Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve Sermon

Christmas Eve, 2007
“The Cross and Christmas”

A couple of weeks ago, on a Thursday afternoon, I went down to Twin Lakes retirement center to hear the Choir sing. There are quite a number of Friedens’ members who sing in that choir, and I couldn’t help but notice that most of them were in the front row. Does the Director put you there so that she can keep an eye on you?

It was a good show. They did well. Some of the staff participated and they did a great job also.They did a very hilarious version of “I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas.” Do you know the song? A little boy sings about all the mischief he’s been in, and then the chorus goes:“I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas, ‘cuz I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad”

After I finished laughing, I started thinking and realized that while that line sums up a lot of our thinking about how God works, it’s just not true. Indeed, it is the exact opposite of the Gospel truth of this night; it is because we “ain’t been nuttin’ but bad” that we have received the one gift we needed, which is Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Not just or primarily us as individuals, but us as the human race, us as humanity, As the Bible says, God so love the World, the Cosmos, that he sent his only beloved Son.

It’s not so much that we are individually evil, it’s that the world is in a mess, and needs to find its way out. The first Christmas came at a time of political and social unrest. Israel was once again a conquered country, living under the domination of the Romans, ruled by King Herod, a cruel, cruel man.

When Christ came, there was hunger and social injustice and war raged upon innocents, all in the name of such things as Truth and Justice and National Security. Then as now, the old values had become skewed and obscured and unrecognizable, and no one knew whom they could trust.

And into such a world God sent his Son.

The message then and the message now is that we are not alone in the midst of the world’s evil, Though we, collectively, ain’t been nuttin’ but Bad, we’re still getin’ something for Christmas.

God has come to us in the midst of our distress. In the middle of our loneliness and despair, God has sent us a sign of his love. Into a world filled with hopelessness, God comes to us in the hopeful form of new life and new birth.

Back in the 1960’s, a Methodist Minister I know graduated from the Seminary at Drew University in New Jersey and was sent to his first church, near a little farm town down east of Raleigh, NC.

In July, he had his first funeral. In seminary they told him that they should sing whatever the family requested, and so he asked the widow what song she wanted, she said, “He liked Silver Bells. He always said he wanted Silver Bells sung at his funeral.” So my friend swallowed hard and said we can do that.

So it was that on a blistering hot day in July, in a little country Church without Air Conditioning, the choir stood up at a funeral and sang, Silver Bells, Ding a Ling, it’s Christmas time in the city.

My friend said he would never forget the confused look on the faces of the congregation as the choir sang verse after verse of Silver Bells at a funeral. As the minister led the procession across the street into the cemetery, the widow caught up with him and whispered, You know Pastor, I was wrong. It wasn’t Silver Bells he wanted. It was “When they ring those Golden Bells for you and me.”

Christ came to be a beacon of light in a dark world, Christ came to show us love in the midst of hatred and strife. Christ came to bring life in the midst of death. Which is why it is not such a bad idea to sing Christmas songs at funerals.

It is a reminder to us that Christ did not come to be cute, Christ came to die. Just as the Cross looms over our Altar, the cross hovers over the manger of the Christ Child.

Christ did not come so that we can have parties and give gifts.
Christ did not come, to reward us for being good, but to save us from being bad.
Christ came to show us the love and care of God in the midst of a deadly and dangerous world.
Christ came to show us how to live and how to die.
Christ came to die upon the cross for us, to save us from sin, death and the devil.

Realizing that, we are ready to celebrate with somber joy and reverent jubilation:

Silver Bells, Ring-a-ling, it’s Christmas time in the city.
I’m getting’ sumethin’ for Christmas, even though I been nuttin’ but bad.
For unto us a child is born, who is Christ the LORD.

Amen and amen.

A Christmas Story

A few years ago, when I was pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran in Nashville, I went to a Christmas party in our neighborhood. She was Jewish, he was Unitarian, their son was in second grade with our son. We met at PTA. It was only a day or two before Christmas and I had been out and about visiting and taking Home Communion and I came late and wearing my dog collar.

As we settled down to dinner, I found that I had been seated next to "Gramps," just arrived from his home in Israel for the holidays. Spotting my collar he asked in what sounded to me like a British accent, "C of E?" I shook my head no and said "Lutheran." "Pity," he said, "I have a soft spot in my heart for C of E chaps. Got me through a bit of a rough patch once."

Then he told us this story:

He had been raised in South Africa, as he put it "in a pub." His father ran a series of taverns in mining towns and the family lived "above the store, as it were." Though they were Jewish, they weren't at all religious. He said that from the age of 8 or 9 he spent most of his time in the pub with his Dad, serving drinks and learning to play piano by ear; ballads and drinking songs mostly.

When WWII came along, he volunteered for the British Army. When they asked his religion, he thought a minute. They stamped religious affiliation on the dag tags. For Jews, they put a Star of David. The last thing he wanted was to be captured by Jew-hating Nazis with a Star of David around his neck, so he said "I'm C of E, (Church of England)."

He was captured, somewhere in Italy I think. They were in a facility that had a piano, and he occasionally played when they were allowed recreation time.

On Christmas Eve, two guards came to get him, along with a German Chaplain, who told him in English, "We're allowing a captured C of E Priest to hold Christmas Eve communion service, and we know you're C of E and that you play the piano, so we want you to play for the service.

He thought, O my God, I'm caught, for he knew no Christian songs, no Christmas carols and he couldn't read music, he played by ear.

When he got to the makeshift chapel, he managed to convey his problem to the C of E chaplain, who caught on quickly and asked for a quick rundown of songs the man did know. The priest must of done some rapid meter calculations in his head,
for he would announce a hymn and then say, "and our pianist will play one verse so that we can remember the tune,"
and some how the crowd caught on too, and sang Christmas carols to whatever tune the Priest and piano-man had figured would fit.

And other than thinking the English had odd taste in Church music, the Germans never had a clue.

"And so," my dinner partner summed up, "I have a soft spot in my heart for the C of E and it's clergy. And every year I send a contribution to the Anglican Church in Jerusalem. and I keep Christmas, thanking God for the Christians."



Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Advent IV

Dec. 23, 2007

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

TITLE: The True Meaning of Christmas

The other day, I got up early, made a pot of coffee and settled down to my early morning ritual; watching Gunsmoke on TVLand. It was a “Christmas” episode.

The story went something like this: A pleasant and good-hearted ne’er do well got fired from the orphanage for drinking on the job. He then told off the stern, old-maid headmistress for not celebrating Christmas for the “kiddies.”

As usual, things got a bit complicated and everybody in Dodge got involved but finally there was a Christmas Party for the children at the Long Branch Saloon and everybody once again and just in time learned the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS!

While watching the show, I remembered a lot of TV shows and stories from my youth that followed the same plot; which was perfected by Charles Dickens in his classic “A Christmas Carol.” There Ebenezer Scrooge gets to learn what? The true Meaning of Christmas.

A few years ago John Grisham wrote a book that became a movie starring Tim Allen. It was called Skipping Christmas, and the main character gets cheap and selfish, but eventually learns, what? The True Meaning of Christmas.

Now, here’s a good question. What, exactly, is this True Meaning of Christmas everyone has so energetically been learning? I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s the same meaning that Matthew and Luke had in mind when they wrote about the shepherds and wisemen and angels and animals and the strange doings in Bethlehem of Judea.

No, the True Meaning of Christmas as proposed
in these modern times has something to do with these ideas:

1) it is more blessed to give than to receive

2) we should be nice to everybody

3) having lots of stuff won’t make you happy,
only loving relationships will make you
truly rich and happy.

All these are admirable sentiments, but they are not unique to Christianity and they are not even remotely close to what the writers of the Gospels wanted to tell us about the birth of Christ.

What we usually do is pick bits and pieces of the Biblical story to “proof text” and “prop up” these ideas. Let’s see: the wisemen brought gifts so we should give, the angels sang something about “good will to all people” so wed should love everybody and King Herod was rich and miserable and Mary and Joseph were poor but proud, so there you go.

I’m sorry folks, but giving and niceness and a mild rejection of materialism are not the True Meaning of Christmas.

That meaning is found in one little word that occurs in two of our lessons for today: Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 both refer to Immanuel, God is with us.

That is the true meaning of Christmas. Emmanuel, God IS with us. Not God WAS with us, long ago and far away. Not God will be with us, pie in the sky, by and by. But present tense, here and now, in this time and in this place, Emmanuel, God IS with us.

Not only God IS, but hear clearly, God is WITH us.

Not God beyond us. Not God a way off there somewhere, remote and removed from our everyday lives. Sometimes we like to keep God at arm’s length, we like to keep the holy tied up in the church, like a lovely Christmas present; nicely wrapped and tied with a bow, carefully stashed beneath the tree, but having nothing to do with our daily and ordinary lives. We have God and church and Christ neatly cordoned off into an inoffensive corner of our lives. We may think we have kept God from interfering in the way we live our lives, but that won’t do, Emmanuel, God is with us, won’t allow it. Emmanuel refuses to stay in the corner, Emmanuel insists on messing around in our lives, Emmanuel is God WITH us.

Nor is it God beneath us. Some people treat God and Godly things as an interesting subject for observation and study. They are charmed by the Christmas stories; they find it interesting how the church adopted the approximate date of the winter solstice as a date for Christ’s mass, the day when the SUN begins to return to life. OH, THE IMAGERY IS SO FASCINATING. And then, of course, there are all the parallels with the pagan mystery cults; and of course Handel’s Messiah is such a lovely piece of music. Why Christianity is just embedded in the very fabric of Western Civilization, etc. etc.

But Emmanuel, God is with us, will not allow this. Emmanuel is not God beneath us, nor God beneath our microscope, as some sort of object for our curiosity or admiration. NO, Emmanuel is God with us, God in our midst, God in our lives.

I must warn you to be careful how much you study Godly things, for god is very sneaky, and in the midst of your study you may find yourself drawn into relationship with the one who IS; for God is not beneath us; God is WITH us and works continuously to draw all things into the Divine Presence.

God is not beyond us, God is not beneath us, and God is not between us. There is way too much religious strife in this world, way too much “God is on my side and against you!” Emmanuel, God is WITH us, came to all people, not just the people like us, or the people we like. God is WITH us, not between us. Emmanuel brings us together, does not push us apart.

For the true meaning of Christmas is this: In a mystery too deep for words, too profound for theologians, too irrational for philosophers and too unproveable for scientists; God’s love dictated that God enter in to humanity and be with us, all of us, to share in our joy and sorrow, our triumphs and tragedies, our fears and our faith, our life and our death.
And so, the story goes, it happened one night, long ago, in the city of David, that a child was born whose name was Emmanuel, God is with us.

And the Gospel for today is God is STILL with us and will be with us forever and ever, amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Songs of Salvation"

“Songs of Salvation”
a brief homily for Lessons and Carols service.

The world’s celebration of the Nativity of Christ is surrounded by Song.

No secular artist puts out a Thanksgiving CD or an Easter Album, but almost everybody tries to “cash in” on Christmas, either with new songs or old favorites. Christmas songs fill the Malls and Stores and Radio playlists from early November until Dec. 25. And the question arises: What is it about Christmas that causes the heart
to sing?

It was like that from the beginning. In Luke’s Gospel: Mary responds to the Annunciation with what we call The Magnificat, Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son John (to be called the Baptist) with a song that points to the birth of another child, the Coming One. Of course the angels sing to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth and at the dedication of the child old Simeon sees the baby and bursts into praise.

Again, what is it about Christmas that causes us to sing?

We have lots of good Easter Hymns, but the non-Church world is much more likely to know “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” than “Thine Is the Glory.” But not so with Christmas Carols. Almost everybody can sing at least one verse of “Away In a Manger” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and can recognize the tune of a dozen more. Is it just the vast exposure on Radio and TV, or is there something about the Birth of the Christ Child that makes us want to sing?

A Couple of things occur to me.

First: the only really appropriate response to mystery is adoration, and what better way to adore than to sing.
The story that we celebrate at Christmas is a “something more” mystery. Underneath all the theological baggage and argumentation there is this for all of us: life can be very ordinary and difficult and painful and short and depressing. The birth of a child as the Son of God, a message from beyond that God does love us after all, that this world is not “all there is,” that Peace and Love and Joy are real and are really important and are really possible is a message we all need to hear.

So even those who have their doubts about God, and Jesus and the Church, will themselves to believe in the “something more” that Christmas represents to them: the potential for good in a cold and lonely world. And that Mysterious possibility is something to sing about.

Second; for those of us who receive the story as a true story, a story about how the God of the universe let go of all the trappings and power of Heaven to come and be born in a stable, taking on as the Eucharistic prayer says, “our nature and our lot,” that too is a mystery beyond words. We cannot comprehend a love that big and that deep and that complete, and when ordinary words fail us, we, like Mary and Zechariah and Simeon and the angels; burst into song, for we have no other choice.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007


December 9, 2007

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

A few years ago, my friend Pr. Warren Casiday told of meeting God on the highway.

He said that he and his wife were traveling North on Interstate 85 when a semi began to top the crest of the hill ahead of them heading South.

Above the cab, across the front of the trailer were emblazoned the letters G – O – D.

Warren mind began to whirl with silly questions and ideas: What kind of music does God allow the truckers to play in the CD. Is it all Contemporary Christian, or can you pop in a little Rap of Country? Would God ever break the speed limit? And if God did speed, would the State Trooper give God a ticket?

As the truck drew closer and Warren that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, one final question flashed through Warren’s mind:

If God is going South, what am I doing going North?

John the Baptist came out of the desert and the wilderness, right down the middle of life’s highway as loud and as noticeable as a semi. He was a clear and unmistakable sign that God was headed South and everybody else was going North, headed the wrong way.

The key word in John’s preaching was repentance. In Greek the word is metanoia. It means literally to “turn, to change, to reverse oneself.” In the Greek language, it is not a particularly religious word. It is rather an ordinary, everyday usable word for turning around and going the other way.

Bible Scholar Alan Richardson says, “In its New Testament usage it implies much more than a mere “change of mind;” it involves a whole reorientation of the personality.” To use Pr. Casiday’s vivid image, If God is going South and we are going North; what should we do?

Well, maybe when we see God going in the other direction, we could be deeply sorry that we are going the wrong way. We might hit ourselves on the forehead, or beat our chest, and say something like:

God be merciful to me, a miserable driver with a poor sense of direction. I know I’m going the wrong way, but - - -I don’t know anything I can do about it. After all, I’m already headed in this direction, and I’m making good time, and I’m getting good gas mileage, and it would be very difficult for me to change and go the other way, and besides, I know you’re a God of grace and love and you’ll forgive me for going the wrong way.

Put in those terms, it sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But all too often, that’s how we think about repentance; being sorry for going the wrong way in life, asking God to forgive us, but not doing anything about it, not changing direction.

Another popular response when finding oneself going the wrong way is to blame others for our misdirection. You could look at your spouse and say, “you told me to go this way,” or “going this way was your idea,” or, “it’s not my fault, everybody else was going this way, how was I to know?’ (This option is an old favorite, dating back to Adam and Eve, “You ate the apple,” “You gave it to me.”)

Or, you could blame the map or google or the guy at the gas station.

A modern response is to blame God for going the wrong way. We could spot God in the Southbound lane and look over at our spouse and say, “Would you look at that? God’s lost, God’s going the wrong way, God’s out of touch with the modern world’s sense of direction.”

People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are, we avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us personally. We are usually quite willing to ask others to change and equally unwilling to make changes in ourselves.

John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees strike at the root of the matter. The text says they were coming for the baptism of repentance, so why does John reject them?

It is because he recognizes that they were coming to join the crowd, they were not coming as people who knew they needed to change, nor were they willing to change.


John thunders at them, and what he means is pretty simple; Let me see some evidence of a changed direction in your life.

Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees assumed that just being members of the Chosen People was enough. They had latched on to the Chosen part with out remembering the “chosen for a purpose” part. God’s people were Chosen to follow God and to lead the world to follow God. The Pharisees and Sadducees had forgotten the responsibility to others that goes with being a part of a Covenant People of God.

Once during the War Abraham Lincoln had a conversation with a minister who was a fervent abolitionist and war supporter. He said “Mr. Lincoln, don’t you believe that God is on our side?”

Lincoln replied, I certainly hope so Sir. But a more important question would seem to be: Are we on God’s side? That is still a very important question:

Are we on God’s side? If God is going South, why are we going North? If the Kingdom of God is at Hand, what must we do to be ready?

I always remember my mother’s efforts to decorate our little four room house
for Christmas. She had transparent plastic sheets, the size of notebook paper, that contained Biblical nativity scenes. Taped onto the panes, they looked like stained glass windows.

Year after year, Daddy traipsed out into the woods and came home with a scrawny “Charlie Brown” lop-sided pine tree. We would tuck it in a corner to hide the bad side and decorate it with lights and balls and tinsel.

There was a Vacation Bible School Nativity scene for the top of the TV and green holly draped on the wall above the stove and we tacked up five of Daddy’s long gray work socks on the wall above the wood box. We were “getting ready” for Christmas.

John’s word to us today is that GOD is coming, and we need to get ready. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Listen to Isaiah’s version of the promise:

11:1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

That is the kingdom that is coming, that is the world that Jesus brings with him, that is the side of the road GOD is traveling on.

God is traveling South on the side of Peace and Justice and the Poor. It is not for us to debate as to whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side.

God is barreling down the highway in that direction and the only question for us is Are YOU Ready to Follow? Are you ready to REPENT, to change direction and to follow God wherever God leads? Amen and amen.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Slowly through the gathering darkness they came,
hoping, looking for a place to stay.
A confused young man and a pregnant young woman,
following the path, day after day.

She had heard voices, he had dreamed dreams,
they carried promise in their hearts.
But, for now, life was a matter of waiting,
of waiting for God, of playing their parts.

Advent is patience, Advent is hope,
Advent is walking slowly through life’s darkness
Holding words of hope and promise to our chests,
waiting for God to come, again.

Delmer Chilton, advent 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Advent I, Dec. 2, 2007

ADVENT I Dec. 2, 2007
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14,Matthew 24:36-44

I’ll come right to the point. Today’s Gospel lesson is an extremely odd way to start our celebration of the Christmas season. Here we are all decked out in Advent Blue, we’ve lit the first Advent Candle, the Joy Group held a Christmas Party yesterday.

There are announcements in the bulletin about Christmas Poinsettias and the Gibsonville Christmas parade and the Children’s Christmas Program and the Choir Cantatas.

One thing’s for sure, we’re ready for Christmas, but the Gospel lesson isn’t about Christmas.
It’s about Noah and the flood and people dying and thieves breaking in and stealing and we have to wonder,


Well, if by Christmas you mean the Mid-winter American festival of excess and partying and gift-giving, the answer is practically nothing.

Don’t get me wrong; mostly I like that Christmas, it’s kind of fun. I like bright colored lights and shiny Christmas trees and Lord knows I like to get presents. I like parties and I like singing Christmas Carols. Heck, I even like singing, “Grandma got runned over by a reindeer.”

But almost none of that has anything to do with the Christmas we celebrate in the church. That’s the world’s Christmas, the secular Christmas, but it is most definitely NOT the Mass of Christ, the Feast of the Incarnation.

The Mass of Christ is a time to celebrate the fact that, in the words of St. John, “God so loved the world that he sent his only beloved Son.“ John 3:16

And in the words of the Nicene Creed, For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.

If we’re talking about the Christmas that is the celebration of the coming of God to Earth in human form, then our Gospel lesson is a perfect guide for our preparation.

One of the problems with what I call XMAS, the secular celebration, is that is focused primarily on the past and on the present without any thought to the future. We see the distant past, “The First Noel,” that long ago night when Christ was born, through the misty lens of our personal past. We struggle to recreate Family Traditions, we get all muddled up in images of real stables and hay bales and plywood in the sanctuary, between real shepherds and 5 year old boys in bathrobes.

We focus our energy on evoking the Spirit of the Christmas season, as if by faithfully observing the right rituals, singing the right songs, sending the perfect card to just the right perfect people we can somehow make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy and right with the world.

And what gets lost in all this is the sense that we are waiting on God; that we are not just thinking about the past, we are looking for God to DO something NEW, again. Instead of expecting God to come suddenly, we have tamed God, domesticated the deity.

We know when God is coming, one minute after midnight, December 25. We have 19 more shopping days ‘til Christmas, 22 if you count the Sundays. God’s coming is within our control, we can schedule it, plan it, orchestrate it, organize it; and if we can just get everything just right, it’ll be the best Christmas EVER!

Somehow, we have allowed ourselves to reduce the greatest miracle in the history of the world
to a matter of guest lists, recipes and the correct display of gaudy colored lights.


For, while Christmas is, quite appropriately, the celebration of that night, 2000 years ago, when Christ was born, it is more than that. And though Christmas is, again, quite appropriately, a time when families gather and we remember Christmases past with fondness and affection, it is also something more. And the season of Advent is designed to remind us of that Something More.

Advent is the season of Hope, a time when we are called to look to the future with confidence, a time to prepare ourselves for the new miracles God will work in our world. It is a time to get ready for the NEW movements of God’s Spirit in our lives.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus uses three illustrations to help us realize the suddenness and unpredictability of God’s activity in the world.

First, he cites the familiar story of Noah and the flood, pointing out that the other people went about their normal business, ignoring God until it was too late.

Secondly, he gives twin examples about how some, even in the midst of their normal business, are ready to drop everything and go when Jesus calls.

And Third, Jesus makes reference to the age old problem of burglary, and makes the simple point that if you know when the bad guys are coming, you can be ready for them. But you don’t, so you have to be ready all the time.

And that’s the way it is with God; you never know when the God-moment is going to show up, so you have to be ready all the time.

And this readiness is not a matter of hanging decorations, and baking cookies, and sending Christmas cards, and going to office parties. This readiness is a tenderness in the heart, a willingness of the spirit to hear God’s word and to go God’s way.

To be ready for Christ to come into our lives and into our hearts, we must beat our personal swords into plowshares and our private spears into pruning hooks.

We must make peace in our families and in our churches and in our workplaces before we can make peace in the world. For us to be ready for Christ to come, we must lay aside all the works of darkness, we must put on the armor of light. We must examine our lives, and repent of our sins, and commit ourselves to acts of charity and goodness, to lives of love and generosity.

Advent is a time to Wake UP, a time to prepare ourselves to receive God into our lives. And, as you know, God has a habit of sneaking up on people. God tends to make appearances in unusual ways, through unlikely people, in unexpected places.

2000 years ago, it was a little baby, the child of an un-wed teen-age mother, in a dirty smelly cow-stall, on the other side of nowhere.

Who knows who, or when, or where it might be next time?

Who knows? It might be you! Now! Here!

Get Ready! Wake Up! God’s Coming! The Future is upon us.

amen and amen.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Christ the King, Nov. 25, 2007

Nov. 25, 2007

Luke 23:33-43

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is an odd sort of celebration for this time of year, with this story of Jesus’ crucifixion popping up between the Feasting of Thanksgiving and the Joy of Advent and Christmas.

And the very idea of kings, and Jesus as our King, is very hard for us to get a handle on in America in 2007. After all, we got rid of kings in this country 230 years ago. What do kings have to do with us?

We have silly images, like the Burger King, now being hunted by a hitman hired by suburban moms because his sandwiches are better than theirs.

We have Elvis, THE KING. A friend of mine is pastor of Christ the king Lutheran Church in Tupelo Miss., Elvis’ birthplace. I told her she should rename the church The King’s Lutheran Church and put a velvet painting of Elvis at the Last Supper in the Narthex. I figured she could work up a good crowd like that, but she declined.

Let’s see, what other kings are there? Well, there’s usually some loud-mouthed salesman on TV who proclaims himself the Mattress King, or the Used Car King, or the something like that. COME ON DOWN. WE’RE DEALING!

None of these ideas is of much help to us in thinking about what it means for us to call Christ our King. Let’s look at the Bible and see what’s going on for the Jews and for Pilate and for the thief on the cross.

Our Gospel lesson falls out into two basic sections.
1) verses 33-38 – the crucifixion
2) verses 39-43 – the conversation with the thieves.

Luke’s story of the crucifixion is very spare and simple; “they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his left and one on his right.”
That’s it. Very simple, very plain, and very clear to the people to whom Luke was writing.
Luke was a Greek, his main audience was Greco-Roman in culture, not Jewish, and they knew exactly was Crucifixion was, they didn’t need to have it explained to them. It was very common throughout the empire. Which was Luke’s point.

Jesus, the supposed Son of God, Lord of Lord and King of Kings, executed like a common criminal with a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, is it?

And then, more indignity, more shame; the soldiers kneel at his feet while he’s still alive. Not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes.

And people laughed at him, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen One.” There it is, the crux of the matter for the people then, and if we’re honest for us now.

We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a Savior who can not only forgive our sins, but who will make us richer and prettier and more popular and help insure that all our plans work out for the best.

Joel Osteen is pastor of the large mega-church that meets in the large arena in Houston that used to be where the Houston Rockets played basketball.

He recently was interviewed on NPR, talking about his books and sermons and the interviewer pointed out there was almost nothing in his preaching and writing that had to do with God, or theology, or Christ or death and resurrection. The interviewer said, “It seems to be mostly pop psychology with a Bible verse attached.” And all Osteen could think to say was “Well, what I teach them helps people.”

Yes, we want a powerful savior, a helpful God, a conquering Messiah, a King who conquers. That’s why they were mocking him.

And the Romans made fun of him too, for different reasons. It amused them to see this carpenter; this rustic preacher wrapped in purple, with people claiming he was the King of the Jews, the rightful King, the representative of God on earth.

It amused them because they were Romans and they knew what a real king looked like, and this was definitely not it. A real king had power and arrogance and a hint of cruelty, and this Jesus had none of that. So they mocked him.

This first part of the Scripture shows us a man who is not anything like what anyone believes a king should be; not the Romans, not the Jews, not us.

The Second Part, verses 39 through 43 shows us what kind of king Jesus was, and is.

One of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in the derision, (verse 39). He sees Jesus the same way everyone else does, as a self-deluded failure, as a pitifully deranged religious fanatic, as a nut.

But for some reason, the other thief sees Jesus with the eyes of faith.

He starts out simply by reminding the other man that while they are guilty, Jesus’ himself is innocent and does not deserve to die. So far, just a compassionate and honest thief taking pity on another condemned man.

Then he does this astounding thing. He turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Where did that come from?

How can he hang there on the cross and look over at a man dying beside him, and see in him a savior, a messiah, a king with a kingdom?

More importantly, how can we look upon this same man, this same small town carpenter and preacher, this same little Jew from 2000 years ago, and see in him not only the Saviour of the world but the Saviour of our souls?

It is because of something the Jews introduced to the world, that Jesus taught and lived out and died for, something which has become a part of our modern world; the idea that the true leader, the true king is the one who serves, the one who suffers for the people.

The Jewish idea of a king was that the king ruled under God, not as a God, that the king was as responsible to God as were the subjects.

This idea was taken further by the prophets, in particular Isaiah, who saw the king, the messiah as one who suffers on behalf of the people, as a suffering servant.

Jesus frequently said things like the true leader is the one who serves others. The one who takes up the burdens of others is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Particularly at the Last Supper, when he got down on his knees and washed the disciples feet, Jesus showed what true leadership, true kingship, is about.

And somehow, the second thief got it, saw what Jesus was doing, saw that here was the Lord of the Universe, the King of kings, refusing to swat his oppressors, dying so that they could be forgiven, dying so that by his suffering their suffering would be healed.

In 1988 an earthquake hit Armenia. Some years later Nishan Bakalian was in the town of Stepavan and met a woman everyone called, “Palasan’s wife.”
They called her that to show her great honor.
Here’s the story.

When the earthquake hit, it was nearly noon. Palasan was at work. He rushed to the elementary school where his son was a pupil. The front was falling, but Palasan went in and started pushing children out. He stood in a door, his back pushing up against the jamb and helped at least 28 children to safety before an aftershock collapsed the building and killed him.

The people of his town honor his memory by calling his widow, “Palasan’s wife.” They remember that he died to save others, the greatest act of leadership possible.

We celebrate Christ the King today, not because of his Regalness, but because of his humility, not because of his power but because of his compassion, not because of his triumph but because of his travail, not because he fixes our lives but because he shows us the way to live.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pentecost 25

November 18, 2007

Texts: Malachi 4:1-2a
2 Thess. 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Title: Visions of the Future

I have lived in and around a lot of the cities of the South. Raleigh/Durham in college and graduate school; Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, Whitsett.

In my last job I traveled around the country and flew into and drove around places like L.A., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, etc. And they all have two things in common:
1) Bad traffic and 2) The Blame Game. Locals blame the bad traffic on the newcomers and the newcomers blame it on the locals.

One day I was driving Joseph to school in Nashville, in the usual 7:15 AM mess on I-40, when I saw a bumper sticker that expressed my frustration perfectly:


There you go, I thought to myself. Forget the big stuff, like Visualizing World Peace,” that’s too much, and too hard, and too unlikely to contemplate.

But I can visualize (and actualize) using my turn signal; just do the little things that make life a little easier for everybody.

Who knows? Maybe if everybody in Whitsett and Gibsonville and McLeansville and Burlington and Greensboro would use their turn signals properly, it might be a real start toward World Peace. I know it would reduce MY animosity toward my anonymous neighbors.

When I read today’s Gospel lesson, I thought about that bumper sticker. In the midst of all that big talk about big doings, Jesus sprinkles hints that its really about the simple behavior asked of us when such things inevitably happen.

Many people get all excited about that prophecy stuff in the Bible, all these dire predictions of awful things soon to come. People worrying about the end of the world, and I have enough trouble making it to the end of my paycheck.

And we have our modern versions. Remember Y2K? All that stuff about how the computers would shut down on January 1, 2000 and all the bad stuff that would happen because of that?

Had a church member in Nashville who filled his basement with water and food, and guns and ammo because when the time came, he said, he and his family would survive.

He quit coming to church because I wouldn’t take him seriously and get on his survivalist bandwagon, preaching the end of the world, etc. And January 1, 2000 came with nary a whimper.

I think with the drought, and the war in Iraq, and the falling apart of the ozone layer and global warming and aids and, need I go on? We have plenty of things to worry about in the present without fretting over predictions from the Bible.

One of the real problems we have is that all these things are so large and global and unmanageable and we are so small, that our temptation is to throw up our hands in despair and bury our heads in the sand and hope against hope that it all turns out alright.

But it is important to note carefully what Jesus says in today’s text:

Verse 9: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, DO NOT BE TERRIFIED.

Verse 14: “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom . . ‘

Verse 18: “Not a hair of your head will perish”

Verse 19: “By your endurance, you will gain your souls”

We have a tendency to hear only the bad news, don’t we? We’re like my Daddy with a report card. He could look at 5 A’s and a B and the first thing he did was point at the B and say, “What happened here?”

Yes, we hear the bad news, but these texts are really about Good News, about the Gospel. Jesus isn’t preaching gloom and doom; Jesus is preaching reality. Jesus was not predicting some far off day of ultimate battle; he was talking about the reality of life in Israel, which was an occupied country and had been buffeted about by war during its entire existence.

Jesus’ words remind us of our call to a life of endurance, patience and faith in the midst of a world that is often difficult and confusing.

We are called to a faith that looks above and beyond our personal circumstances to the promise of God to hold us and keep us safe forever.

We must not forget about World Peace, but we must remember that we move toward world peace in little things, like remembering to use turn signals.

Robert Fulghum wrote the best seller, All I Ever Needed to Know, I learned in Kindergarten. He tells the story of a pilgrim on the road to Chartres during the time its world famous Cathedral was being built.

Near the edge of the construction site, the pilgrim came upon a man cutting stones.
“What you doing?” The pilgrim asked.
“Cutting stones,” the man replied, “Every day, I cut stones.”

A bit later the pilgrim came upon a glass blower and asked him, “What you doing?”
“I am a glass blower,” was his reply, “I blow the glass to make it into large and more colorful panes.”

The Pilgrim went on and walked through the half finished Cathedral. There he happened upon a woman sweeping up dust from chipped stones and pieces of broken glass.
One more time the Pilgrim asked “What you doing?” The woman placed her broom against he wall, looked up at the spires reaching into the sky, smiled and said,
I’m building a Cathedral to the glory of God!

I’m not just sweeping up, I’m building a Cathedral!

I’m not just signaling a left turn; I’m building peace and civility in the world!

I’m not just helping out in Sunday School; I’m shaping a child’s soul for life and eternity.

In the big picture of God’s world, there are no small or unimportant actions.

The story is told that when Westminster Cathedral in England was being built, a merchant came by at mealtime everyday to take a look at the progress. (Like me, he was not afraid of work; he could stand and watch it for hours.)

He noticed a stonecutter being unusually careful with one particular piece, chipping and shaping it for weeks.

The man wondered, “What so special about that stone? Is it part of the Altar, or perhaps its part of the Pulpit, or maybe it’s to go over the front door.

Finally, he asked the mason where the stone would go. He took the merchant around to the back of a side aisle and pointed to an obscure, hidden spot.

The Merchant was stunned, “But nobody will see it back here!”

The stonecutter said, “That’s alright. We’re not building this cathedral for everybody, we’re building it for God!”

Our Gospel lesson is a call to faithful living, to endurance, to hanging in through tough times, to having faith in the God who has faith in you.

It’s about building your life into a Cathedral. The word cathedral comes from the Latin word for chair cathedra. It designates the bishop’s home church, where the Bishop “sits”. If we make our life into a Cathedral, it becomes a place where God can feel at home, where God is present, where God is in control.

And we move from that to making our congregation a cathedral, a place where God rules in every heart, where Christ’s love motivates all actions, where we remember it’s about God and not about us.

And we then move into the world, carrying this cathedral building with us, building networks of connection in the world, networks that share God’s love with those who need it most, those stepped on by war, persecuted by oppression, rejected by Society, left wounded and bleeding outside on the doorstep.

And it is our call to do the little things that open the door so that they can come in and be received into the arms of God’s love.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Pentecost 24, Nov. 11, 2007

PENTECOST 24 Nov. 11, 2007

Texts: Job 19:23-27a, Luke 20:27-38

Some time ago the Oxford American magazine had an article about what it called “mysterious traffic stops and starts.”

You know what they’re talking about; you’re going along the Interstate and suddenly traffic slows and then almost stops and then you creep for a while. All the time you’re wondering “What happened?” “What’s going on?” Oh, I hope nobody got hurt or killed.” “I wonder if its construction?”

You crane your neck to look ahead, to get a glimpse of the problem. Then as suddenly as traffic halted it speeds up again; and here’s the thing. There’s nothing there; no construction, no accident, no police check, nothing, nada, zip! It’s infuriating, isn’t it?

Well, the article in the Oxford American says that a group of Traffic Engineers investigated this problem. They tested a number of theories, and . . .

And here’s their conclusion. They don’t know. They really don’t know why it happens. It just does sometimes, for no apparent, detectable reason.

And that drives me nuts! Because I can’t stand meaninglessness. There’s something within me that rebels against the notion that things can happen with no cause and no purpose.

But, life feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? There are times when it feels like we’re buzzing down life’s highway making good time, purposely going about our business; when suddenly things happen that cause life to seem totally meaningless.

That’s what happened to Job. As the book opens, he’s really making good time on the highway of life; things are great. Wife, kids, job, spiritual life: everything’s wonderful!

Then, in short order, everything grinds to a halt, the wheels fall off, and he’s left sitting on the side of the road in the burned out shell of his life.

No rhyme, no reason, no poetic justice, no novelistic irony, no cinematic climax; just meaningless disaster. His friends explore a number of theories as to the why of his predicament. Most of these ideas have to do with either Job’s hidden sinfulness or God’s lack of justice. Even Job’s wife tells him he should just curse God and die.

And yet, it is at this particular moment that Job make’s his impassioned statement of HOPE:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my redeemer lives. . .

In the midst of his darkest night, Job holds on to Hope.

Many people know of CS Lewis as the author of the Children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia. Others also know him as the author of books on Christianity, as a defender of the faith, as a man who knows and explains all of what it means to be a believer. Another side of his life was told in the movie Shadowlands.

In the mid 1950’s Lewis, a lifelong bachelor, met and married an American woman, Joy Davidman. They had a few good years together, then she died of cancer.

Lewis wrote and published an anonymous book. It was called A Grief Observed. There Lewis poured out his pain and loss, his anger at God, his frustration and his loss of confidence in the very faith he had defended and proclaimed for so long. For me, his most powerful words of faith were these,
“You never know how much you believe ANYTHING until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life or death to you.”

Just as Job’s belief in the justice of God was strained to the breaking point by hardships he endured, Lewis’ belief in God’s goodness was almost overcome by the suffering and death of his wife.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the Sadducees ask Jesus a very silly question about the Resurrection. They don’t really care about the answer. It’s not a matter of life or death to them. They don’t believe in the Resurrection.

They are simply trying to trap Jesus into saying something objectionable; the way news reporters ask leading questions trying to get Presidential candidates to say something that will offend somebody enough to make news.

Jesus’ answer is a firm affirmation of the promise of the Resurrection.

The truth or falsehood of Jesus’ words became a matter of life and death to me a few years ago; on the night my wife was hit by a car while walking across the street near Vanderbilt University.

At 3 AM, as I sat, alone and frightened, in the Trauma Unit waiting room, waiting to find out if my wife would live or die that night – I pondered my belief in the promises of God.

Did I really believe? Believe; not just in God, or in the hope that God would spare her. No, my question was, did I really believe in the resurrection of the dead, in those words I so blithely and casually repeated Sunday after Sunday as I recited the Apostles’ Creed? Did I, did I really? It’s a very lonely place, and a very lonely question.

As Lewis said, “You never really know how much you believe anything until its truth or false hood becomes a matter of life or death to you.” “I know that my redeemer lives,” Job said. Did I know that, I wondered?
The questions before us today are these:

Is life meaningless, like the unexplainable fits and starts of interstate traffic?

Was Job a fool to continue to hope for redemption in the face of his suffering and loss?

And, how much do we, here, today, believe, really believe the gospel we read and preach and hear and recite Sunday after Sunday?

When we recite the creed – do we mean it, or do we just say it? Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ a matter of life or death to us?

Or are we like the Sadducees, making idle chatter and asking silly questions about things which we don’t really care about?

How committed are we, as individuals and as a community, to the most important truth we know; which is the truth that God is love, and God’s love is so deep and so true and so endless that God came and lived, and loved, and taught among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

And the truth that God’s love is so complete that, in a mystery too deep for us to fully comprehend; when Jesus died upon the cross, it was God pouring out his life for us, going to Hell for us, fighting sin and the Devil for us.

Indeed, God’s love is so immense that on Easter morning, God brought Jesus out of that tomb, and in that moment broke the chains of Sin, Death and the Devil for all of us.

To have faith, to really believe, to hold on to hope, is to embrace that story, God’s story, as our story, and to see every moment of every day as a moment and a day that has meaning and importance because it is a moment and day lived in the presence of God.

We are called to lay ourselves upon the altar of God and to cry out with Job,

“I know that my Redeemer lives,
and until the day when He shall stand upon the earth,
I will serve him.”
Amen and Amen.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Nov. 4, 2007

Text; Matthew 5:1-12

Boy, I love family reunions, mine and everybody else’s. The Hubbards, my Mama’s people, go to the old homeplace in Patrick County, Va. on the Saturday before Father’s Day every year. We eat a lot and play softball.

This year was kind of special; we surprised Mama and everybody else with a wedding. My younger brother Tony and his fiancĂ©e Terri got married and nobody knew it was happening except me and Terri’s parents. It was a lot of fun.

I go to a lot of family reunions as a pastor, especially those that happen at the church after worship. People graciously invite me to stay fro lunch and I seldom decline. You all know how much I love old-fashioned Southern cooking; and I need a break from my Jenny Craig regimen once in a while.

I remember one reunion back at Lutheran Chapel in China Grove when this one lady had gotten all excited about doing the family history. So after dinner, she began to give everyone a report.

She started with the first settlement in Rowan County and worked her way back up the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to the Pennsylvania Dutch area back over to Germany, to the time of Luther and beyond.

It was kind of interesting for a while, but it drug on and on for an hour and people started getting bored. As usual, I was sitting with the teen-agers and as she drew to a close, she asked, “Did I leave anyone else?” The kid next to me muttered, “Yeah, Adam and Eve.”

Today is all Saints Sunday. It is a day when we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. It is a day to trace our Christian family history, yes, all the way back to Adam and Eve.

It is a day when we thankfully remember those of our church members and friends and relatives who have died in the last year, who have gone on to join the saints in heaven.

It is also a day when we are called to examine our own saintliness, a time to remember our call to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors.

As Christians, our family tree is not limited to nor defined by our biological connectedness. We are all grafted into the family tree of God through the sacrament of Baptism; we have all been adopted as children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus describes what a “blessed,” a “holy,” a “sainted” person is:

They are “poor in spirit” – that is, “they totally trust in God”

They are “those who weep” – “they share the sufferings of others”

They are the “meek” - they are “kind to others”

They are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”
they “fervently desire justice in the world”

They are “the merciful,” - they are “full of forgiveness”

They are the “pure in heart,” - they are “people of deep integrity”

They are “peacemakers,” - they “work for peace and justice”

When I measure my life against Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, I don’t feel very Saintly. Indeed, I feel like the little boy Lois Wilson wrote about meeting at her door on Halloween.

He was about four and he was wearing a Superman outfit. He reached out his hand as he said trick or treat. Ms. Wilson couldn’t resist teasing him a bit, Where’s you bag?, she said. He replied, My Mom’s carrying it. It’s too heavy for me. Ms. Wilson smiled and said, “But you’re Superman!

He looked down at the S on his chest and looked back at Ms. Wilson and whispered, Not really, these are just Pajamas.

Though the Scriptures tell us that because we’re Christians, we’re also saints; most of us don’t believe it. We look down at the S on our chest and then plead with God, Not Really, I’m only human.

Which is really THE great mystery of All Saints Day. We are indeed only human, but we are also "The saints who gather" at Friedens Church, as Paul put it in many of his letters.

We are, as Martin Luther said, Saint and Sinner at the same time. While we do not go around in Christian Pajamas, with a big haloed S on our chest, we do have an invisible cross on our foreheads, put there at our baptism with the words;

Delmer Lowell Chilton, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever.

Each of us has that mark on our lives; a mark which calls us forward into saintliness. We are called to continually try to live into our name as Children of God, as baptized Saints.

And, we never quite make it. We’re always aware of falling short, of not measuring up. We are also always aware that the other people in our family seldom measure up either. Unfortunately, we are sometimes more aware of the failures of others that we are of our own.

Someone sent me a little poem a few years ago. Its one of those things that got tucked away in a file. I ran across it the other day;

Oh, to live above, with Saints we love,
Oh, that will be Glory.

Oh, to live below, with Saints we know,
Well, that’s a different story!

The struggle of the Christian life is to remember that we are Saints in spite of our failures, and to remember that the other people in our Church Family are Saints as well, in spite of their imperfections.

One of the things I love about Family Reunions and Church Homecomings is that they are the most Grace-filled moments we share. It is a time when we look beyond the surface to see the mark of the family, the mark of Christ on everyone.

Regulars and irregulars, the faithful and the wandering, the staunch believers and “barely hanging on to their faith by the skin of their teeth,” doubters, those close at hand and those who came from far off; all together in one place, celebrating and enjoying their relatedness to each other and to God.

Our calling on this All Saints Sunday is to remember our saintedness, our blessedness, our holiness; which is a gift from God, a gift we were given for the benefit of the world.

It is also a day to remember the saintliness, the blessedness, the holiness of others. To remember that they too are the beloved Children of God and that we are to treat them that way.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Oct. 28, 2007

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Savonarola was a Catholic Priest and one of the great preachers of the 15th century. He preached in the great cathedral of Florence, Italy.

There was in that Cathedral a beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When Savonarola came to the cathedral as its primary preacher, he noticed an elderly woman who came to early mass every day.

This woman spent most of the service staring at the statue of the Virgin with a look of rapture and longing on her face.

The Pastor mentioned this woman to an old priest who had served in the cathedral for over fifty years. He went on and on about her piety and her devotion and her regularity at worship.

The wise old priest looked at the enthusiastic young, pastor with a twinkle in his eye and said,

“Do not be deceived. Things are not always what they seem. Once upon a time there was an artist who hired a beautiful young woman to pose for that statute of the virgin.

The old woman you see now is that same beautiful young woman. She comes here each day, not to worship God, but to worship who she used to be.”

Before we judge her too harshly, we Lutherans need to take a hard look at ourselves and see if we are not sometimes guilty of the same thing.

Especially here today, celebrating Reformation Sunday in a church that is 262 years old. Think about this a minute. Luther died in 1546. Friedens was founded in 1745. 199 years. We are much further away in time from the founding of this church than our ancestors here were from the founding of Lutheranism. We have a lot of “used to be” to worship.

Now, I do not pretend to think that Lutherans are the only ones guilty of this, nor do I think it a particularly heinous or disgusting sin. For the most part, a little appreciation of the past is a good thing.

The problem comes when the worshipping of who we used to be gets in the way of worshipping God.

The danger arises: when an honest appreciation of the past turns into false pride in our faith tradition,

when history turns into idolatry and respect for our forebears turns into ancestor worship,

when it becomes more important to us to be Lutheran than it is to be Christian.

We have to be careful that we do not replace Faith in Christ with Faith in Churchiness.

For this is the very danger Luther confronted almost 500 years ago. People had forgotten Christ, or so it seemed. They thought only about the Church and what it asked of them.

Go to mass, go to penance, buy indulgences, go on pilgrimage, see the relics, obey the priest, etc, etc.

And in this midst of this “Church” worship, an obscure little Bible teacher at an obscure little college, in an obscure little town in the middle of nowhere stood up and shouted NO!

Luther’s protest was not just about the sale of indulgences; it was about an entire system of belief and action which attempted to define what someone had to do and think and say in order to be acceptable to the church, and by the way, to God. Luther’s 95 theses were both a cry of pain and a cry for freedom.

Luther looked the entire system of indulgences and penance and acts of contrition and venial sins and mortal sins and going to see relics and making pilgrimages and saw that this system was blinding people to the simple Gospel.

People had begun to believe that following the church’s rules made them a Christian and right with God. What Luther discovered and shouted from the rooftops was the simple truth that it doesn’t work that way.

Actually, it works the other way around. Our hearts, our souls are changed and transformed by the overwhelming power of the Love of God in Christ Jesus.

As a result of that change, that transformation, we then go forth in love and service to our neighbor.

We don’t do good things so that God will forgive and love us.

Because God loves and forgives us, we love and forgive others, doing good things.

How does this happen? What moves our hearts and souls and makes of us new creatures in Christ?

It is the Christ event, it is the Cross, it is the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. That is what does it, and that alone.

But yet today, we don’t trust God’s love, we still try to find out what the right thing to do is to prove that we are good people, worthy of God’s love.
We still want to say the right thing, to feel the right thing; we still seek a new prayer technique of a special mission from God, or a sign from above; something, anything, that we can do or hold on to to prove to ourselves and to God that we are worthy.

And the Gospel is, there is nothing we can do,
nothing we can say,
nothing we can be
that can make God love us.

All we can do is cling to Christ, in the words of Luther’s wife Katie, “Like a burr to the hem of a dress.”

When I moved to Atlanta, I met a man named Adolphus. He was a very active member of my church.

Adolphus grew up in a part of Atlanta called “Sweet Auburn” for Auburn Avenue. It’s where MLK’s Ebenezer Church is. Adolphus graduated from Morehouse College in the late 1940’s and went to work for the Postal Service. He was also one of the best trumpeter’s I ever heard.

Throughout the 1950’s and early 60’s, Adolphus burned the candle at both ends, delivering mail by day and playing horn at night in a variety of night clubs and juke joints.

One morning about 3 AM, Adolphus sat at his kitchen table drinking coffee after a late night gig and assessed his life. Another marriage was failing, he was drinking and using dope to keep going, he barely knew his children. There at that kitchen table he bowed his head and prayed, “Lord, I need help. I need to change. I’ll do my part. I’ll be back in church. Help me.”

The next day Adolphus got up about noon. While getting a cup of coffee, he heard noise in the large vacant lot behind his house. Cup in hand, he went to investigate. There were several men with strings and flags and maps. He asked them, “What ya’ll doing?”
“We’re fixin’ to build a Lutheran church,” they said.

Adolphus dropped his cup and then dropped to his knees looking up to heaven, “You don’t mess around,” he prayed. The next Sunday, Adolphus started attending the Lutheran Church.

Adolphus discovered what Luther discovered and proclaimed, there is nothing we must do to earn God’s love.

And once we are aware of God’s love and presence in our lives, there is nothing we won’t do for God.

Reformation Sunday is not just about looking back on our history and congratulating ourselves for being Lutherans.

It’s not a time to rehearse how the good heroic Luther challenged the evil Roman Catholic Church.

It’s not a time to get misty over the many Lutherans through the years who took many risks to keep the faith alive, including the risk of moving to the frontier in Western Carolina in 1745.

It’s not a time to worship who we used to be.

It is rather a time to remember the Gospel in its purity and its simplicity.

It is a time to put away all attempts to impress God or each other with our goodness, or our intelligence, or our learning, or our piety or our enthusiasm or our liturgy or whatever else we may hold up to prove to ourselves or others or God that we deserve to be loved.

Today is a day to remember that we are loved for Christ’s sake and for Christ’s sake alone.
And that is enough, praise be to God, that is enough.

amen and amen.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On Mission Trip

I'm in Biloxi/Gulfport Mississippi with about 150-200 Lutherans from North and South Carolina. We're working with Habitat for Humanity on a "Build." So, I'm not preaching this week and haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the texts, except . . .

It seems to me that there are an awful lot of folks demanding justice who really wouldn't want it if they got it; pure, impartial justice I mean. What we generally mean when we demand justice is that we want things decided in our favor or in the favor of those we support. That is a very limited view of justice.

Also, we often seek fairness; again, most of us only demand fairness at those times when we feel ourselves aggrieved. We are seldom so vehement when things turn out undeservedly in our favor. Then we call it grace without much thought to how our good luck is often someone else's bad luck.

True justice is God's justice, which is not impartial; rather it is merciful and slanted. To persist in prayer, in calling for judgement, is to trust that God's will will ultimately be done and that God's judgements are, well, just; whether or not they are fair.

God's justice is something like my Uncle LW's pay policy on the farm. My brother Danny and I worked for him as seasonal harvesters in the summers. Danny was 16, I was 14. Uncle LW let Danny keep the hours, figure the pay and write the checks.
Danny told me after the first week that Uncle LW paid "Johnny" a dollar more an hour than he paid us. Johnny was about 30, illiterate, slovenly and a slow worker. He had a wife and three or four dirty children who lived with him in an old house on Uncle LW's farm. Danny and I knew we were each more valuable as an employee than Johnny, so we went to our uncle and, "demanded justice," sort of. We shyly asked him about it at Sunday dinner after church. He looked at us and then burst out, "Hello here! You little scamps! I don't pay Johnny more because he's worth it. I pay him more because he needs it."

That's justice.



Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pentecost 20, Lectionary 28, October 14, 2007

Oct.14, 2007

TEXTS: II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Luke 17: 11-19

We have before us today two interesting stories:

the story of Namaan and the story of the ten lepers.

Both are stories about people healed of a skin disease.

Both are stories in which the “heroes” are outsiders, aliens, foreigners.

Both are stories about trusting God in our journey of faith.

First the story of Namaan.

Namaan was a powerful and important man with a problem. He was a leper. In Biblical days most chronic skin diseases were labeled leprosy. I have psoriases. In Biblical terms, I am a leper.

Namaan desperately wished to be healed, and no one in his country could help him. Namaan had a Jewish slave, taken in a war raid, and this slave told his wife that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure Leprosy. Namaan’s wife tells her husband, the husband goes to see his king, the king writes a letter to King of Israel. The letter says,

This is Namaan. Cure him of Leprosy.

Well, the king starts tearing his clothes, which was the Biblical equivalent of throwing things. He says, This is impossible. I’m not God. What is he trying to do, start a war, pick a quarrel with me?

At this point the man of God, the prophet Elisha enters the scene. Hearing about all this, he sends a messenger to the king, with a very pointed question:

Why have you torn your clothes?

Why indeed? Why are you so upset?

The answer is simple; the king is so concerned with what he cannot do that he was lost sight of what God can do. (repeat)

When we look at the world and its troubles, with wars and rumors of wars,
with drought and economic uncertainty, with drugs and violence, etc. etc.
When we survey our personal lives with the often difficult relationships and situations

When we look at the life of faith, and the size of our problems and the smallness of our resources,we often forget

LESSON #1 For the Journey of faith

It’s easy to become discouraged if we focus on what we cannot do rather than keeping our hearts and minds centered on what God has promised and will do.

The story moves on. Elisha sends word and invites Namaan to come to his house to be healed. Namaan comes.

I read somewhere that Kings and Generals in that place and that time, were more like gangsters and warlords than modern royalty and professional soldiers.

I imagine Namaan pulling up in front of Elisha’s place in a black stretch limo. He steps out, looking like Tony Soprano, dressed up in an Italian suit and gold chains. He’s surrounded by his henchmen, all with noticeable gun bulges under their sweat suits.

Namaan approaches the front door, and a small boy comes out and says,
“Hey, you Namaan? Right. Well, the boss, he says for you to go wash in the Jordan river seven times and you’ll be okay.”

Like the King, Namaan goes ballistic. He fumes, Why is he showing me this disrespect?
I thought that for ME he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy.

There’s that me business again, I thought that FOR ME he would surely come out.

Namaan had an entire scenario in his mind about how this healing would go, and it was all tied to his own sense of his own importance. And, though he received the promise of healing, he was not satisfied, for it was not grand and special enough, not personal enough, not “special.” The pastor didn’t even come, I must not be very important, humph!

Lesson #2 for the Journey of Faith:

We will be dissatisfied as long as we focus on what we want and not on what God provides.

This is a very difficult lesson for Americans to learn. We are so accustomed to the dictum that, “The customer is always right,” and to our self identity as primarily a customer, a consumer, a recipient of the bountiful abundance that is America, that FOR ME has become the defining mantra of our life.

The idea that we should trust God for what we need and stop worrying about what we want is so foreign to us as to be unintelligible nonsense.

Again, we will be disappointed as long as we focus on what we want and fail to recognize the goodness God provides.

But Namaan’s boys, his posse, his crew, didn’t let him down. They said to him,
Listen, Boss. Don’t do nothing stupid, okay? I mean, this guy comes highly recommended. And, he really didn’t ask you to do much, just wash in their little river a few times. If it works, good. If it don’t; then you can be mad.
And so, he does and he is healed, and he goes back and thanks Elisha and worships God.

Our Gospel lesson is another story of lepers and healing. It is a simple story.
Like Namaan, the ten men had leprosy.
Like Namaan, they wanted to be healed.
Unlike Namaan, they weren’t famous, or powerful or important.
They didn’t have armies to command or kings to influence.
All they had was each other and their disease.

So, they stood on the side of the road, far apart,”Keeping their distance,” the Bible says. They stood there because they had heard that the man Jesus, the faith-healer from Galilee was in the neighborhood, and would be coming by.

They called out to him for healing, and Jesus responded by telling them to go to the Priest and show themselves to be clean.

Not one of them says, But, I’m NOT clean.
Not one of them says, But you didn’t do anything.
Not one of them says, But I’ve still got leprosy.
Not one of them refused to go.

They just took Jesus at his word and did what he said and launched out on the journey of faith, trusting that what he had promised would become true, and it did.
The text says, as they went, they were made whole.

LESSON #3 We are healed by focusing on the trip, not on the destination.

The ten started on the journey to see the priest no different than when they asked Jesus for healing. It was in the midst of their trip that they discovered themselves healed. So it is with us.

Perhaps we came to Church seeking a difference in our lives, looking for the healing of a hurt, the changing of a habit, the forgiveness of a sin. Maybe we have come looking for a new way to be in the world, a new direction and a new purpose for our lives.

Why ever we are here, whatever our motivation for being in the church, on the road asking Jesus for healing, we will be like the lepers, our healing will come not before, nor at the end, but during our journey of faith,

After they realized they were healed, nine went on to see the priest, one came back to thank Jesus. The other nine were focused the cure, on their pretty new skin, on their new experience of being “normal,” and “acceptable,” and “cured.” They were focused on themselves and what had happened to them.

The one who came back to thank Jesus was focused on the one who healed him.
The nine thought about the cure, the one thought about the cause.

LESSON #4 We are grateful when we focus on the Giver more than on the gift.

We are all in the midst of spiritual journeys, road trips of the soul.
We are all in the middle of "as they went."
We have received the promise and set out on the trail.
And, we are experiencing healing as we go, a little here and a little there.

And the question of faith is this, will we notice?
Will we notice our healing?
Will we notice that we are closer to God and to each other?
Will we notice our growth in Grace?
Will we notice our deepening love affair with the Holy?

And when we notice, will we focus on ourselves, on our experience,
or will we focus on the cause, and give thanks to God.

The Good News is, we have God’s promise of healing.
The Good News is, we are on the journey of faith.
The Good News is, we are being made whole.

Amen and amen.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Pentecost 19, Oct. 7, 2007

Like 17:(1-4) 5-10

Some Sayings of Jesus

In my personal Bible, the one I use when praying, preparing bible Studies and writing sermons, the editors have given “informational” headings throughout the text; sort of “helpful hints” for the confused readers.

On the two pages around our Gospel lesson, you’ll see such interesting things as:






And, tucked into the middle of all this fascinating stuff is our Gospel lesson, with the say-nothing title: SOME SAYINGS OF JESUS.

As one reads through them, they do appear to be disconnected from one another. But the more I read and thought about these four sayings, the more they began to hang together in my mind.

They are arranged in a progressive, spiritually logical sequence, building to an awareness of what it means to be a faithful servant of Christ. These “sayings” are about Sin, Forgiveness, Faith and Servanthood.

I – SIN – Verses 1 and 2 –

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come. It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

Jesus took sin seriously. All too often, we do not. I heard about a little boy riding along in the car with his father. They passed a racetrack. The boy asked, “What’s that?” Daddy said, “It’s where people go to race the dogs.” The boy nodded and sat in silence for a while, thinking this over. Eventually he stirred himself and said, “I’ll bet the dogs win.”

Sin is serious business, and it will dog you throughout your life, and if you run with the dogs, I guarantee you; the dogs will win every time. Sin is NOT simply a matter of violating social convention or going against community standards. Jesus did that all the time and was still considered sinless.

SIN is the attitude that says I am more important than God, or anyone else.
SIN is the approach to life that says What’s good for me and mine is what’s good, period.

Such attitudes and approaches to life result in sinful actions, what Jesus calls stumbling, and Jesus takes such stumbling very seriously, as we can see from the exaggerated threat of the millstone around the neck and being thrown into the sea.

This is far different from our modern attitude of casualness about sinfulness. We shrug and grimace and say, “Well, after all, I’m only human!” “Don’t judge me! I’m no worse than anyone else; everybody’s doing it!”

II – Verses 3 and 4

Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, I REPENT, you must forgive.

It does not seem to be accidental that this discussion of sin turns into one of forgiveness. Consistently in the Bible, our forgiveness of others is linked to God’s forgiveness of us. Forgive us our trespasses, our debts, our SINS, as we forgive those who SIN against us.

The only remedy for sin is forgiveness: God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others. We were reminded of this again this week with the anniversary of the shooting of the Amish children in Nickel Mines, PA and the recalling of how the Amish community had forgiven the man, even attending his funeral, and had embraced and cared for his family.

Again Sin is serious business requiring serious and heartfelt response.

Associated Press writer Christopher Burns reported in 1994 that:

The bombs of WWII are still killing in Europe. They turn up – and blow up – at construction sites, in fishing nets, or on beaches. 13 old bombs exploded in France in 1994, killing 12 people and wounding 11. The French Bomb defusion expert said, “Unexploded bombs become more dangerous with time, with the corrosion inside, the weapon becomes more unstable.”

What is true of old, hidden and undefused bombs is true also of old, hidden and unconfessed sins. They hover, undetected and unremembered, just beneath the surface of our lives. They corrode our spirits, make our souls unstable and can explode into our lives at unpredictable moments.

And, the only solution is forgiveness; persistent and generous forgiveness; forgiveness of others, forgiveness of ourselves, and a willingness to allow God to forgive us as well. The Rabbis taught that one who forgives 3 times for the same offence was a perfect person. AND here Jesus doubles that and adds 1, a perfect 7. In another place in the Bible, he makes 70 times 7. This represents infinite forgiveness, perfect and, IMPOSSIBLE!

How can one forgive somebody so many times for the same thing? How could one overcome one’s anger and sense of being violated and mistreated enough to forgive someone for the same offence twice much less 7 times or 70 times or, good gosh, 70 times 7 times.

No wonder the disciples cry out “INCREASE OUR FAITH!” It is the only sensible thing to say. This thing which Jesus asks of them, of us, is, is SUPERHUMAN in scope. There’s no way an ordinary human being can do it. No Way! I’m still steamed at Kent Hrbeck of the Twins lifting Ron Gant of the Braves off first base in the 1991 World Series. I’m neither forgetting nor forgiving. How can I be expected to readily forgive people who have REALLY and PERSONALLY sinned against me?

III – Verses 5-6

The apostles said to the LORD, “Increase our faith!” The LORD replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you.”

Christian forgiveness of others is rooted in our confidence in God’s ability to take care of us. To forgive is to let down one’s guard in the presence of one who has hurt you. This is an extremely difficult thing for us to do. None of us likes to get hurt, all of us take steps to keep ourselves safe. In order to forgive another, especially in order to forgive someone whom you cannot trust, who has hurt you before, requires of us that we put all our trust in God, and trust God to take care of us. Increase our faith, indeed! Only one with a huge faith in God could attempt such huge forgiveness.

But Jesus begs to differ. He tells them they have all the faith they need.
No matter how small it is, it’s enough to do the job, because it’s not the faith that matters; it’s God who does the work. Listen:

IV – Verses 7-10

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ’Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Jesus is telling us that if we were avoiding sin, granting endless forgiveness and moving mountains with the power of OUR faith, these would indeed be extraordinary accomplishments.

But, we aren’t. We don’t and we can’t. We are not doing these things on our own I mean. Not by our own reason and strength, as Luther says in the Small Catechism. What is accomplished in our life of faith is done through the Spirit of God working in us. We are slaves and servants of the Most High God, and that which we do is done at God’s bidding and through God’s power.

Remember the movie, the Karate Kid? I remember how young Daniel went to the Japanese handyman, Mr. Miagi, asking to be taught karate. Mr. Miagi agreed and when Daniel showed up for his lesson, Mr. Miagi put him to work painting the fence, with strict instructions to go Up Down, Up Down, not side to side. Then, while Daniel painted, Mr. Miagi took a nap.

After two days, Mr. Miagi switched Daniel to washing and waxing his antique cars. Wax on, Wax off. Both hands at same time, another two days of Daniel working, and Miagi napping.

Finally, Daniel lost it, “when are you going to teach me to fight? I’m tired of doing your chores!” Miagi responded by angrily attacking Daniel, shouting “Defend yourself!” And Surprise, Surprise, Daniel did, using the very motions he had been learning, Up down, Up down! Wax on, Wax off.

So it is with our spiritual life. We go about the ordinary chores of life together as a Community in Christ. We read the Bible, we pray, we go to committee meetings, we work in the kitchen, we come to church, over and over, year after year. And slowly, but surely, within the ebb and flow of sinning and forgiving and learning and sinning and forgiving, etc. we grow stronger and stronger in our faith, until what seemed impossible becomes ordinary, and we find ourselves sinning less, forgiving more, and trusting God more completely without even noticing; for what once seemed impossible has become normal, thanks be to God.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pentecost 16; Septemeber 16, 2007

September 16, 2007

Luke 15:1-10

“Mom, is God a grown-up or a parent?” Writing in the Catholic Digest, Kathleen Chesto admits being confused by her 5-year-old’s question. “Mom, is God a grown-up or a parent?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said, “What’s the difference between a grown-up and a parent?”

“Well,” the child went on, “Grown-ups love you when you’re good and parents love you anyway.”

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Is God a grown-up or a parent? Does God love you only when you’re good? Or does God love you anyway, that is, anyway you are?

In many ways, that’s what our Gospel lesson is about today. What is the nature of God’s love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really?

And if it is, what does that mean for us? Do we have to love everybody too? Or are there some people we are allowed to dislike because God doesn’t like them either?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find the Pharisees and the Scribes are definitely the Grown-ups. They have done a fine job of figuring out all the dos and don’ts of good and bad behavior.

And, they have, like Santa Claus, made up a list of who’s been naughty and nice, they’ve checked it twice, and they have separated themselves from the bad people, the “tax collectors and sinners.”

In our Gospel lesson, the problem starts when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up; that is, even though he knows that the people with whom he is
“fixin’ to party” are not acceptable, nice and good people; he’s fixin’ to party with them anyway.

And this upsets the Grown-up Pharisees and Scribes because they thought He was on their side.

They thought he was one of them. They thought because he knew so much Bible and talked about giving your all for the Kingdom of God and was an obviously good man, well he must be a Pharisee or Scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and Scribes and . . .

. . .well, they just couldn’t figure this behavior out. What was he doing eating with THOSE people? Doesn’t he know WHO they are, and WHAT they’ve been doing?
It is an unfortunate part of basic human nature that we try to figure out who’s in and who’s out; who’s hot and who’s not; who’s cool and who’s a fool.

It starts in elementary school and, unfortunately, continues in some form for the rest of our lives. We separate ourselves out into Working Class and White Collar, Rednecks and Yankees, townies and country folk, Red States and Blue States, the Religious Right and Secular Humanists, Good people and Bad People.

It is when this separationism works its way into our religion that it is especially heinous. Not only do we decide whom we like and whom we dislike, who’s in and who’s out; we turn into Grown-ups and judge the behavior of others and love them only when they’re good and then put the blessing and curse of God upon OUR choices and prejudices, for we know that God is a Grown-up too and will, of course, endorse our decision.

This is what the Pharisees and Scribes did. Not only did they decide that these people were violating THE rules of Good behavior; they had further decided that God had rejected the Bad People and would have nothing further to do with them, and SO, all Good People should unite in rejecting and shunning them as well.
Therefore, when they saw Jesus’ eating and drinking; partying, with these “tax collectors and sinners,” they were appalled and seriously questioned his Good Person credentials.

Jesus, as was typical of him, responded to their distress by telling them stories, stories about who’s in and who’s out, and about how God feels and acts toward those who are out.

The two stories have what we might call “God Figures,” people who, according to Jesus, act like God. One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices for Jesus to make, because both shepherds and women were out as far as Pharisees and Scribes were concerned.

Because of their nomadic, outdoor lifestyle, shepherds were unable to keep most of the purity laws. They slept, bathed, ate, lived outdoors.

And women were always a problem for strict Pharisees; they preferred to neither see them not speak to them anymore than was absolutely necessary.

Jesus’ stories about the 99 and the 1 sheep and the woman and her lost coin have two simple points;

First: Just as a shepherd values his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, just so, God values all people enough to spare no effort in looking for them. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and will spare no effort in getting us back.

These are incarnational stories, stories about God in Christ coming into the world to seek out and find God’s lost creation. Jesus is the Shepherd seeking out those not in the fold, Jesus is the woman, sweeping through the house, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

Second: In telling about the parties given by the Shepherd to celebrate finding the lost sheep and the woman to celebrate finding her coin., Jesus is chiding the Pharisees and Scribes over their grouchiness about Jesus spending time with the “tax collectors and sinners.”

Look, he says, God is real happy these people are interested in Spiritual Things. These people are thinking about coming back to Church. That is cause for celebration. Instead of being excited they came in for a bath, you sourpusses would rather sit around and complain about the smell.
The question for us today is; are we Grown-ups or Parents? Do we only love people when they’re good, or do we love them anyway, including anyway they are?

Do we make lists of ins and outs, goods and bads, acceptables and unacceptables?

Or do we, like Christ the Good shepherd, the Good wife, go into the world looking for those whom God has placed in our care, which is everyone.

The Rev. Dr. Tex Sample taught for many years at the Methodist seminary in Kansas City. He tells of driving home one day and be delayed for over an hour. Ahead of him, on the bridge across the Missouri River, he could see Red lights and Blue lights flashing. Finally trafficked moved and he got home.

On the news that night he learned what had happened.A man had climbed out of the bridge, preparing to jump, to end his life, he was as lost as you can get.

The police arrived and an officer in a harness attached to a bungee cord climbed down to attempt talking the jumper out of it. They talked a bit when suddenly the man leapt off the bridge. The policeman jumped after him, catching him in mid-air, wrapping his arms and legs around him.

On the news you could see it all. And, as the policeman jumped you could hear him shout.

I’ll hold on to you until HELL freezes over!

They plummeted on the bungee cord to the top of the water and then they came back up. When they were pulled onto the bridge the policeman had such a tight grip, it took three men to pry him loose from the jumper.

What is the Gospel for us today?

Is God a Grown-up or a Parent? Does God love us only when we’re good, or does God love us anyway?

God has clearly been revealed as a loving parent who never ever stops loving us.

Christ left the safety of Heaven and leapt into the World to seek and save us.

Christ has grabbed our soul and promised to hold on to us until the fires of Hell go out. “Lo, I am with you always.” Jesus said.

And Christ calls us to bring others into the tight grip of God’s love, a love which will take any of us, any way we are and transform us into the people God made us to be.

Amen and Amen.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Pentecost 15: September 9, 2007

This is Youth Sunday at Friedens, so the "utes" are doing almost everything in the service. My role is mostly to be the "magic fingers" for the Eucharist, and to make brief comments after their dramatic rendition of "The Little Red Hen," which is the sermon this week. I think it a great and hilarious choice, but the Youth Director is afraid that the more literal minded among the congregation won't get it, so it's my job to point out the connections and to stall for time while the girls change from their "chicken suits" into their free-flowing dresses for the Liturgical Dance accompanying the Creed. (We ain't nothing if we ain't "happening" here in Gibsonville! We got everything they got in the big cities like Greeensboro and Burlington, by gosh!) So here goes:

It is tempting when reading the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy (30:15-20) to conclude that God is setting before the people a stark, legalistic choice, like the bully on the playground who says, "Play by my rules, or I'll beat you up." Way too many religious leaders have used that technique down through the years. "Choose to follow my rules, my ethics, my commands, or you will burn in Hell!"

That version fails to recognize the Law, the Commandments of God, as a gift, a teaching, a help to God's beloved people. The Commandments were given to us to help us chart our way through life. Is it possible that God's word of promise here is better understood as, "Look, I have shown you the way. This is how one must live to successfully make it through life. If you do not follow this way, the consequences for you, and for others, could be very serious, very dire, could maybe even lead to death?"

In that light, The Lord's call to "choose life!" is a call to take seriously the need to follow a strong ethical path through life. To "choose life!" is to choose to be a part of a community that cares about and respects one another and looks out for one another, for that is what the commandments call us to do and be.

In the story of the Little Red Hen, all the other animals refused to follow the rules for being a part of a family, a community. They refused to participate in the things that make a community safe and productive for all involved. They refused to help; but they all wanted to reap the benefits of the work done by the Little Red Hen.

IN the Gospel Lesson (Luke 14:25-33), Jesus again talks about what it means to be a full participant in a loving community. His words about sacrifice, giving up family and counting the cost, and taking up the cross, are meant to bring home to his listeners and to us, the seriousness of becoming a part of the Kingdom of God, the Community of Christ.

Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Nazis at the end of WWII. One of his most important books was titled, "The Cost of Discipleship." In it, he pointed out that too many of us live Christian lives of Cheap Grace. We accept salvation without being willing to take up our own cross of service and sacrifice. We are like the animals who want to eat the bread, but don't want to help bring in the crop.

In the original story, The Little Red Hen ate her bread alone. But our youth showed that they are good little Lutherans and have learned their theology well. In their story, the animals repent and the Hen shares her bread. This is how God is. God does forgive us our cold hearts and idle hands.

But we are called to respond to God's free (notice I said FREE, not Cheap) God's free Grace with lives of gratitude and discipleship. Taking up the Cross and following wherever Our Lord leads. Amen and amen.