Friday, October 28, 2005

REFORMATION SUNDAY: Lutheran Texts for Oct. 30, 2005

FIRST READING: Jeremiah 31-34
". . .for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."

When I was a kid, I said "I'm sorry" a lot. So much so that my mother, in pure exasperation, once shouted at me, "I know you're sorry, you're always sorry. I don't want to hear how sorry you are. I want you to stop doing it."

I have to say that most of my "sorry-ness" was not true repentance seeking a genuine forgiveness, not when I was a kid, not even much later in life. It was not motivated by an awareness of true guilt for having acted wrongly. Rather it was an attempt to stave off punishment after getting caught doing things "powerful" others (parents, teachers, residence advisors, spouse, parishioners, bishops) didn't want me to do.

I developed a genuine need for forgivenenss only when I recognized that the failures with those folks were not failures of action, but of relationship. In a true relationship, a balanced and loving relationship, one acts faithfully not of of fear of punishment but in response to trust and love.
To sin, either before God or our neighbor, is to break that trust, to act against it, to step outside the circle of love. And when you find yourself outside the love which is as essential to real life as air is to breathing, then the plea for forgiveness is a plea to be restored to the relationship of trust.

When that happens, when you need that kind of forgiveness from God or wife or parent or children or significant other; then the words of Jeremiah remind us that God can give that kind of forgiveness, not a petty little "Oh, it's okay, don't worry about it,' but a hearty, "I know you have failed, but I love you and will treat you as if it never happened."

It is in that kind of forgiveness that our sorry-ness is transformed into holiness, and the greatest Reformation of all.

SECOND READING: Romans 3:19-28
"For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by law."
For most of us, most of the time, the Gospel is just a little too good to believe. There's got to be a catch, a hidden clause, something that we have to do so that we can be sure that we're saved.
We just have trouble putting our full weight down on the promise of this text.

My Aunt Mildred died this past spring. She was in her 80's. In August, my siblings and I got together to work on settling her estate. As we were walking though the house, I noticed a machine attached to the back of her Laz-y-boy. My brother, who is an architect and builder and lives close by and took care of her, identified it as an auxiliary generator. The "why?" question was all over my face. He said,

Well, it's an electric chair with a motor to lift the seat up slowly so that it was easy for her to get out. A few years ago I dropped by to see her and
she said, "I'm having trouble getting out of my chair lately."
I said, "Is there something wrong with the motor? I'll take a look."
She said, "There's nothing wrong with the motor. I don't ever plug it in.
I said, "Well, why not?" and
she said, "Well, what if I was laying back in it and the power went out. I wouldn't be able to get out of it.

Hence the auxiliary power pack.

Many of us are like Aunt Mildred. Kind of afraid to fully trust the Gospel, to trust God's promise to be with us, to save us. So we get a little auxiliary power pack of good deeds, just in case.
Money given, offices filled, good deeds done. We don't flaunt them, but we keep them around, just in case.

The Gospel is, we are accepted on the strength of God's love for us. And those things we do are done in response to God's love; not in order to win God's love. But it's a hard truth to live into.
I don't really trust it myself sometimes, except when I'm preaching it, which is why I love to preach so much, I think.

GOSPEL: JOhn 8:31-36
". . . and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Jesus Christ
". . .but first, it will make you miserable." The late Rev. Dr. Benny Bedenbaugh, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

A few year ago I was in a bookstore in Nashville and happened upon two books I had never seen before. I bought them both on the spot.

One was "The Optimist's Guide to History"
The other was "The Pessimist's Guide to History"
While I was writing the check, the clerk looked at me quizically and said, "I've sold a lot of these books, but nobody's ever bought both of them at the same time."

I said, "well, I guess most people are either optimists or pessimists, but I'm just a preacher looking for sermon illustrations."

As I thought more about it, I realized that it was likely that optimists bought the optimist's version and the pessismists bought the pessimist's version, which means they weren't really looking for the truth, they were looking for evidence to bolster their already established opinions.

And most of us are like that, most of the time. Most of what we refer to as "the truth" or "just the facts" are those tidbits of data which bolster our world view. Good enough. There's really nothing wrong with that; our human-ness hardly allows us to do anything else.

The problem comes when we treat the Truth of the Gospel like a factoid to be marshalled in defense of our various time limited political positions.

The Truth spoken of here is a living, active, moving Word of God, which breaks through our Optimism and our Pessimism and rearranges our head and our heart in ways we never imagined. It is a Truth that smashes all our preconceptions and ideas and reconstructs them on the basis of God's Love and Grace.

That kind of God, bringing that kind of truth, is not really interested in whether or not we are optimist or pessimists, doesn't really care what we make of the various denominational difference, could care less about whether we pray standing up, sitting or kneeling, etc. etc.

That kind of God doesn't want our spare time or our spare change. The God of Truth wants us.

Henry R. Rust writes of a visit ot a tiny Christian Congregation in a village in Kenya. It met in the open air beneath a thatched roof. When it came time for the offering, a round, flat basket was passed up and down the rows of benches as people placed coins and bills in it.

The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She took the basket and laid it on the ground in front of her. She took off her sandals and then stood in the basket, head bowed, praying silently for a full minute, then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.

That's what the God of real Truth wants.



Wednesday, October 19, 2005

PENTECOST 23: RCL Texts for October 23, 2005

FIRST READING: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Huh? What's that doing in Leviticus? Everytime I hear the word Leviticus I think of my many failed attempts to read the Bible through from cover-to-cover.

Genesis was a breeze. Exodus was good too, all that fighting it out with Pharoh stuff, then we get to Leviticus, somewhere in there is where I usually gave it up for a bad job; and went back to my usual state of ignorance, (though I finally did pull it off during seminary, just so I could say I had you understand.) Anyway, what's "love your neighbor" doing in the Old Testament? Didn't Jesus say that?

All right, so I'm not an OT scholar! But I'm not really that bad. I did know that Jesus was quoting the Ot when he said this (and a lot of other things too). But, still, it messes with our easy system, doesn't it? Old Testament is all about Law and Judgement; New Testament is about Gospel and Mercy. Too often that translates into Old is Bad and New is good. (Have to watch that Marcionism. It'll sneak up on you, and its tricky.)

We tend to forget that Jesus was Jewish, and not just ethnically or racially Jewish. His whole Theological, Biblical, Spiritual, Religious identity was Jewish. Jewish thought and ritual shaped and formed his awareness of who he was and who God was. Way too often, we allow some of the anti-leader rhetoric of the Gospels to distort our remembrance that Jesus was a Jew's Jew, an obervant Jew, a synagogue-on-the-Sabbath Jew. Sometimes it feels like we think of Jesus as a chronologically misplaced, modern American, mainline Protestant. (A lot like us, in other words) Not so. A good antidote is reading some good recent works on Jesus which will remind one of just how Jewish Jesus really was, and how much we have strayed from it.

Pick up one of these relatively short books: Who Was Jesus? by NT Wright; The Historical Figure of Jesus or Jesus and Judaism by EP Sanders; and Living Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson.

Or read the OT yourself and then the Gospels. It's amazing what you'll pick up.

SECOND READING: I Thessalonians 2:1-8
". . . even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts."

Back in the summer of 1977, I was a freshly minted Methodist preacher boy, serving my first congregation in rural NC. My Grandmother Hubbard, who was then in her late 80's, came to visit me in my home for a week or two. Grandma was a staunch Baptist who had for years sung loudly and off key in the choir of her local Baptist Church. She was also a loving and wise woman. Whenever I hear the line "Hail Mary, full of grace," I have to confess, I think not of Mary but of Grandma.

Anyway, a friend at the Conference office had phoned me that the Bishop was going to the NC mountains on Sunday and had decided to stop by my church on his way and hear me preach.
I was frantic, sitting in my little study in the parsonage, reading and rereading, typing and retyping, my pitiful little attempt at a sermon.

I felt a presence in the room, and looked up to see Grandma in the doorway, leaning on her walker. "What's the matter with you boy," she said, "you act like the world's coming to an end."
"The Bishop's coming to hear me preach tomorrow," I croaked, almost crying.
She snorted, "Pshaw, You preach in front of Almighty God every Sunday. What's a little bishop compared to that?"

I still get nervous about preaching. But not about my human hearers. I haven't been able to go in the pulpit since without hearing her voice and reminding myself that I preach before God, to God and really on behalf of God.

Thankfully, God is a lot more forgiving than most Bishops I've known.

Two illustrations and I'm done. If you can't preach on this text, well, you just can't preach.

1) Jane Vajner took her 4 young boys to church every Sunday. She seldom believed that the boys listened to much of the sermon, but one Sunday she found out different. On that Sunday the Pastor really came on strong with a sermon on turning the other cheek.

That afternoon, the youngest boy came into the house crying. Between sobs, he told his mother that he had kicked one of his brothers, who had kicked him back.

Mom said, "I'm sorry that you're hurt, but you shouldn't go around kicking people.

The boy sniffed and complained, "But the Pastor said he wan't SUPPOSED TO kick me back!"

2) GK Chesterton said something like, "The Bible tells us to love our neighbours. It also tells us to love our enemies. This is because they are quite generally the same people."



Monday, October 10, 2005

Pentecost 22, RCL texts for Oct. 16, 2005

First Lesson; Isaiah 45:1-7
"Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus(?)" My sons (both in college now) sometimes call me "Dr. Half-right". A couple of weeks ago, while lecturing at Earlham School of Religion, I did it again, showing why. I was trying to reference Judy Garland, but I said Judy Holliday, remembering that Judy Garland played Billie Holliday. Thus, "Dr. Half-right." I do it all the time and I did it again in thinking about this text. I said to myself, "Cyrus? Cyrus? Didn't Cyrus Vance invent some farm implement, back in the 1800' s, in Virginia? Well, not exactly, Cyrus MCCORMICK invented a reaper, Cyrus Vance was in the Jimmy Carter administrarion as secretary of Something like War or State. Dr. Half-right strikes again.

Anyway, the whole Cyrus, the Anointed One thing is about as jarring as some of my half-right references are to those who really know. It sounds as wrong as "King Ralph", that goofy John Goodman movie of a few years back.

We're just not used to an ordinary name like Cyrus being tied up with God and power and sweet-sounding phrases like "the Lord's Anointed." Jesus is the Lord's Anointed, as was King David. But not Cyrus, it just doesn't sound right.

And, well he wasn't Jewish, or even a fellow-traveler, proselyte type. He was a king, a tyrant, a dictator, a conqueror. Why does Isaiah call him "The Lord's Anointed?"

Well, acouple of thoughts come to mind, one of which is along the "God's ways are not my ways and God's thoughts are not my thoughts" vein. God is using Cyrus even if Cyrus doesn't know it. God is accomplishing God's purposes thorugh Cyrus, with or without Cyrus' cooperation. I have to admit that in its full flush, that thought is a little too Predestinarian for me, but I also have to admit its got Biblical precedent all over it; so, I must at least recognize that, as with Joseph's brothers (Genesis 20:19-20), God works good out of evil, and uses people who are cooperating to do the Divine Will.

Secondly, it ill behooves a person with a name like Delmer to be making cuts on anybody's name. And, God does use the ordinary, all the time, to do the extraordinary. Put another way, not only is Cyrus the Lord's Anointed, but so are we all. We just don't have a religously named chronicler like Isiah to pronounce to the world, in rich and fulsome phrases, the significance of our daily doings.

Second Lesson: I Thessalonians 1:1-10
". . .your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope."

All preachers have their "set pieces", their regular phrases that crop up over and over in their sermons. ML King Jr.'s was a bit on the three Greek words for love; eros, philia and agape. It was an old horse, but he kept it in good shape and rode it well. Faith, hope and love has the feel of such a tried and true formula for Paul. It occurs also in I Cor. 13:13, Col 1:3-5, and again in I Thess, at 5:8.

What strikes a good Lutheran about Paul's use of the phrase this time is the way he uncharacteristically ties together "work" and "faith". Lutherans, of course, are death on anything that smacks of works righteousness. So, the phrase has taken me aback, somewhat.

The Concordia Self-Study Bible, produced by the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, says in a footnote that it means works are prompted by faith. Well, that's consistent Lutheran theology, but its' not what the text says.

Leader Keck, in the Interpreter's One Volume Commentary was helpful here. He says, "The famous triad of I Cor. 13:13 appears here in a different order. All three phrases must be taken together and in all three the word "of" is important. Rather than work inspired by faith, etc., Paul speaks of work as a form of faith, labor as the shape of love, steadfastness as the manifestation of hope. " (p.867)

All this reminds me of how frequently we read our Denominational Theology into the Bible.
I was just reading in Peter Day's Denominational History book again (see mammalarians on Sept. 22) and there was a short bit about Two-Seed-in-The-Spirit-Predestinarian-Baptists.
They were started by an 1840's Baptist preacher who read the text in Genensis where God throws Adam and Eve out of the Garden and says to Eve and the Serpent that there would be enmity between her seed and the seed of the serpent. In this, the preacher saw pure Predestinationism: each of us born with either the seed of salvation or the seed of the serpent. And since this seed was in the spirit and not in the flesh, nothing could be done about it. We are fated for Heaven or Hell from conception. My point is, "Does anybody else really see predestination in that text?" Probably not. The preacher brought it to the text.

It is difficult for us to really, really listen for God's voice in the Scriptures. There are so many filters we bring to the equation. And so much we miss because we have filtered it out. And so much that's not there that we think we hear because we are looking for it.

I may well preach on this text. It has a nice tripartite construction: Work, Labor, Steadfastness. Faith, Love, Hope. Faith in the past, love in the present, hope for the future. etc. etc.
And it will do a Lutheran good to talks about "Work of Faith" without choking on it. If you're a Methodist, try preaching on a predestination text: it'll do you good and surprise your congregation.

GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 22:15-22
"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's"

Boy, isn't it great that the Lectionary Committee finally got with the program and tied a text to the REAL Church year. I'm as liturgical as the next person, but every once in a while you long for a text that ties in with what's really going on in the church at the time. Like Jesus as a boy in the temple, studying the Scriptures. That would be good around Rally Day. And that Paul text about obeying the Civilian authorities; would it kill them to slide that in around the Fourth of July? And I Corinthians 13 on the Sunday closest to Valentine's Day. C'mon, let's get real about what's important in the real church.

So here it is Stewardship Campaign time, and woohoo, we get the text we need, and we didn't pick it. Funds are tight, budgets are getting made, (pastoral salaries contemplated!) And there it is, big as life, just dying to be preached.

Just one problem. This text isn't really about money, is it? It's about about identity and commitments and relationships. When those things become clear, its about money, sort of.

This was a trick question and the Pharisees knew it. If Jesus says Yes, he could be accused of a religous fault, worshiping a god other than the LORD God of Israel. If he says no, he could be accused of fostering a revolt against the emperor. Either way, they figure they've got him.

Jesus answere slips the noose by making the Pharisees answer. Whose picture is on the coin? Then give the coin back to its maker. Neat Trick.

Then Jesus goes further. Give to God the things that are God's.

Too often, we have heard (and preached) this text as : Give the money you owe to Caesar to Caesar and the money you owe to God to God. Or more directly: Pay taxes to the government and give a tithe to the church.

Makes a good stewardship sermon. Too bad it's not what Jesus said or meant.

The key word is IMAGE. The emperor's image was on the coin, give the coin back to the emperor.

God's image is on your life, give your life to God. Give to God that which belongs to God.
Human beings bear the mark of our maker, we will return to our maker, and in the meantime we are to imitate and serve our maker. That's what Jesus said.

It is not a question of what percentage of our income, or our goods or our time or our talent belongs to God, not a matter of apportioning it out. It's all God's, as are we. We are made in the image of God, the mark of Christ, given to us in Baptism, is on our lives now and forever.

In whose image are you made? Jesus asks us. If the answer is God, then it is clear tht we are being asked to give ourselves totally to God. We are the things that are God's.

I read a story somewhere about a kid named Benji. When he was little, his very devout evangelical Mama asked him if he was ready to ask Jesus to live in his heart?

He thought about it a minute and said, "I don't know Mama. I don't think I want the responsibility."

I know how you feel kid. But want it our not, we've got it.