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.