Saturday, February 24, 2007

First Sunday in Lent

Well it's been a busy week at Friedens Church. I had already scheduled myself to preach a couple of times at the Twin Lakes Retirement Center down the road, (Sunday 4 PM, Thursday 11 AM), plus there was Ash Wednesday and the introduction of the new Worship book (don't ask) and then a patriarch of the congregation and community died and I had a standing room only funeral on Wed. afternoon at 3. Did I mention Shrove Tuesday? I'm not whining, it's just parish minisitry, but, I haven't written my sermon for Sunday yet. I did, however, prepare two pages of notes for a Tuesday morning lectionary group I participate in. I was the discussion leader. Nothing particularly earth-shattering here, just things to think about. The group is made up of 6 or 7 Lutheran pastors in Guilford County (Greensboro-High Point) NC.

Tuesday Lectionary Group,
Feb. 25, 2007 – The First Sunday in Lent

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

NT Wright: Luke for Everyone WJK, p. 42-43
“Luke has reminded us of Jesus’ (humanity). If there had been any doubt about his being really human, Luke underlines his sharing our flesh and blood in this vivid scene of temptation.”

“After his baptism, Jesus faced the double question: what does it mean to be God’s son in this special, unique way? And what sort of messiahship was he to pursue? . . . the tree temptations can be read as possible answers to this question. . . . God can’t want his beloved son to be famished with hunger, can he? If God wants Jesus to become sovereign over the world, then why not go for it in one easy stride? If Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, why not prove it by spectacular displays of power?”

The Lectionary Commentary: Gospels Eerdman’s, p. 318-320
“The final verse of this text, which is unique to Luke’s account of the temptation, is a good place to begin on the first Sunday of Lent: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time,” …. (this is) a critical link between the beginning and the end of Lent – between temptation and the cross, . . . when the devil will not simply test Jesus with words but attack him with actions.”

“. . . don’t try to understand the cross apart from the particular story of Jesus that runs from temptation to crucifixion. There is an essential narrative connection between Jesus’ life and his death. The cross cannot be plopped down out of the blue as a magical transaction between God and individual sinners.”

Africa Bible Commentary Zondervan, Paul John Isaak, Namibia, Evangelical Lutheran, Head of Religion Department, The University of Namibia. P.1212

“The ceremonies associated with rites of passage from one stage of life to another generally involve the separation of the person from his or her usual surroundings, his or her preparation for a new task or way of life in society.
During such rites of passage, the person may be exposed to danger in order to test whether he or she is mature enough to face this new life. . . Only those who have passed through all the stresses, strains and problems of human life and no longer fear anything, those who one might almost say are beyond fear, are qualified . . . by 4:14, after completing his rites of passage, a dramatic change has taken place (in Jesus): he has become a public figure, a prophet in Israel, with a new, clearly defined role and status.”

Sermon decisions:
1) Grand Scale: The Cosmic struggle between Satan and the Christ
with overtones of the Fall and the Cross?
2) Liturgical: emphasizing the season of Lent and our movement
through it to Holy Week, etc.
3) Exemplar: i.e. Jesus’ temptations and ours, with JC as an exemplar of how to overcome temptation.

I too often mix up the themes, and end up with a mishmash.

Sermon idea: The interesting thing about all this is that Jesus did eventually do all the things the Devil tempted him to do, but he did them on his own terms, he did them at the proper time and in the proper way:

Stone into bread? The feeding of the 5000, not as a stunt but as an act of compassion for hungry people, and he gave himself as bread and wine for the world.

Taking political power? He stood before the representative of the greatest political power on earth and said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus created a community with a power that goes beyond politics or force, a community rooted in the power of love.

A rescue from death? Jesus showed the devil how it really works; Jesus went to his death on the cross, trusting in God’s promise, and on the third day arose, coming forth from the grave as a new man, a new creation, a new sign that God is real and God is love.

Friday, February 16, 2007


FEB. 18, 2007

TEXTS: Exodus 34:29-35,
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

TITLE: The Hidden-ness of the Holy

Almost every Saturday afternoon, I listen to the opera on the Public Radio Station. Don’t look so surprised. I like opera; not as much as I like Lynard Skynard or ZZ Topp, but I like opera.

Well, actually I don’t, but I do like the idea of liking opera; deep down inside I fell like an educated person SHOULD like opera, and sooo;On Saturday afternoon’s I listen to opera; kind of on the same theory as your mother had when she kept feeding you liver and asparagus, hoping that one day you would come in and when she said,
“What would you like for dinner?,” you would say, “How about some yummy liver and asparagus?” Not gonna happen, but hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Anyway, I listen to opera in the vague hope that someday I’ll like it and can then count myself as a genuinely educated and cultured person. Every once in a while, I find myself liking a piece, nodding along and getting into it and thinking, “Gee, I beginning to like this opera stuff.” But then I realized that the opera pieces I liked were the ones they used as soundtracks for Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons, and I was back to square one; I still didn’t like opera; I was just engaging in nostalgia about my childhood.

It seems to me that many people are seeking after Spiritual Enlightenment in much the same way that I have been seeking Musical Enlightenment; it’s something they’ve heard about, many of the better people have had these experiences, so they believe they ought to have them too.

So, they go seeking after the next new thing; the latest prayer techniques and the different churches and the praise bands and labyrinth walks and Alpha bible Study and the Men’s drum-beating Sweat Lodge, and I don’t know what all. Whatever they’re looking for, it isn’t where they are, it must be over the hill or around the next corner.

Some of this can be traced to biblical stories like today’s scripture lessons, which tell us about extra-ordinary spiritual events. In our First Lesson, Moses goes up on the mountain and meets God in cloud and devouring fire. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John; and while there is TRANSFIGURED, whatever that means. And in our Second Lesson, Paul refers to Moses and the veil.

Somehow, some people are always looking for something more, something electric and kinetic and spine tingling to happen to them religiously. Which is okay, those things do happen, sometimes, to some people. What is not okay is when one believes that such experiences are what religion in general and Christianity in particular are all about. What is not okay is when people think that unless one has had such an experience, one has not really encountered the HOLY.

The truth of the matter is that religion is NOT about seeking after the extraordinary, not about the quest for the next new spiritual high, not about looking for an experiential fix of the Holy to carry one through another drab and ordinary week.

NO! Religion is about seeing, and feeling and hearing and respecting the Holy in, with and under the ordinary-ness of our daily lives. To be religious is not a matter of being otherworldly; to be religious is to be uniquely grounded in this world, seeing the very stuff of life as the very stuff of God.

Where are we to find the Holy? On Mountaintops and in Sweat Lodges? Where are we to look for God’s presence in our lives? Well, you don’t have to go to the mountaintop; it’s all around you, all the time. We know this. It’s shown to us in our sacraments.

The water in the font, the water in which we baptize. It’s ordinary water, I get it out of the sink in the Sacristy in the back. It’s the same water that goes into the drinking fountain, the same water that flushes the toilet. It’s just water.

What makes it holy? The use makes it holy. We use it to baptize a child, we speak the promise of Christ, and in with that water we bring a new child into Covenant with God and into Community with us.

Look at this wafer. It’s just a little whole-wheat flour and water. We buy them by the thousands. It’s not very good to eat; if you’re not careful, it will stick to the roof of your mouth.

And this, its just wine, grapes fermented and bottled by our own Graham Womack. It’s good wine, good with dinner, but it’s nothing special or extraordinary, not until we make Eucharist out of it.

What makes it holy? What turns this ordinary stuff into the Body and Blood of Christ? Not me. I don’t have magical powers. It’s us; us and God together; God promising and acting and our believing and celebrating which reveals the Holy within the ordinary. (Early: Seed, Scattered and Sown)

That’s what happened to Jesus up on that mountain. Jesus was a man, just like every other man; smarter, holier than most perhaps, but still very much a fully human person. Even though the disciples called him Rabbi, Christ even, they still saw him as a man. And then this thing happened. And they knew; Peter James and John knew; that here was the Divine, the Holy, in human form.

And we too are ordinary people, doing ordinary things. We too, as a church, as a community of faith, as the Body of Christ in the world, we too carry in, with and under our human-ness, the brightness of the Holy-ness of God.
We don’t have to go looking for it; we don’t have to struggle after extraordinary spiritual experiences. God is here with us in all that we do.

Our calling is to pay attention; to listen, look, feel and know that God is here, in this place, and in all our places: at home, at work, at church, at school. God is present with us in the world, all we have to do is lift the veil and look for the Holy with the eyes of the heart. AMEN AND AMEN.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Feb. 11, 2007: Epiphany 6

Epiphany Six February 11, 2007
Text: Luke 6:17-26
Title: Two Kinds of People?

When I was a little boy, my favorite game was anything to do with guns; cap pistols and BB guns and pretend machine guns. My brothers and I and the Simmons boys and the Beasley boys and the Tilley boys with an occasional Smith or Hayes or Tullidge thrown in for good measure would play Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers and Yankees and Rebels and Gi Joe versus the Germans all the time. And the big debate was about who had to be the “bad guys”; “them,” in the perpetual battle between “us” and “them.”

Nobody much minded being Indians or Robbers or even Germans, but nobody where I grew up ever wanted to be Yankees, which meant when we played Civil War, the big Brothers got to be the South and the little brothers had to be the North, and in our Mt. Airy North Carolina revision, the South always won.

We have an unfortunate tendency to divide the world into opposing groups, don’t we? Male/ Female, Red State/ Blue State, Redneck/Yankee, Duke/Carolina or State/Carolina, Black/White, Been Heres/Come Heres, Natives/Immigrants, us and them. Some of it is relatively good-natured kidding; a lot of it isn’t. Even at its best, it reveals an underlying tension, at its worst, it tears communities, countries, even the world apart.

Three of today’s Scripture lessons leave themselves open to a Good Guys/Bad Guys, “us”/”them” interpretation.

The Hebrew Bible reading from Jeremiah: in verse 5 we read: “cursed are those . ., “
while verse 7 begin: “Blessed are those . . “

The very first word in the Psalm is happy,“Happy are they . . . ., “ yet in verse 4 it says, “It is not so with the wicked. . . “

And in our Gospel lesson, Jesus says that some are “blessed” while others are “woe”-ful.

Cursed and blessed, happy and wicked, blessed and woeful, and with our natural propensity for dividing the world into “us” and “them,” it isn’t long before we take on the identity of blessed and happy while assuming the other to be a cursed and wicked and woeful “them.”

There is an illustration of this which took place on this very spot, in this very church. The good hearty German Lutherans who came down the wagon road from Pennsylvania to settle this area and founded Friedens Church, along with their German Reformed and German Moravian neighbors, spoke German at home, at work and in worship from the time they arrived in the 1740's until the Revolution, when King George of England, who was German and Lutheran and barely spoke English, hired German mercenaries, Hessians, to fight against the American Colonists. At that time, almost all the German Lutheran Churches started worshiping in English, as a sign that they were a part of the “us,” the Americans, and not the “them,” the Germans fighting for the British.

In matters of religion, we have a very bad habit of taking on the blessed and happy role for ourselves as well. Lutherans, “us,” have got the theology, or the liturgy, or the preaching style or something right; and the Baptists, or Episcopalians or the Catholics or the Muslims, “them” have got it all wrong, and it isn’t long before we start into thinking that they are not only woefully wrong, but that they are wicked and probably cursed.

And it isn’t long after that until we’re saved and they’re damned, and it isn’t long after that we have a right to live free and they don’t. It is a dangerous and slippery slope.

And is not at all what the scriptures, especially the Gospels, were trying to tell us. In point of fact, both Jeremiah and Jesus are asking their listeners to consider another way of looking at the world, to consider a different scale of values by which to judge, or evaluate, or better yet, to create, a life.

Neither Jesus not Jeremiah wants us to look at those around us to figure out who’s us and who’s them, blessed or cursed, happy or wicked. They call us to look to ourselves, to our own lives, and to think about what we value and what we are doing with the gift of a life. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said something to the effect that the real Iron Curtain, the real line between good and evil, is drawn right down the middle of the human heart.

This is similar to what Martin Luther meant when he said every Christian is simul justus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner, good guy/bad guy, “us” and “them” all rolled into one.

Jesus calls us to look at our life and see which direction we are headed, what values drive our decisions, what goals inform our daily choices. We serve our future by what we do today, and the question is:“What future are we serving, “The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Me?”

The world teaches us to serve “The Kingdom of Me.”Our culture has taught us to measure things and people in terms of earnings, possessions and financial security. It is so pervasive and ingrained that we don’t notice it anymore; it has become natural to us.

This week I went on a 2 -day Retreat with a group of Pastors, some I knew, some I didn’t. We worshiped and prayed and had Bible study and quiet time. One afternoon we spent on a Bible Study about poverty and true riches of the spirit, etc. etc. Then we went to Chapel and had communion, then we went to dinner. And over dinner, we; and I do mean WE, I was involved; over dinner, we talked about the best stock options for our retirement accounts. And I wasn’t aware of the disconnect until later that night as I wrote in my journal about the day.

Those to whom Jesus and Jeremiah spoke were no different than us; they valued earnings and possessions and financial security, and needed to be reminded that there is more to life than that, much much more.

Each of us struggles with the journey toward wholeness, the pilgrimage of the heart from self-love, to the totally unselfish, unconditional love of others created in us through the totally unselfish, unconditional love of God.

We struggle to really, really understand that we cannot insulate ourselves against the world’s woes, no matter how much money, or fame, or power we acquire. None of it will ever be enough to save us.

That is why the poor, the hungry, the mournful are blessed. They get it. They really get it. When you are at bottom, life is purely dependent upon God, and it is those with nothing else to depend upon who are able to completely and totally depend upon God.

Those of us who have what we need, be it shelter, food or entertainment; can be lulled into a placid state of safety and self-sufficiency; thinking that we can live life to its fullest without God.

But, the Word of the Lord to us this day is that that is a false hope, a sham God, an empty dream. For all of us, life will be difficult; though it will be difficult in different ways in each of our different lives. We all suffer, we all die. The open secret is to know that and to trust in God rather than things for our happiness.

The movie Cool Runnings is about the Jamaican Bobsled team in the 1988 Olympics. John Candy plays their coach who got caught cheating in a previous Olympiad.
A player asked him why he cheated. To win. Was it worth it? No. Did you learn anything? I learned if you’re not happy without a Gold Medal, you won’t be happy with one!

Christ calls us today to the true pursuit of happiness, a life lived in dependence on God and in pursuit of peace and justice with our neighbor, a world without “us” and “them”; a world in which we are all a part of God’s great WE.
Amen and amen.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Feb. 4, 2007; ELCA Lessons for Epiphany 5

TEXTS: ISAIAH 6:1-8, I Cor. 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

It was a Wed. night in Lent at Lutheran Chapel in china Grove, NC. I had left the congregational dinner in the Fellowship Hall and gone into the church to get things ready for worship. While placing my sermon notes on the pulpit and checking the sound system and putting prayers on the altar, I noticed the light in the stained glass window cross over the altar was burned out.

The window was accessed through a locked door on the second floor of the educational wing built across the back of the church. Almost exactly like what we have here at Friedens. I went upstairs to see if I could fix or change the light.

While I was in there I heard some noise from down below in the altar area. Looking through an almost clear part of the window, I could see little Seth, almost 5 years old, playing alone in the chancel. He had pulled a pulpit chair over in front of the Altar and was attempting to crawl from the chair up onto the Altar itself. With visions of candlesticks bashing his skull and communion wine splattered all over his body, I spoke out quite loudly, Seth! Seth! Get down from there; you’re going to hurt yourself!

I will never forget the look of sheer terror that washed over Seth’s face as he jerked his head up and looked at the cross from which the Voice had come. He started crying and yelling, I’M SORRY, I’M SORRY, I’M SORRY! as he ran out of the room.

I immediately left what I was doing and went to find Seth and his parents in order to explain the situation. Worship was delayed a few minutes while I took Seth upstairs and showed him the closet and the backside of the window and assured him that neither God nor I was mad at him, for his mother told me he had come running into the Fellowship Hall, screaming: Mama, Mama. Jesus yelled at me. I want to go home NOW!

In our lesson from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah says,Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

In the lesson from Luke: Simon Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, says the writer of the book of Hebrews. A fearful thing. Be careful. Coming to church would be easy if we could think of it as a weekly meeting of the religiously inclined. But NO. That is NOT what we do here. To gather here is to take the risk of falling into the hands of the living God.

Make no mistake about it, the love and grace and power of the living God can blow your life to bits, can turn your world upside down, can turn you inside out. Can send you screaming into the arms of your Mama, yelling “GET ME OUT OF HERE NOW!” Isaiah had an encounter with the Living God; for just an instant he met God faced to face, and his life was changed forever.

At first, he was stunned into silence and humility. When he saw the LORD sitting upon the throne, with seraphim flying about and singing praises, voices thundering and smoke swirling, Isaiah realized that everything he thought he knew about God was just a pale imitation of the divine reality. Isaiah looked upon God’s holiness and in that moment realized his own unworthiness, his own frailty and yes, sinfulness. And he cried out a cry of repentance, “I am lost, I am unclean!”

God’s response to Isaiah’s cry of repentance was an act of healing and restoration. God did not simply forgive Isaiah, God acted to make Isaiah worthy of being in the divine presence.

Some years ago, in another Southern State in which I have lived, there was a woman who was a client of the State Hospital. She was totally convinced that she was married to God.

She ended up in the hospital because one day she walked into the County offices of the small, rural place where she lived and asked to see the tax records. These tax records were public information, so the books were brought forward for her to examine. When the big, leather-bound ledger was placed on the counter, she reached into her purse and brought out a giant red magic marker and wrote across the last page:
“All debts is cancelled,” Signed, Imogene T. God

When Isaiah makes his confession, God sends a seraph to touch his lips with a burning coal and to say: “your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out!” In the words of Imogene T. God, “All debts is cancelled!”

Then comes the most important part of the story, God says to Isaiah: Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And Isaiah says, “Here am I, Send me!”

God turns the repentant sinner into the proclaimer of forgiveness. God lifts the humbled one and turns him into one who elevates other sinful and humiliated people. God transforms the unclean one into a prophet of purity and righteousness.

The story of Simon Peter and James and John, the sons of Zebedee is similar to the story of Isaiah. They too come face to face with the holy.

Now, if you are not a fisherperson, a huge pile of fish is not as impressive as it is to these folks, but they fish for a living, and they know that something strange is going on here.

1) You don’t catch fish in the daytime in these waters.
2) They’ve been out all night, the right time to fish, and there are no fish here today.
3) When you trawl for fish in big nets, you catch schools of fish, fish that are all alike or maybe two types of fish, but not the variety implied here.

It is the sudden appearance of so many fish, and Jesus’ awareness of where to look that strikes Peter and the others so strongly. And Peter’s response to the presence of the Holy is not unlike that of Isaiah, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” And again, the Holy One responds by healing the wound, closing the breach, canceling the debt, pronouncing the Good News: DO NOT BE AFRAID!

And issuing an invitation to service: FROM NOW ON YOU WILL BE CATCHING PEOPLE, or, as the KJV says, FISHERS OF MEN!

Now, very few of us have had a vision of the heavenly throne room, no exposure to the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY sitting on a jeweled throne, surrounded by angels, thunder and smoke. Nor have we been the beneficiaries of spectacular miracles, like a huge catch on fish on what appeared to be a fishless day. No, we must make do with lesser miracles and dimmer signs, quieter voices and less certain invitations to service.

But the message of the gospel, the message of the church is that we too stand in the presence of the Holy, we too are invited to examine our souls and we too receive the message that we are forgiven, all debts is cancelled and that we are not to be afraid, neither of God nor the future.

And we too stand before the throne as God asks, Whom shall I send? Who will go for me? Who will be a fisher of men, a catcher of people for me? Who? Who?

A man named Origen became famous as a church leader in the third century. When he was 17, his father was arrested for being a Christian, and led away to be thrown to the lions in the arena. Origen was full of childish bravado, loudly proclaiming his desire to go and be martyred with his Father. His mother did the only thing she could think of; she hid his clothes. And he didn’t go.

Interesting isn’t it? He loudly proclaimed he was not afraid to die for his LORD, but he was afraid to go outside naked for him, to be embarrassed for the sake of Jesus. Most of us profess a strong affection for the faith and for our LORD, but we keep waiting for the big moment to come when we can prove our faith; meanwhile the little moments keep passing us by.

Our calling is to reach out to our neighborhood, to our community, with the Gospel. We are surrounded by people who need Jesus, who need to know the unconditional love of God in Christ. Our calling is to find a way to love them in Jesus name, to live in their presence in such a way that they will begin to suspect that God is lurking in their lives.

When God asks you, Whom shall I send?
Will you respond, Here I am Lord, Send Me?

Amen and Amen.