? Would they be led out of Egypt only to be abandoned? Should they have trusted Moses and Aaron in the first place?
            Trust is at the heart of this passage. The Israelites placed their trust in Moses and Aaron, and they complained to and against them. But Moses told the people that when they complained they were really complaining against the Lord. It was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt, and it would be the Lord who would provide for them. How would the Lord provide? By raining bread from heaven to be gathered in the morning and quails in the evening for meat at their nightly meal.
            Considering what the congregation of the Israelites had already seen and experienced, this strange sounding response should have come as no surprise. But perhaps some of them were hoping for a little more. I don’t mean to sound ungracious, but if I had been among their midst, I might have thought – bread good, quail good, but would some fresh fruit have been a problem?
            Think too about how God provided the manna and the quail. With the exception of the sixth day, when they were allowed to gather enough to provide for two days, they were given just enough. Hoarding or saving could not happen because the manna would spoil. And have you ever eaten quail? It’s a good meat, but there’s not enough on any one bird for more than one meal. It’s pretty small; tasty, but small. Manna and quail; God gave them just enough.
            Why did God not give them more? Why did God not give them an abundance that they could store, save up, hoard? The obvious answer is because God wanted them to trust God each day for what they needed. If they were able to store and save, it’s quite possible they would have begun to count more on themselves and their own abilities than on God. When they were forced every day to rely on God for everything that they needed to survive, they had no other choice but to trust.
            The Israelites’ time in the wilderness was a time to learn trust in God. It would a hard lesson, and one that would need to be relearned over and over again – in their remaining years in the wilderness and beyond. But it was also a time of formation. Remember the Snickers tagline: You’re not you when you’re hungry. The Israelites were not yet who they were, who they were supposed to be, not just because they were hungry, but because they were still being formed, being called, being shaped into who God created them to be.
            I may be wrong, but I think this may be the first instance when the Israelites are called a congregation. They are not referred to only as a people or as a family, but a congregation. They are gathered together, called together by God for God. Their time in the wilderness will form them as a congregation, as God’s people. It will shape them, test them, try them, and teach them. They would be called to trust God completely with their entire selves. It was a time to make them who they were supposed to be.
            When it came to trusting God, the Israelites did not always pass the test. I can’t point a finger in judgment though, because neither do I. Lately I’ve been reading articles on financial wellness, and according to the articles I am very sick indeed. Part of what it means to be financially well is to have cushions of savings to fall back on in difficult times. Well. That’s easy to say, but much harder to do. I know I’m not alone in this. And there is nothing that tests my trust in God more than money. I have said it before that when it comes to that side of life, I lead from a place of scarcity rather than abundance; meaning that I am convinced more that disaster lies ahead rather than I trust in God’s care. I forget very quickly how much I have. I have no sense of gratitude; no feeling of contentment or peace. It’s always fear, fear, fear. When fear drives me, I want to fall back on hoarding and tightly clenched fists. Generosity and stewardship and joy take a back seat when fear is driving the car.
            And if this is true for me, for any individual, how is it true for a congregation? I am not speaking only in terms of money and finances; I am speaking in terms of fear. How is our collective memory distorted when it comes to the “good old days?” The good old days of the church, the good old days of society and culture, etc?
            When I first began studying this passage for today, I was thinking of us being stuck in the wilderness of limbo – where is God calling us to go? What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be? So I initially wanted to address the fear that we may be feeling, something that we have been doing for a while now. But then I thought that maybe we need to be thinking ahead to the time when the Israelites were about to cross over into the Promised Land. At first, the Israelites clung to God. They held tightly to the lessons they learned in the wilderness. Their trust was high. Their confidence was higher. But time passed and things changed. Life settled down. They went from judges who rose up to lead when there was a need, a crisis, to demanding a king; which was a direct sign that they were trusting more in human leadership than in God. The wilderness became a dim memory. It did not turn out well.
            I’m not saying that our upcoming move is to the Promised Land. Nor do I want to dampen the spirit of hope and excitement that I’m feeling, and I hope you are all beginning to feel as well. But no matter where we reside, no matter how large or small our congregation may be, we still need to trust that God is leading us each day. We still need to trust that God is providing for that day’s needs. We need to keep learning lessons in trust, and have faith that God gives enough. God gives enough; enough for today, enough for today, enough for today. Have faith. Have trust. Have hope. God gives enough. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Settling Accounts

Matthew 18:21-35
September 17, 2017

            In the opening of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie: The Curse of the Black Pearl – which is also the best Pirates of the Caribbean movie – Elizabeth Swann, the lead female role stands in a tightly corseted, fashion forward dress. Then and now, fashion forward means that she is uncomfortable and can’t breathe. She is so uncomfortable and so unable to breathe that she faints and falls off the side of this large tower of the fort she’s standing on into the sea below. Captain Jack Sparrow – who is the lead role, the lead pirate and the lead everything in the movie – is being questioned by two soldiers as to his purpose for being at the fort, and he and the soldiers see her fall. He asks the soldiers if they are going to save the young lady. Neither of the royal navy’s finest can swim but the pirate can, so he dives in after her, gets her out of the fashion forward dress which is weighing her down, and her pulls her back to land. Once they are both out of the water and she is breathing and standing again, the two are surrounded. Elizabeth is quickly pulled into the arms of her father, the governor, and Captain Jack Sparrow is held at gunpoint by a dozen soldiers for the crime of being a pirate.
            Elizabeth speaks up for him because he just saved her life. But his rescue of her will not be enough to keep him from the gallows. A pirate is a pirate. They put his hands in manacles, which seem to be an early form of handcuffs. Just when you think this is it, Jack throws the chain of the manacles around Elizabeth’s neck and pulls her toward him. He demands his effects which includes his belt, his compass, his gun, and his hat. He has Elizabeth tie his belt on him, and when she calls him ‘despicable,” he says,
“Sticks and stones, love. I saved your life. You saved mine. We’re square.”
Then he leaves them with the memorable words that this was the day they almost captured Captain Jack Sparrow and he escapes, at least for a little while, in the most epic movie way possible.
Great movie. Great dialogue. And it would seem a great example of accounts settled. That’s how we like things to be in life – perhaps not pirates and dramatic rescues from the sea – but square, accounts settled. I do for you. You do for me. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. That would seem to be true even when it comes to forgiveness. There needs to be a number attached to it, a limit, or a set amount. Perhaps this is what lies at the bottom of Peter’s question to Jesus in our passage from Matthew’s gospel.
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
This follows our passage from last week when Jesus laid out a way for dealing with conflict in the church, and he knew there would be conflict.
“If another member of the church sins against you…”
Maybe Peter wanted to take it a step further. Okay, you’ve told us what to do if someone sins against us. We confront that person directly just the two of us. If that doesn’t work, then we bring a couple of other folks in as witnesses. If that still doesn’t work, then we bring it before the church, and if that doesn’t work, then we treat that person like a tax collector or a gentile. But what about forgiving that person? How many times do I have to forgive that member who sins against me?
According to the Law, the number of times forgiveness was to be issued was three. So Peter doubled it and added one. By any account, he was being generous. But Jesus went even further. Translations differ as to what Jesus told him. Our version says, “seventy-seven times.” Other versions say, “seventy times seven.” 70 x 7 = 490. Either way you translate it, that’s a lot of forgiveness.
But I’m not sure Jesus was actually trying to get Peter and the other disciples to think in real numbers. I think this was a case of hyperbolic speech. How many times should you forgive? A large number, maybe even an incalculable number. Forget about the number, just forgive and forgive and forgive.
To further his point about forgiveness, Jesus told a parable about a king and his slaves. The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. He went to one slave who owed him ten thousand talents. The slave could not pay, so the king ordered that the slave, his wife, his children and all his possessions should be sold. The slave fell on his knees and begged for mercy.
“Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
The king took pity on the slave and released him of the debt. But after having been the recipient of such generous mercy and grace, that same slave went out and encountered another slave who owed the first one a hundred denarii. The first slave seized the second one by the throat and demanded payment. This fellow slave also fell down on his knees and begged for mercy and patience. But the first slave refused it, and had the second slave thrown into prison. The other slaves saw this and were upset by it, so they went and told the king. The king called the first slave in and said,
“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Then the king was so angry that he handed the slave over to be tortured until he paid off his debt. Jesus ended this parable with the warning,
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Well that’s enough to stop you cold. If this parable is a true allegory, then God is the king, we are the slaves. God demands our debts be paid, but if we beg for mercy, God forgives us. But if we turn around and don’t forgive others, then we are tortured. If we look at this parable through the eyes of strict settling of accounts, then God demands payment. We plead for mercy. God relents. We demand it of others, they plead for mercy. We refuse. We get our just desserts. If one good turn deserves another, then one bad turn deserves another as well. God as the king says, “We’re square.”
Or is Jesus telling them something else all together? I think it goes back to the number he gave Peter. How many times do you forgive someone? Over and over and over again. Forgiveness is not about settling accounts. Forgiveness is a part of you. Forgiveness is recognizing that we have been given incalculable grace, and that we are changed by it. That is something the first slave did not understand.
I realize that this does not address the question of forgiving that which is unforgivable. Too often victims of heinous crimes are told to forgive in lieu of justice being done. Forgiveness is used as justification for abusers to continue their abuse. Last week we remembered the 16th anniversary of September 11th. Can those who lost loved ones on that day sixteen years ago be expected to truly forgive the ones who instigated the attacks, who flew the airplanes into buildings? How do we forgive the unforgivable? Yet, I still believe that the call to forgive and forgive again is there – for all of us.
The late Nelson Mandela told the story of leaving prison after years and years. He was imprisoned for his speaking out and his activism against apartheid in South Africa. If I had been imprisoned all those years, I think I might have left bitter and angry. But when Nelson Mandela left prison, he was a changed, transformed man. He left prison a man committed to peace and reconciliation. He was not a perfect man, but he was a changed man. He said that he knew if he could not forgive what had happened to him, what had been done to him, than he would never truly be free.
It seems to me that he did not forgive those who imprisoned him for their sake as much as he did for his sake. To not forgive would have kept him in another kind of prison. Forgiveness is about settling accounts, but not in the way the world understands that; in the way God does. How does God settle accounts? Through grace, through mercy, through love. Again and again and again. May we do the same.

Let all of God’s forgiven children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Life Together

Matthew 18:15-20
September 10, 2017

            I was told a story about a member of a church I once served. I never met this member. He died long before I came on the scene. But this member was known for letting pastors know exactly what he thought of their sermons, their prayers, their leadership, etc. One Sunday, this gentleman did not like the intercessory prayer the pastor led. It went on too long for the member’s liking. Ask for help, lift up the people in need, get it done, get it over with. Amen. After church, the member drove all over town looking for the pastor to make sure that he told him exactly how much he didn’t like the prayer. I guess the pastor had gone out to eat with his family, so the member finally tracked him down at his home. I don’t know if he knocked on his door or cornered him in his driveway, but he gave him a tongue lashing for the deplorable prayer given that Sunday.
            While the members of the church who shared that story with me thought it was funny, I thought, “I’m really glad I was not the pastor, because that would have reduced me to tears, which probably would have made the guy give me an even harder time.”
            Recently, I also heard a story of a family who left a church here in town supposedly because at a church dinner one member of their family was given a much smaller portion of meat than a member of a rival family. I doubt that this was the real reason for leaving the church. I suspect that there had been a feud brewing for a long, long time between the two families, but that camel must have had a very overloaded back if that was the straw that finally broke it.
            These two stories represent opposite ends of our passage from Matthew. The first is taking your need or desire to confront someone to an unhealthy and, I think, mean extreme. It is one thing to confront someone who has hurt you, or you believe has done something that has harmed or will harm the fellowship of the church. But to hunt the pastor down because you didn’t like the prayer, well call me defensive, but you stand up and do better, then we’ll talk. That felt more like a demonstration of power than an actual confrontation over a conflict. The second is an example of what happens when you don’t deal with conflict; when you let it simmer and fester until it finally blows up over something small and seemingly insignificant. I am always saddened when I hear of churches splintering and splitting over inner turmoil and conflicts, but of the many reasons why a church may break down, may it never be known as the Great Roast Beef Debacle of 2017.
            At first glance this passage from Matthew’s gospel seems to be strictly about the rules and regulations for dealing with conflict in the church. It is often referred to as rules of church discipline, and certainly our own rules of discipline are modeled after Jesus’ words in these verses. Matthew is often seen as the most legalistic of the gospel writers – which is one of the reasons that I tend to struggle with him. It’s not that I don’t want rules and order – I do. But I grow weary of constant legalism.
            But is this actually legalism on Matthew’s part, or is that how it is has been interpreted? It is bracketed on either side by passages that are not legalistic in tone at all. The verses preceding these are about the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to find the one that is lost. And the verses following are Peter’s question to Jesus about how often should we forgive someone? Jesus’ answer was an incalculable amount. Forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive.
            So is this legalism that we are dealing with for the sake of legalism, or is it a way to be in relationship with one another for the sake of community? I think it is the latter. Jesus came to bring people into deeper relationship with God and with one another. The kingdom of God was not a far off wonderland – some divine amusement park filled with perfection and utopian delights. The kingdom of God was the true community, the true fellowship of the people of God. So how do we live in fellowship, in relationship, in community with one another?
            I think it is important to note that what is implied here is that Jesus assumed there would be conflict. Nowhere does the text say, “Thou shalt not have conflict, but if you do, if you fail and mess up and have conflict, then here is what you do…”
            We tend to see our conflict as failure. I tend to see conflict as failure. But I don’t think Jesus was saying that to be in conflict was a failure on their part. How they dealt or did not deal with that conflict might constitute failure, the conflict itself came from the fact that they were a community of flawed, finite, limited human beings. Remember when Jesus told Peter that on him he would build his church, gather his community? Peter was a flawed rock to be sure. So it is a good bet that the community on which it was built will also be flawed. Of course it is because we are flawed.
            Conflict is inevitable. That’s what I feel is implied here. But how you deal with conflict can make a difference. How do we deal with conflict? How do we deal with someone we believe has sinned against us? Do we confront the person? Or do we take it to the parking lot? Or to lunch after church? My finger is not pointed outward with these questions; it is pointed firmly at me.
            The truth is, it is much easier to take conflict to the parking lot or to lunch or to Facebook or Twitter or an email or some other method or means. It is much easier to not deal with it, let it go, try to forget about it. But then someone gets a larger serving of roast beef, and a family leaves the church. Conflict resolution is not easy, but the method Jesus offered was a way of dealing with it, of facing it and resolving it that kept the community intact.
            But what if the steps that he laid out it didn’t work? Then we treat the person like a tax collector or a Gentile. We shun them. That is how this command has been interpreted. Yet, to read against the text, how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? Did he shun them? Did he make them even more outcast than they already were? Or did he continue to reach out to them? Did he continue to offer them fellowship, love, acceptance?
            Just as taking conflict to the parking lot is easier than dealing with it directly, so is shunning easier than trying to offer an extended hand to someone who has hurt you. It seems to me that the conflict resolution steps Jesus offered were hard from beginning to end. And while we may see them as step 1, step 2, step 3, etc., when you are dealing with human beings, lines get blurred. Relationships are messy. Communities are messy. Perhaps Jesus was offering a warning about what we loose and what we bind. We have power, and we can use that power with love or we can abuse it. As one commentator wrote, be careful what you set in stone on earth because that can have cosmic consequences.
            Being in community, in fellowship with one another is a messy reality. I took my title for my sermon from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book of the same name. In that book, he discusses what true Christian fellowship is. I have only begun to read the book, and I cannot claim to fully understand every point he made, but he wrote about being disillusioned with one another. True fellowship happens when we reach the point of disillusionment. It seems to me that when we are disillusioned with each other, the blinders are off. We see each other as we really are – flaws, foibles, frailties and also blessed with wonderful gifts and abilities. True community, true fellowship happens when the blinders come off; when we see each other for who we really are – sinners yes, but also children of God.
            I think Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that true community was hard, but it was worth it. I think Jesus wants us to know that as well. It is hard, it is messy, it is worth it. As we move forward together, may we move forward disillusioned with one another, aware of the messiness between us, ready to confront our conflicts, face our challenges and rejoice in our life together. And may roast beef never come between us.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Failure of Imagination

Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017

            A disaster happens. Something unforeseen occurs. Even though every conceivable precaution has been taken, every known safeguard has been put in place, and every potential error and pitfall has been thought about, something goes wrong. Disaster strikes. Lives are lost. In the fallout, in the aftermath, when people are trying to understand why the tragedy happened, why the crisis occurred, someone says, “It was a failure of imagination.”
            These words were spoken in the HBO miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon,” about NASA and putting a man on the moon. I believe it was after the fire in the capsule that took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. With everything the NASA engineers, scientists and controllers considered, they had not considered what would cause that fire. It was a failure of imagination.
            That same phrase has also been used to describe September 11, 2001. It is hard to believe that 16 years have passed since that terrible day in 2001. But I remember in the aftermath and the fallout of the days that followed, when the whole country was in shock and grief, that there were people who said it was a failure of imagination that brought us to that point. We just could not imagine that something of that scope, that devastating magnitude would take place. It was a failure of imagination.
            I’m not sure if Peter failed at imagination, but he certainly showed a lack of it. Last week we read the verses immediately preceding these. Peter answers Jesus’ question about who Jesus is with,
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And for that correct answer Jesus rewarded Peter with these words,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
In the verses we read this morning, from that moment on Jesus began to tell the disciples what it meant for him to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. It meant suffering at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes. It meant being killed, and being dead for three days. But on the third day, it meant being raised.
Peter heard this and was appalled. He pulled Jesus off to the side and rebuked Jesus, saying,
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”
But Jesus turned away from him. He didn’t thank Peter for caring. He didn’t reassure Peter that it would all be okay. He rebuked Peter.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Get behind me, Satan? Satan? Peter has gone from being the rock, the foundation of the community of the faithful Jesus would build to a stumbling block. The Greek translated as “stumbling block” can also be translated as “scandal”. Peter’s words to Jesus were scandalous. Our ears hear the word “scandal,” as something lurid, but a scandal can also be something that causes others to fall away in their faith. So Peter’s words were indeed a stumbling block. He was, unwittingly, trying to pull Jesus away from Jesus’ divine purpose. From building rock to stumbling block, Jesus’ words must have devastated Peter. I picked the picture on the front of the bulletin because I thought it represented how Peter must have felt hearing them. Jesus’ back is to Peter with his hand pointing at him accusingly. Peter is on his knees, head bowed down in shame, hands up in a pleading gesture. I feel sorry for Peter. I know he was wrong to say what he said. But I don’t think he could imagine what Jesus was truly going to do. Even though he got it right when he confessed Jesus’ true identity, I think Peter had a failure of imagination when it came to understanding what that identity meant.
It’s commonly believed that Peter and the other disciples – and probably many people who felt compelled to follow Jesus – thought that he was a Messiah of the warrior/ heroic/kick butt variety. As Dr. David Lose wrote, if Jesus were that kind of Messiah, that warrior/savior, he would overthrow the violent Roman occupation with violence only to eventually be violently overthrown by someone else. The wheel of violence would just roll on and on. Jesus knew this. He knew that the only way to truly disrupt the wheel of violence was to allow himself to be crushed underneath it. He knew that he was not a Messiah in the worldly and earthly understanding. He was a Messiah who would not overthrow, but transform. He would not convert one form of violence into another; he would break through that violence – even if it meant that sacrificing himself to the violence. 
But Peter did not understand that. Peter could not imagine that. Peter could not see or envision anything beyond what he already knew – not yet anyway. It seems to me that when he rebuked Jesus, it was not so much out of anger or out of arrogance, it was out of fear. We are unable to hear tone or expression in the words we read, but imagine if you will Peter’s words sounding something like this, like someone who is in agony at what their beloved Rabbi is saying.
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”
As in, “Please Jesus, don’t say such things. Please don’t talk about your suffering and dying. I cannot bear to hear it. I cannot bear to think about it. I cannot bear to imagine it. It hurts too much.”
A failure of imagination; Peter could not bear to imagine the painful truths Jesus spoke. But beyond that, Peter and the other disciples could not imagine the reality that those truths would bring. That was the struggle for them every moment, every day they spent with Jesus. They could not imagine the reality of the kingdom Jesus spoke of. They could not imagine the reality of the world that could be when humans lived completely for God and for one another. They could not imagine true and perfect love, true and perfect peace. They could not imagine it until the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them – then their imaginations were given free rein.
True, even after the Holy Spirit came upon them, the disciples/apostles were limited in their imaginations. So are we, but with the power of the Spirit they had a bigger view of what the world could be, should be.
I think that we, the church, have been given that gift, that empowering of the Holy Spirit. I think we have been given the ability to imagine more than what we can see. We can imagine a world where we live completely for God and for one another. It’s funny; it is often in a crisis, in the aftermath of a failure of imagination, when we have those times, when those kingdom of God moments are truly visible. They were clear and visible on September 11th. People stopped worrying about themselves and cared for each other. It is clear and visible in Houston right now, when you see images of ordinary folks rescuing other ordinary folks – not because they have to but because it is what you do for another human being. You see it in the video of people making a human chain to rescue an elderly man from his car that was swamped in water. How wonderful would our world be if we were intentional not only about imagining the kingdom of God, but working for it, not only when there is a crisis or a tragedy, but everyday? How wonderful would our world be if we put our imaginations to work envisioning peace – true, abiding peace, the peace of God, the shalom of the kingdom, and then we put aside our differences and worked to make it a reality? How wonderful would our world be if we imagined living in the peace of Christ and then worked to make it true?
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Image result for Matthew 16:21-28
"Get behind me, Satan!" Matthew 16:23