Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas I

A sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Hayesville, NC

Dec. 28, 2008
The First Sunday after Christmas
Title: And the Word Became Flesh

A few years ago, before my Daddy died, I went to see him and my Mama in the old farm house out in the country from Mount Airy NC. 

As I headed out the old two-lane road to the farm,  I started to notice that every farm had what I grew up calling a “pole light.”I played a game with myself, trying to see if I could find a place in that 8 mile stretch where I was out of sight of one of those lights. 

It couldn’t be done.  All the way out into the country, a new yard light would appear up ahead before the last one was out of sight in my rear-view mirror.

So, I changed games.  I decided to count the houses that didn’t have a pole light.  Again, it couldn’t be done.  Every house, every shed, every trailer and barn was awash In the purplish florescent glow of pole lights.Every one, that is, except Daddy’s.  There was that big old farm house, sitting forlorn and silent and DARK in the middle of a field, not a speck of light visible except a night light near the kitchen window.

As I pulled into the driveway, I laughed quietly to myself, “leave it to Daddy to be the only person for miles around too cheap to have a light in the yard.

I got out of the car and gathered my things, and being too cheap and too careless to own a flashlight, I stumbled through the dark toward the back door, I fell over the lawn-mower and raked my shins over the well-house and bloodied my nose by walking directly into the corner of the house.

Finally, I stumbled into the house and Daddy called out from the bedroom, “Well, you’re here then are you?  Cut that light out in there.  It’s burning ‘lectricity.”

Some time the next day I pointed out to Daddy that his was the only house on the road without a yard light and, as politely as I could, I asked him why the ...... , why he didn’t have one,  

He looked at me, rubbed his nose, took a deep drag on his cigarette and said,

Well Son,  I was born in this house almost 80 years ago,  in this very room.  I’ve lived here my whole life.  I know where everything out there is, so I don’t see as how I need a light.

In that moment I realized that pointing out to Daddy that other people might need a light to get around in his backyard was unlikely to be a persuasive argument, I let it go and forgot about it.Until this week, when I was reading today’s Gospel lesson, especially these words,

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,

and my recent experience of stumbling about in the dark came rushing back to me.There is one way in which my Daddy and God Almighty were alike; they had both been wandering around their respective back yards for along time, they knew everything that’s there and they didn’t need a light.

But unlike Daddy, God has taken account of the visitors and strangers stumbling around in the world’s darkness and God has provided a light to show us the way.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has come to show us the way.

Our Gospel lesson begins with the words, “In the beginning . . . “ this is a deliberate echo of the first words of the Bible, of Genesis, of the time of creation.  Remember?  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  John connects Jesus to that creative moment, when light first shined in the dark chaos of the world.In the time of the exodus, when the Children of Israel escaped The Pharaoh in Egypt and headed for the Promised Land, they wandered in the desert and were guided by “Pillar of Cloud by day and a Pillar of fire by night.”  More light.

Light is an image, a metaphor, we use all the time almost without thinking:

When someone gives us new information that helps us to understand something, we say they have “shed new light” on the subject.”

What is the cartoon symbol for a good idea? A light bulb.

We usually refer to a very good plan as a “bright idea.”

We say an intelligent person is “very bright.”

We refer to an indistinct time after the end of the Roman Empire as the Dark Ages and we call the time when Education and Learning began to expand as “The Enlightenment.”

All these references play off one essential idea: ignorance and the darkness of sin and suffering go together; while education and intelligence and learning will throw off that darkness and bring healing and wellness.It’s a wonderful idea. 

There’s just one problem with it.  It isn’t necessarily so.

 While it is true that education and can and does improve life, it is also true that simply an increase in learning is not enough to change the human heart. 

Our current economic crisis was created by some of the smartest people in the country, people whose good sense and prudence and concern for others was overcome by their willingness to do whatever it took to make money.

The simple truth of the matter is that a simple increase in knowledge will not change the human heart.

That is why Christ came.  That is why Christ still comes. 

We need a light that learning and intelligence and technology cannot provide.

We need to learn the lessons of love and caring and compassion and sacrifice.

These are lessons that can only be taught by example, most especially the example of a Living God who has come into our midst to show us the way.

And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

God becoming flesh and living among us shows us that God was not willing to let us wander about the universe in the dark.  And God knew that the light we needed had to be more than words on a page and instructions from a pulpit. 

The light we needed had to be “fleshed out,” and this fleshing out began in the birth and life, and yes the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And, this “fleshing-out” continues in the life of the church.

The church IS the body of Christ,
we don’t represent the body of Christ,
we don’t stand for the body of Christ,
it’s not an image, or metaphor or simile. 
WE are not a symbolic idea, we are a fleshly reality.

We are called to embody our faith and love for God in our efforts to live lives of love with one another.

And, life in the body of Christ is less than perfect, it is difficult. 

It requires work, hard work, to iron out our differences and to accept one another’s flaws and shortcomings - to forgive and trust and love and go forward together.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, 
And the word remains flesh and lives among us still.

It is our calling, our duty and delight, to embody, to flesh out, God’s love in the world. 

In a country church in a small village an altar boy accidentally dropped the cruet of wine.  Glass and wine splattered everywhere.  The Priest slapped the boy on the cheek and shouted at him, “Get out of here and never come back!”  That young boy grew up to become Tito, the cruel communist dictator of Yugoslavia.

In the cathedral of a large city, an altar boy serving the Bishop at Mass dropped the cruet of wine.  Glass and wine splattered everywhere.  The Bishop leaned over and patted the boy on the cheek and whispered in his ear, “It’s okay.”  That young boy grew up to be Archbishop Fulton Sheen, well-known preacher of grace, love and Christian unity.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Words have power, lives have influence.

We are called to live the WORD into being; The WORD of God,  The WORD of Grace,   The Word of love.

Amen and amen.

Friday, December 12, 2008

re: not posting for now

Dear regular readers,

I have been posting almost every week for the last couple of years. That was kind of easy when I was preaching every week. The rhythm of the Bishop's office is different. I preached almost every Sunday from May through the middle of Nov. Then Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas showed up and the invitations dried up, which is fine. I will begin posting again in January when my preaching "dance card" begins to fill up again.



Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nov. 16, 2008

Nov. 16, 2008

A sermon preached at All Saints Lutheran Church, Lilburn, GA

Text: Matthew 25: 14-30
Title: Of Fear and Faith

I grew up in rural North Carolina as part of a large extended family. Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles and cousins, all on neighboring farms; all in each other’s lives: “all up in each other’s business,” as my friend Larry would say.

My Aunt Mildred lived with Grandparents and took care of them long after others had married and moved out. Sometime in her forty’s, her parents died and she married her longtime sweetheart, Uncle Andy. And they too built a house, “over the river and through the woods,” from the rest of us.

Everyone has gotten older, many have died, the younger generation has moved away. It got down to Mama in one house, Aunt Mildred in another a half mile away, and my brother Tony coming out from town every day to check on them.

A few years ago, Tony got Aunt Mildred a Lazy-Boy Recliner that would push itself up into a standing position to make it easier for her.

One day when he went to visit her she said:

Tony, I’m having a lot of trouble getting out of my chair lately.

Tony said, Let me have a look at the motor.

She said, That won’t do no good. I never plug it in.

Tony, Well, whyever not?

Mildred; Well, what if the power went out whilst I was alaying back in it. I’d be stuck up there like a knot on a log. I wouldn’t never be able to get out of it.

Today’s Gospel Lesson is the parable of the Talents. Let me tell you upfront; this story is not about money and investment strategies.

This story is about our God-given abilities and how FEAR and LACK of FAITH keep us from using them.

Aunt Mildred had a lot of real and quite reasonable fear in her life. Her husband had died, she was in her eighties, she had health problems, she lived alone on a farm.

She also had a lot of gifts for dealing with that fear. The problem is her fear kept her from using her gifts to deal with her situation.

In the story that Jesus told, the third servant, the one who received only one talent, took his talent and buried it in the yard. Why?

Well, he says “I was afraid,” and that is most certainly true. He also calls the master “harsh and cruel,” which probably isn’t true. What most certainly isn’t true is that GOD is like the master in the story. God is most definitely not “Harsh and Cruel.”

And, to tell you the truth, all that “harsh and cruel” stuff is beside the point. It’s not his master that the third servant is afraid of; it’s failure.

He is afraid of fouling up, making a mess, being a disappointment, making a mess of things.

My son is a college Basketball player. He says that the worst thing that can happen to a team is in their head, not in their hands. He says that when a team starts trying to avoid losing rather than playing to win, they are in real trouble.

The Third Servant is playing NOT TO LOSE; rather than taking chances, trying to win.

This story has much to teach us in our current economic crisis. It’s not a good time to be extravagant; but it is also not a good time to give in to fear. If this country is to pull out of this downward spiral, we must work together and dare to take risks on each other. We can bury neither our heads nor our abilities in the sand.

Here at All Saints Lutheran Church, you have challenges before you as well. Your pastor leaving was something of a surprise to everyone. The next year or so will be about taking a good look at yourselves to see who you are and what direction God is calling you to go.

Though it is a frightening time; it will do you no good to shy away from speaking truth to each other. You need to fearlessly and faithfully take an inventory of your mission and ministry so that you can discover once again your many talents and use them to grow God’s Kingdom.

A story from the life of Martin Luther may be helpful here.

After Luther got into trouble with the Pope, he was invited?, no, summoned, to the city of Worms to defend himself against charges of heresy.

There he stood, in front of the most powerful man in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor. And though he was admittedly quite afraid, he refused to back down and left the City of Worms.

Though the Emperor had granted Luther a “safe conduct,” pass, his friends feared for his safety; they didn’t trust either Pope or Emperor.

So, his friends had Luther kidnapped and taken to the castle of Wartburg. Luther went around disguised as Squire George, while stories were circulated that he was dead.

While Luther was in hiding, his fellow teacher and reformer Phillip Melanchthon was in charge of things back at Wittenberg.

Phillip was as quiet and retiring and hesitant as Luther was loud and aggressive and assertive.

Phillip always fretted over doing the right thing and doing things right.

The Church was Reforming, Protesting, Changing. Things were totally and completely unsettled.

Many were recommending rash action and rapid change. Others wanted things to stay the same. Still others wanted a gradual change in Church and Society.

Phillip just couldn’t decide what to do. He couldn’t make up his mind, so he wrote Luther.

He laid out his options, in a professorial set of pros and cons in columns and tables.

He said to Luther, If I do this, this could go wrong. If I do that, that could go wrong, etc. etc.

I just can’t decide; I don’t know what to do.

Luther wrote back, somewhat impatiently,

Look Phillip, you’re right. It is hard to know what the right thing to do is. Anything you do WILL have some sin in it.

Therefore, SIN BOLDLY! but, trust the GRACE of GOD more boldly still!
(And you thought he was talking about beer, didn’t you!?)

Luther’s advice to Phillip is the answer for the Servant with one talent and the answer for us as we face uncertain times.

Sure, we’re afraid.

Sure, we’re uncertain.

Sure, we might mess up,

Sure, we might do the wrong thing.

All of that’s true and possible.

But Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God. We too are called to SIN BOLDLY, to act, to act now, and to also trust that God will take care of us.

Henry R. Rust writes of a visit to a tiny Christian congregation in a village in Kenya. They met in the open air beneath a thatched roof.

When it came time for the offering, a round flat basket was passed up and down the rows of benches as people put in coins and small bills.

The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She looked at the basket for a long time.

Then she took the basket and placed on the dirt floor in front of her.

Taking off her sandals, she picked up her children, held one on each hip, and stepped into the offering basket; standing with head bowed praying for several minutes.

Then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.

The basket has come to us. What will we put in it? Will we let our fear and anxiety hold us back?

Or, will we take off our protection in the presence of the Holy and step boldly into the center of God’s will and way; giving to God the one thing God really wants, our complete and total devotion?

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Nov. 9, 2008

A sermon preached for Consecration Sunday at St. Mark’s Lutheran, Huntsville, Alabama

November 9, 2008
Texts: Amos 5:18-24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

Title: Good News, Bad News

Listen again to the words of the Prophet Amos:

Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake

These verses remind me of a Good News/Bad News joke. Not any particular Good News/Bad News joke, just that kind of joke.

As a matter of fact, I spent a great deal of time in sermon preparation looking for just the right Good News/Bad News joke to start the sermon.

The Good News is: I found one. The Bad News is: it isn’t very funny. The really Good News is I decided not to tell it.

A few weeks ago I was browsing in a bookstore and I ran across two books I had never seen before.

One is The Optimist’s Guide to History
The other is The Pessimist’s Guide to History.

While I was checking out, the clerk looked over her glasses at me and said,
“I’ve sold a lot of these books, but nobody’s ever bought them both at the same time.”

I said, “Well, I guess most people are either optimists or pessimists, but I’m just a preacher looking for sermon ideas.”

And the Good News is: I found one.

The books are organized in chronological order, beginning with Creation, or the Big Bang, depending on your point of view; and progressing to the present.

The Optimist’s Guide points out the positive events in history;

while the Pessimist’s Guide lists all the horrors that have ever happened.

As I read through these two books, I noticed two interesting things:

1) The Pessimist’s Guide is much longer than the Optimist’s Guide; (360 versus 260 pages)I don’t know what that means, I just noticed it.

2) There are many things in each book which I, personally, would have put in the other book.Some things the authors counted as Bad, I saw as Good, and vice versa.

It would appear that whether something is Good News or Bad News is a tricky question.

It depends not only on whether or not you’re an Optimist or a Pessimist;

but also where you’re standing when you look at it.

This week’s election is an example: America has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American President. Is that Good News or Bad News or both?

How you answer that question depends of where you’re standing, what political party you belong to, what positions you take on the great political problems of our day.

Each of our Scripture Lessons makes reference to an idea that is referred to by several different names:
The Day of the Lord,
The Coming of the LORD,
The Second Coming,

And the question is: “Is the coming of the LORD Good News or Bad News?”

In Amos, The Day of the Lord is pretty much Bad News all around, for everybody.

This idea, that the Day of the LORD would be a bad day, was quite a shock to his hearers.

They weren’t prepared for this word of Judgement and didn’t accept it.

The people Amos was preaching to thought themselves to be pretty good people.

They went to temple, did the required sacrifices, lived by the Ten Commandments;

except when it was inconvenient or seemed a little extreme or something, or got in the way of a good business deal or a good time.

In other words, they were a lot like us.

And they knew themselves to be God’s Chosen People, so the Day of the LORD would be Good News, right?

It would be a Good Day when God would give all those Godless other people who aren’t like us, a good licking for being, well, not like us.

So they were unprepared for Amos to tell them that their assumption of their own goodness was a dangerous thing.

It’s as if someone ran away from a lion and was met by a bear, or ran away from the lion and the bear into the safety of the house, then put his hand on the wall and was bitten by a snake.

Bad News becomes Good News becomes Bad News again.

First Thessalonians sees The Coming of the LORD as Good News for those who are dead and those who are still alive. This is what we’re talking about in the Creed when we profess the belief that Christ will “come again to judge the living and the dead.”

And in that judgement there is implied Bad News for those who are “not in Christ.”

And in the Gospel Lesson, the coming of the Bridegroom is Good News for the Bridesmaids who were prepared, who had oil in their lamps; and equally Bad News for those who were unprepared, not ready, who had no oil.

Since we know that the Church is the bride of Christ, it’s easy to figure out who the Bridegroom is in this story. What’s not easy to figure out is who we are.

We can’t take this story literally, securing our future fate by stocking up on lamp oil, like a bunch of Survivalists filling their basements with nonperishable food and machine guns.

What is the oil? What must we do to be counted amongst those who are prepared when the bridegroom cometh?

This is a place where a Lutheran preacher has to tread lightly. Our theology, quite rightly I think, is extremely cautious about telling anybody that there is anything they HAVE to do to be saved.

Justification by GRACE through Faith. Justification by GRACE through FAITH. It’s our mantra and it’s a good one because it’s true.

BUT, too often Lutherans have failed to recognize that there is more to being a Christian than being justified, than being declared righteous, Okay with God, by God.

Sometimes in bending over backwards to avoid legalism we have fallen over backwards into licence and amorality.

We seem to have adopted Oscar Wilde’s position that, “God likes to Forgive, I like to Sin; it’s a nice arrangement.”

We have learned well the truth that “God loves you just the way you are.”
We have ignored the equally important truth that, “God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

So, again, what puts oil in your lamp? What must one do to be ready when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead?

The key is responding to God’s mercy and generosity with mercy and generosity of our own.

The Christian life burns brightly when one comes to the recognition of how much God has done for us; and one becomes so grateful that generosity begins to burst forth in one’s life.

The oil in our lamp is the oil of loving action in response to God’s loving act of sending Jesus the Christ into our lives to save us, and to fill our lives with hope, joy and purpose.

Today, Consecration Sunday, is not simply about financial pledges put in an offering plate, today is about joyfully responding to the Goodness of God by placing our hearts, our souls, our very lives into God’s hands and into God’s service.

The Bad News is all around us. Wars and rumors of wars. Economic struggles and job loss. Sickness and death. Poverty and hunger. The list goes on and on.

The Good News is: God has done something about those problems and needs. God sent Jesus into the world to show us God’s love and to show us God’s way. And God has called a people to deal with those problems, those needs, those Bad News things that surround us. God has called us, we are that people, we are the Good News to a hurting world.

We are called to commit ourselves to keeping our lamps burning with the love of God, reaching out to the world with love on our lips, hope in our hearts, and help in our hands.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus!.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Oct. 26 - Reformation Sunday (aka Lutheran triumphalism day)

(A sermon preached at Faith Lutheran church, Hartwell, Georgia, at the Dedication of their new Facility)

Reformation Sunday
Oct. 26, 2008
Texts: Jer. 31;31-34; Rom. 8:19-28; Jn. 8:31-36

Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican priest and would-be-reformer of the church shortly before Martin Luther’s time. He was tortured and burned at the stake for his efforts, or – some would say – his excesses, when Luther was a teenager.

But for years, he was a very powerful person in the Italian city-state of Florence.
Early in his pastorate, the deeply devotional Savonarola noticed a woman who came into the cathedral every day before mass and knelt before the statue of the Blessed Virgin and prayed for an hour.

Savonarola commented on the woman’s obvious holiness to an elderly priest who had served the cathedral for decades. The old priest smiled and said. “Things are not always what the seem. Years ago, this woman was the model for the statue of the Virgin. She’s not worshiping God. She’s worshiping who she used to be.”

One of the great dangers Lutherans face on Reformation Sunday is the danger of worshiping who we used to be.

I have served two Lutheran churches that were founded before the American Revolution. And both of them had “History Rooms,” with gathered artifacts from their past: Silver Communion Ware, old pulpits and altars, Council minute books, written in German, etc.

Long lines of Pastoral photographs, from pen and ink sketches to modern photographs.
It was usually referred to as the rogues gallery, and, in some cases, not without reason.

Now, I don’t think this ancestor worship, this veneration of who we used to be, is unique to Lutherans, nor do I believe it to be all that terrible or grave a sin.

I do believe that it can block us from seeing ourselves as we really are, it can blind us to our need, today, in Hartwell, GA, in the year 2008, to hear and respond to the gospel for ourselves.

We can become so enamored of our Lutheran-ness that we can forget our human sinfulness and need for God.

Back in the day, back in the 1960's when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, he boarded an airplane with a bunch of reporters and was very much in “show time” form, bragging and joking and “carrying on” as we say in North Carolina.

When the Flight Attendant told him to fasten his seatbelt, Ali looked around at his captive audience and said, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”

The Flight Attendant smiled, leaned down and fastened him in and said, “Yes, well, Superman don’t need no airplane either.”

Just like Savanarola, and Martin Luther, and Phillip Melanchthon, and John Calvin, and yes Muhammad Ali; and a host of others, we must hear and know the truth and be set free by the hearing and knowing.

What is the Truth that sets us free? What is the truth that we celebrate this Reformation Sunday? Another way to ask the question is this: Why did you build this building we have dedicated this day? What is it’s purpose? Why is it here?

A few years ago I heard the Rev. Dr. Leonard Bolick, the Bishop of NC preach at the anniversary of a congregation and he told us of a poll done by Christian Researcher George Barna.

Barna had asked a wide cross-section of Americans a very simple question: What are the most important words you”ve ever heard?

Answer # 1 - (no surprise) I Love You.

Answer #2 - (no surprise either) I Forgive you.

Answer # 3 - (Unexpected) “Dinner’s Ready! Come eat!”

These three phrases, “I love you”, “I forgive you”, “Dinner’s ready, Come Eat,” summarize the truth of the Gospel, they remind of why we’re here, they tell us why we built this building and what we are called to do and be here.

1) I love you -
In my work I travel up and down the Interstates. On I-40, somewhere between Nashville and Memphis, I saw a big Billboard with an arrow pointing to a ramshackle shack surrounded by pick-ups and old cars. Sign: Gentleman’s Club.

No personal experience, but, nothing gentlemanly going on in there. What a lie! Other signs we’ve all seen, For Mature audiences or Adult Bookstore. Well, after I got down off my judgement seat I began to ponder the desperate hunger for love that drives people to those places.

St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless O Lord, until they rest in thee.” And “There is a hole in the heart of (humanity) that only God can fill.

Until we rest in God, until God fills that hole, we will fill it with other things: like sex and booze and drugs and food and wealth and work and productivity and popularity and social activity and, and, and. Whether we are aware of it or not, our lives are driven by a search for God, a yearning for what the Bible calls the Peace that Passes all Understanding.

That is the Church’s # 1 purpose for being; to tell the world God is love, God is love, God is love.

#2 - I forgive you.

But, you know what? Sometimes knowing that God is love is not enough - somehow that does not rescue us from our despair and our desperate search for peace. Why? Because with our knowledge of God’s goodness and love is an awareness of our own unworthiness, our inability to be the good people we want to be, of our failure to live up to our own standards, much less God’s.

(Carlyle Marney - Ridgecrest. Where’s the Garden of Eden? 128 Hill Street, Knoxville TN. That’s where I stole money from my mother’s purse and hid from her under the stairs.)

The only thing that will reach us in that state is a clear message that God’s love is greater than our failure. That God’s love is so deep and so wide and so complete that it can forgive and defeat even the darkest and most evil act.

The cross stands at the center of a Christian Community’s life because it is a startling and sobering reminder that God’s love is free, but it is not cheap. God’s love cost God the life of Jesus, who was willing to suffer and die so that we could be forgiven and live. The Church is a sign, pointing always and forever to the cross, shouting out to the world: You are Forgiven!

#3 - Dinner’s ready, Let’s eat!

We use the word Communion so much and so often to refer to the Lord’s supper that sometimes we forget that it has other meanings.

It really refers to the connection and community we have with God and each other, a connection and community that exists at all times and in all places.

The gathering for the meal is a celebration and a strengthening of a reality that never ceases to be true; that we live now and forever within the Eternal Life of God.
We gather at the Lord’s Table to remind ourselves that we are a community united in Christ and in constant love with one another.

That is why in the ELCA, the table is always open and inviting to all, calling us back, time and time again, to the place where God’s Love and Forgiveness are made real and touchable for us in the bread and the wine.

My boys were 10 and 7 when they got into an argument over the frequency of communion.

Oldest: takes too long, if you do it every Sunday, not special, etc.
Youngest: You only say that because you’re good. I’m a mean little kid, I need all the forgiveness I can get.

Love, forgiveness, community. That is why we are here.

Robert Frost once said, “Home is that place that, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.”

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we are the world’s true home.

We are not here to worship who we used to be, we are here to worship God
You did not build this building for the benefit of those of us in here.

You built this building for the salvation of those out there,

as an outpost of the Kingdom of God,

as a sign of God’s love,

as an agent of God’s forgiveness,

as an open table

where God’s hungry children can be fed.

We are the World’s true home,

and it is our calling to cry out to the world:

God is love, You are Forgiven, Dinner’s ready! Come Eat!

Amen and amen

Friday, October 17, 2008

Oct. 19, 2008

A sermon preached on Oct. 16, 2008 at the Southeastern Synod's Professional Leader's Conference and, with appropriate revisions, at Trinity Lutheran Church, Hixson, TN, on Oct. 19.

Matthew 22:15-22

A man I know used to be the pastor of a very old church here in the Carolinas. When I say old, I mean old, it was founded 25 years before the American Revolution.

For most of its 260 plus years its life went on pretty much the same year in and year out, with no big changes in the community or the life of the church.

Then, in the last twenty years, urban sprawl has overtaken the church. What had once been farmland is now covered with upscale sub-divisions, Interstates and shopping malls.

Though change had come slowly, change had come to the old church. There were many struggles and great difficulty and some hurt feelings, but the church had adapted to its new environment.

One Monday morning the pastor was paid a call in his office by a man whose family had been charter members way back when. The man had grown up in the church, then in his twenties “had gone off up North” to follow a career. A few years back he had sold off the family farm to a developer and had not had contact with the church or community for a decade or more.

He had returned to town for his fortieth High School Reunion and had attended worship at his old home church the day before. He was NOT a happy camper.

He came bursting into the pastor office and proceeded to enumerate and complain about all the changes which had taken place in the church since his youth.

It was his feeling that these changes were somehow an affront, an insult, to him and all his ancestors and all the other people who had been a part of that church for all those years.

He ended his diatribe with these words:

Preacher, if God were alive today, he would be shocked, yes chocked at the changes in this church.

If God were alive today.

“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”

If God is dead, we don’t owe much we.

Therein lies the real question of this text. Though we often use it as a launching pad for discussions of politics, or taxes, or the separation of church and state,

a more important issue is not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God.
What we have in this text is a group of people who spent a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire,

and thought of such fretting and worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God and King.

The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had threatened the delicate political and religious and social dance which kept those on top on top and those underneath underneath.

They resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that would offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people.

But, as usual, Jesus was too smart for them. The coin, the image, the phrase, an object lesson. So far, so good. But then, Jesus comes across with the real point:

Render unto God that which is God’s.

The call of this text to those of us gathered here today is to not forget God in the midst of our busy-ness on behalf of the church and the world.

Sometimes we get busy promoting a program or ministry in the congregation, or the congregation in the community, or promoting Lutheranism in the South, or the ELCA, or a particular agenda within the ELCA, or this cause or that cause on behalf of some perceived constituency;

and if we’re not careful, God and our primary calling from God, gets lost.

While we are relentlessly rendering unto a whole host of Caesars what they demand of us,

we may forget to render unto God that which is God’s.

Back around 1900, north of here in Avery County, a Church of Christ congregation was given a piece of land on which to build a church.

The elders piously deeded it to “The Lord God Almighty.”

Fast forward about a hundred years. The building was old, the community had changed, they wanted to sell, relocate and rebuild.

Problem. They didn’t own the building. Somebody named, “The Lord God Almighty” did.

So, the legal system went to work. In order to get a new deed they had to prove that the previous owner could not be found.

So it was that the Sheriff was issued a warrant to locate one “Lord God Almighty” and, after two weeks, to sign papers to the effect that “the Lord God Almighty” was nowhere to be found.

Someone mentioned this little bit of legal shenanigans to the editor of the local weekly, and it always being a slow news week in Avery County, he put it in the paper with a huge, above the fold headline that read:

Lord God Almighty Not to Be Found in Avery County

Our calling today is to make sure the Lord God Almighty can be found in the churches and communities of the Southeastern Synod.

Our calling today is to render unto God those things that are God’s

Our hearts,

Our souls,

Our very lives,

amen and amen

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Oct. 12, 2008

Oct. 12, 2008
Matthew 22:1-14

A sermon preached at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN

I went to the Lutheran Seminary with a fellow named Frank Honeycutt. Actually, it would be more accurate to say we crossed paths there, as I was doing my year of penance for having gone to a (gasp!) Non-Lutheran seminary and he was on his way to internship.

Story I heard was that Frank almost didn’t pass internship, almost didn’t get ordained because he refused to wear a collar. His supervisor thought this indicated that Frank was uncomfortable in the pastoral role or something.

I’m not sure how that battle of the wills was resolved, except that Frank has been a pastor for over 25 years, so it was resolved somehow. He is pastor of Ebenezer Church in Columbia, SC and the author of a number of books, about which more later.

The question of appropriate attire used to be more important than it is now. I’ve been married since the mid-70's and I can still remember Deborah calling around to other women asking “What are you going to wear?” because no one wanted to have on the wrong thing. She also frequently looked at me and said, “Are you going to wear that?” but that’s another story.

I confess that I’m a little old fashioned about this. It bothers me to see men eating with hats on indoors, for instance, and while I don’t expect people to dress up for church the way they used to, a little specialness would be nice. But, the world has changed, and as a sign of my age, I confess I’m not sure it’s for the better.

Anyway, we’re a little out of touch with worries about wearing the wrong thing to a social event; but our Gospel lesson hinges on just such rules and expectations.

As we start out looking at this, it might be helpful to take a hint from Pastor Honeycutt, whom I mentioned a few minutes ago. His latest book is titled, “Marry a Pregnant Virgin.” Frank says that oftentimes a Bible story seems to be about one thing, but it throws us a curve ball and is really about something else.

So it is with the Gospel story we read this morning:

It starts out normal enough - the King’s Son is getting married and the king is hosting a banquet to celebrate. The date was announced months back, the invitations went not long after.

We all know our fairy tales, invitations to this party should be the hottest ticket in the kingdom.

But, in this version, things go wrong immediately. The King’s servants go out to tell the guests that the banquet is ready, BUT they refuse to come.

The King can’t believe it. The guests must not have understood. So he sends out other servants, makes a new announcement, a more explicit message: “Dinner’s ready. We’ve got a great menu. I’ve booked an A list band. Let’s Party!”

Now, it really gets strange. Not only do the guests refuse to come; some of them insult the king with the lame excuse that they have to work, while others, unbelievably, torture and kill the king’s messengers.

Of course the king is outraged, and in true fairy tale fashions, sends in the troops to punish the murderers.

NEXT, the King sends out more messengers to work up a crowd, to find other people to come to the Son’s wedding feast.

“Go out in the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet,” he says.

And the servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both GOOD AND BAD, so the wedding hall was filled with guests (verses 9 and 10)

Well, so far so good. The story makes a certain amount of theological sense.

We can read it as the King is God, and the Wedding Banquet is the Kingdom of God, and the servants are the Prophets and the invited guests are like the Jews or the Scribes and Pharisees, or the Chief Priests or something like that.

And the people gathered up off the streets are the Tax Collectors and Sinners or the Gentiles, or a combination of the two. So, it makes a certain amount of sense; I guess.

But, remember what Pr. Honeycutt said about Bible stories throwing us curve balls, meaning something else than what we originally think? Well here comes the really strange part.

The King walks through the banquet hall, and throws a guy out of the party for failing to come properly dressed. I think we can understand why Jesus says the man was speechless. He’s probably thinking to himself:

What’s going on here? I was hanging out at the corner, minding my own business, when this guy comes up to me and asks me if I want to go to a free party. I said, sure, why not? So, I came to the party and then this other guy kicks me out ‘cause I’m not wearing the right clothes? What kind of nut cases are these people?

This story is not about clothes and banquets; it’s a story about seriousness and faithfulness in responding to the grace of God.

It is a story not about Kings and Slaves and Prophets and Jews. It’s a story about us, and about God’s invitation to us, and about our response to the Grace of God.

This is a story about taking God and God’s Kingdom seriously, about not presuming upon the Grace of God to the extent that we assume that God must forgive and accept us no matter what we do. It is a story about the paradox and mystery of God’s love.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ walks a very narrow path between two large ditches.

On the one side is legalism, which sets out a series of things we must do to be saved. We fall into this ditch when we insist that in order to make God love and accept us we must hold a certain form of theology or follow a particular type of worship, or practice a strict code of morality.

The other ditch is “antinomianism,” which is pastor talk for “anything goes,” an attitude that says that no matter what we do God, being God, has to love and accept us anyway.

This parable, this story seeks to point us down the middle path between the ditches.

All are invited, many come, both good and bad, the banquet hall is filled. It is true; God’s invitation to discipleship is offered to all. No legalism here, no prior requirements, no price of admission.

But, once the invitation has been accepted, it is expected that one’s life will be changed in response to God’s gracious gift of love.

The Wedding Robe represents the desire to amend one’s life, to dress one’s soul in the garments of righteousness, to behave as appropriately befits a guest of the Most High King.

To fail to do so indicates that one does not appreciate the gift one has received. I’ll tell you a secret; one of my boys, when he was younger, opened all cards from his Grandmothers by tearing open the envelope and shaking out the check or cash from inside, without ever looking at or reading the card. At least, he did that until I caught him at it. Shall we say the Dad “was enraged and sent in the troops,” and leave it at that?

When Jesus shows the King throwing the inappropriately dressed guest into the outer dankness, He is cautioning us against ourselves, our souls or our God lightly. He is warning us not to presume upon the Grace of God.

A few years ago, I heard a true story on the radio about The Butterball Turkey Company’s Holiday Hotline. It was set up to help people trying to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

One caller called in and asked about a frozen turkey she had in the freezer for almost 20 years. She wanted to know if it was still good.

The Butterball Hotline Consultant said that if it had been kept frozen the entire time at below zero it would be safe; but it would also be dry and tasteless.

The caller said, “That’s what I thought. I’ll just give it to the Church.”

YOU have been invited to the Wedding Banquet of the Son of God.

You have been asked to come into the Kingdom of God.

WHAT are YOU going to wear?

WHAT presents are YOU going to bring?

Are you going to bring a faith that has been frozen for many, many years?

A life that has become DRY and TASTELESS, even to you?

Or are you going to put on Christ, dress yourself in the garments of righteousness,
put your best foot forward, bring into the Kingdom the best you have to offer?

Not because you have to, but because you want to.

Because God in Christ has been so gracious to you that you can do no other than to offer God YOUR very best.

What ARE you going to wear?

Amen and Amen.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Oct. 5, 2008, Pentecost 21

October 5, 2008
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46

A sermon preached at St. Andrew’s in the Mountains Lutheran Church, Andrews, NC

Tuesday afternoon I spent about an hour looking over the scripture lessons for today and noticed that three of them had to do with vineyards. Later that night I was driving home from Atlanta and went up through the little mountain towns of Cleveland and Helen. Just outside Helen I noticed the Habersham Winery and started laughing. Seeing that store a few miles from Clarksville GA. reminded me of a very funny story.

As you may know, Lutherans differ from most other Christians in the South in our attitude toward alcohol. We have always been more open to it, you might say. For example, back in the early 1800's, Pastor Shoffner of Lynchburg Tennessee started a distillery and taught a young man named Jack Daniels the business.

But, the real point here is that for much of its history much of the rural and small town South has been legally if not actually off limits to booze of any sort.

About 20 years ago I read in the Atlanta Constitution an interview with Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Fuller said, “A fellow came to Clarksville, GA and wanted to set up a winery. The City Council was made up of Baptists and they objected to the plan. So the fellow came to a meeting of the council to argue his case. He explained that the climate was good for grapes, that he could make good wine, and that it would employ a lot of people and might even become a tourist attraction.

A member of the council jumped up and said ‘We don’t believe in alcohol. If you build a winery, there’ll be alcohol in that wine and I’m against it.”

The prospective vintner was genuinely puzzled, “But you know Jesus made wine as one of his miracles.”

The Councilman replied, ‘yes, but his wine didn’t have any alcohol in it.”

About this time the Mayor spoke up, “That argument won’t wash. Wine, by its very nature, has alcohol in it. I just don’t know why Jesus did that, turning water into wine. All my life - well, that’s been an embarrassment to me.”

In all three of our texts, an important image is played out. The Nation of Israel is portrayed as a Vineyard planted by God.

Each lesson uses this image to make an important point about God’s relationship to God’s people.

In the Isaiah text we hear the voice of God speaking. God says, “I cleared the land, I planted the grapes, I built a tower for protection, I dug out a wine press, I got everything ready;

But, the vines did not produce as hoped. The vines did not produce good fruit; instead bad, wild grapes came forth; grapes unsuited to the making of good wine.

God looks the situation over and says, “Well, I did the best I could, I’ve done all I can. I can’t pour good money after bad. I’m going to abandon the field. Let the walls and the watchtower crumble. Go somewhere else where I can be more productive.

Isaiah the prophet’s point is simple: the Nation of Israel had become an embarrassment and God was ready to abandon them.

The Psalm should be read as a response to this abandonment. Verses 8 and 9 retell the same tale: God planting Israel in a new land; “You have brought a vine out of Egypt, you cast out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took root and filled the land.”

But verses 12 1nd 13 show the people’s bewilderment at being abandoned; “Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by may pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.”

And then, in verses 14 and 15, the people plead with God for forgiveness and restoration;
“Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”

Isaiah and Psalm 80 contain a major theme or plot line of the Hebrew Bible:

God’s showers a people with Grace.
The people prosper
The people forget God
The people become “wild”
God becomes angry and regrets making people
God allows the people to suffer
The people cry out for forgiveness
God hears,
God forgives,
God heals and restores

And so it goes; over and over and over again.

Our Gospel lesson from Matthew picks up on these two story lines; the Nation of Israel as the Lord’s Vineyard and the cycle of rebellion and renewal throughout Israel’s history.

In verse 33 Jesus tells the same story as Isaiah and the Psalmist, but he takes it off in a new direction. In Jesus’ version, the owner rents out the Vineyard to tenants and leaves town.
After a while, at harvest time, in Hebrew, literally “the season of fruit,” the owner sends servants to collect the rent.

And the tenants, the sharecroppers, do an amazingly cruel and stupid thing; they beat one of the servants and kill the other.

And the owner here is amazingly tolerant and, and, well kind of stupid. I mean, it’s really silly to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. But that’s what the owner does. He sends more servants and they get beaten and killed. And then the son is sent.
How ridiculous is that? I mean, would you send your child into a situation like that? Really now.

And sure enough, the tenants beat and kill the son of the owner.

At this point Jesus stops telling the story, looks at his hearers and asks them to finish the story.
So what would the owner do? And the people say, “Simple, he would come with an army and kill the bad tenants and give the vineyards to good tenants.”

Right you are, Jesus says. And the Kingdom of God, the true vineyard of the Lord, will be taken away from YOU! You who reject the prophets and even the very son of God nd given to people who bear the fruit of the Kingdom.”

It would be easy for us to nod and say “Yes, that’s what happened. Those Jewish people were the bad tenants, so God took away the Kingdom and gave it to us Christians.”

It would be easy to say that. It would also be wrong. Jesus was not talking to the Jews as a people, as a race, or as a religion. Jesus was talking to the Religious Leaders, the Chief Priests and Pharisees. The People are the Vineyard, the LEADERS are the bad tenants.

The life of the Vineyard, the Kingdom, goes on. And God still seeks good fruit. We in the church must listen to the word of judgement in these Bible lessons.

We must realize how often we, like the good folks of Clarksville, GA fail to listen to and obey God’s Word because we find it an embarrassment in our modern world.

And we must realize how often our failure to bear good fruit, our lack of love and charity, are an embarrassment to God.

For the Word of God is a powerful Stone, pounding on our hearts, shattering our self-serving pride. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces...” verse 44

But the Word of God is not only the Word that breaks us, it is also the word that heals us.

The Embarrassing Word becomes the cornerstone of our lives, the foundation of a new Vineyard, a vineyard that bursts forth to overflowing with the fruits of the spirit, faith, hope and love.

Our Bible lessons for today call upon us to examine our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. They call us to discover what sort of vines, what kind of tenants we are.

Are we bearing Good Fruit? Are we giving God God’s due? Are we living our lives as faithful caretakers of God’s Vineyard?

If not, let us cry our with the Psalmist for forgiveness and new life.

Let us trust in the Gospel promise that God will hear, God will forgive, God will restore,
God will save.

Amen and Amen.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

September 28, 2008

September 28, 2008
Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Title: Saying YES and Living NO

Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Daddy would say, when we failed to obey him quickly enough. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Mama would say when she got home from work and found our chores undone. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what the elementary school principal would say when we failed to immediately do whatever it was he told us to do.

I grew up in a world in which it was assumed that children would do what their parents and teachers told them, without grumbling, hesitation or backtalk. Since they could not imagine a child NOT doing as he or she was told, the only excuse they could think of for such failure was not hearing the command, thus, Didn’t you hear me?

I heard those words a whole lot more than I care to admit or remember. I was not a terribly obedient child, but I was not outwardly rebellious either. I was a bit of a passive-aggressive slacker. So when a parent or teacher or coach or youth minister said, “Didn’t you hear me?”
I usually responded with something really clever like; Oh, you meant me?’ or Oh, you meant take out THAT trash can. No one was ever fooled by this, of course.

One of the distressing things about growing up is that we do indeed become our parents. This has led me to a peculiar and I think unique theory of genetics: I believe that we inherit traits from our parents through our children. I KNOW I didn’t become my father until I had two sons.

But, I was not an exact carbon-copy of my father. While, like him, I equated my giving orders to their immediate obedience (oh silly me); I developed a more modern, ironic, sarcastic approach, as in “exactly what part of “unload the dishwasher” did you not understand?, but the point is the same: to hear is to obey.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus has a conversation with the usual suspects, the “Chief Priests and Elders.” They have questions about Jesus’ authority to teach. They are trying to set a trap for him, hoping he will claim divine authority in such a way that they came accuse him of the crime of BLASPHEMY.

Jesus does two things. First, he shows up their lack of honesty and integrity by asking them about John the Baptist. He shows that they are so afraid of public opinion that they will not dare speak an unpopular word.

He then lays out for them a parable about obedience:

He tells a simple tale of two brothers. They were both told by their father to go to the vineyard to work. One says Yes Father, but does not go. The other says no, but later changes his mind and goes. Jesus poses the question: Which of the two did the will of the father?

In this story, Jesus makes it clear that the tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners may have turned their backs on God at first, but they later repented and turned their lives around.

Meanwhile, the Chief Priests and Elders have spent their lives professing obedience to God’s will, saying yes to God; but have never done any of the works of love and mercy to which God calls them.

This, Jesus says, makes it clear that the sinners will get into the Kingdom first.

Many of us in the church are like the Chief Priests and Elders; we are guilty of saying YES and living NO!

We say yes to the belief that God is the creator of all things, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” and yet we act as though what we have we made ourselves.

We say yes to the truth that all that we have and all that we are gifts to us from God, we say yes to the idea that we own nothing but simply take care of it on behalf of God and the Kingdom. We say Yes, our time, talent and treasure belong to God.

We say Yes to all this; and then worry about whether our percentage of giving is to be calculated on our gross or net earnings. We question whether or not the Christian is really expected to give a tithe. Oh did you mean Me? Oh, did you mean those poor people? Oh, you meant for ME to sell all I have and give to the poor. We say Yes; but find a way to live No.

We say Yes, the Gospel calls us to serve the poor and needy of the world, we say yes to the truth that “if we do it for the least of these,” we have done it for Jesus.

We say yes, Christ calls us to die to self and take up a cross. Oh, you meant that scruffy Bum, that homeless alcoholic, that boy with AIDS, that unwed mother. We say Yes, but find a way to live NO.

Soren Kierkegaard created a parable about this. It went something like this:

Suppose a King issued an order to his Kingdom to be obeyed by all. But instead of obeying it the people created Schools to teach people to teach this order to the the people. And these new Teachers then went out and held weekly study groups so people could study the King’s order and then they also had weekly Celebrations to sing praises to the King for giving the order. And, in the Universities, those who wrote the most interesting interpretations of the King’s order won
prizes and important titles. What if they did all this, but throughout the whole Kingdom, no one actually bothered to OBEY the order? “How,” Kirkegaard asks, “Do you think the King would react?”

I think the King would thunder, “Didn’t you hear me?”

This story is about us, the church, and our tendency to say yes while living no.

And, you know what? If we were left only with words, directives, orders, from Jesus, I think we would be stuck in this cycle of self-deception and failure forever.

Fortunately for us, the Creator not only invited us to go into the Vineyard to work, the Creator also sent us a Saviour to show us the way.

This is the point of our Second Lesson, the reading from Philippians. Listen as I read a part of it slowly and carefully. I wish I knew the tune and had a good voice, because this is one of the church’s earliest hymns:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness,
and being found in human form.
He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death - -
Even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him,
and gave him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess,
that Jesus Christ is LORD.

Jesus came to the Vineyard to work, fulfilling the will of the Creator. He obeyed, and this obedience led to his death, his death upon a Cross.

But Christ’s obedience did not end there; the Cross was not the end but the beginning of life, both for Jesus and for us.

God’s Yes at Easter led Jesus and us out the other side of the Tomb.

We are the new and Risen Body of Christ in the world, called to obedience, called to shout out and live out a Resounding YES to God’s proddings and promises.

In the early days of the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote an essay in answer to what he called “Poor, confused persons trying to find the true Christian Church in the world.”

In this essay, Luther laid out seven marks of the Church:

1 - Preaching of the Word
2 - Baptism
3 - Communion
4 - Confession and Forgiveness
5 - Ordaining Ministers
6 - Thanksgiving, prayer and praise
7 - “the suffering of the Cross”

We are all more than willing to say YES to the first six of these. The seventh one, “the suffering of the cross” makes us hesitate, gives us pause.

It is this hesitancy to say yes to the suffering of the cross that leads us to the sin of saying yes with our lips while saying no with our lives.

But, the Gospel is, the Church is incomplete until our YES to God leads us to solidarity with those who suffer. We are incomplete in our Yes to God until our YES leads us to suffer with those who suffer. We are incomplete until our Yes to God leads us to suffer with Christ for the salvation of the world.

Then, we can rest assured that when our days here on earth are over, God will look at us and say
Well done, good and faithful servant. I see that you heard me.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September 14, 2008

September 14, 2008
A sermon preached at Advent Lutheran Church, Murfreesboro, TN
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Title: “On Forgiveness”

True Story. Saw it on the news a few years ago. Couple in Switzerland. An International Banker and his wife. Noone knows exactly what started it. Maybe the husband cancelled one too many vacations because of business. She lost it.

Wife poured baking soda in his tank of rare tropical fish.

Husband threw her diamonds in the garbage.

She threw his jewelry in the swimming pool.

He poured Chlorine Beach on all her furs and designer gowns.

She doused his $70,000 Ferrari with Gasoline and set it on fire. (These days the Gas may have cost more than the car!)

He put his foot through her $250,000 Picasso original.

She opened the sea cocks on his million-dollar yacht, sinking it in Lake Geneva.

At this point their daughter intervened and called the police; who refused to get involved, saying there is no law against destroying your own property.

Would you agree that when we have an unforgiving spirit,
when we harbor a grudge,
when we seek revenge rather than reconciliation;
the main damage we do is to ourselves,
to our own emotional property,
to our own mental and spiritual health and well-being?

In today’s Gospel lesson, when Peter says to Jesus that he thinks forgiving seven times is enough, Peter is feeling pretty good about himself.

After all, the Law only requires that we forgive an actual brother, a blood relative, three times for the same offence.

Peter generously expands the notion of “brother” or “sister” by including members of the church. Then he more than doubles the amount of forgiveness required.

But Jesus stuns Peter, and us, by expanding it even more, to 77 times or maybe to 70 x 7. The Greek is obscure and the actual # is not important.

Jesus is making a point that he expands with the parable of the Master and the unforgiving servant. That there are no limits to God’s forgiveness, nor should there be on ours.

First the Master calls in the slave who owes him 10,000 talents. This the slave cannot pay. He begs that the debt be forgiven. And the Master does indeed forgive the slave the debt.

Then, that very day, almost at the same time, this same recently forgiven slave goes out and cruelly throws a fellow servant in jail over a debt of 100 denarii.

Let me see if I can make these numbers make sense. 1 Talent = 6000 denari. So, doing the math; the first slave owed the Master 60 million denarii while the second slave owed only a 100. Talents, Denarii, Dollars; it doesn’t matter, the point is obvious.

The First slave owed the Master a debt that it was impossible to pay. Then he turned around and refused to forgive someone else a tiny debt.

This, Jesus says, is the way we human beings treat one another. God has forgiven us much and yet we are reluctant to forgive one another a little.

Marina Gottshalk wrote a column in the Oakland Tribune a few years ago about a gun amnesty program in the town of Kensington, CA.

A woman brought in a loaded pistol she had bought 20 years ago, planning to kill her husband. She never shot him, but notice; she kept the gun LOADED.

All too often, our forgiveness is like the woman choosing NOT to kill her husband. Someone does us wrong, and while we may not cause a scene, neither do we forgive. We don’t shoot them, but we keep the gun loaded just in case.

How do we learn to forgive? Only through remembering how much we have been forgiven.

We all owe to God a debt we cannot possibly pay.

Yet God forgives us:
Not because of our promises to be good,
not because of our promises of future service,
not because of our commitment to give more to the church.
None of that is enough.

God forgives us because of who God is, not because of who we are.

The grace and forgiveness of God are Free, but they are not cheap; they cost Jesus his very life.

In our story, the man who was forgiven much then turns and fails to forgive another man a little thing, a small debt. Again, the connection to us is painfully obvious.

How can we, who have been forgiven so much, fail to forgive others their little sins against us?

That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we are to forgive others the little things because God has already forgiven us EVERYTHING.

Dr. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, says, “For just as we sin greatly against God every day and yet he forgives it all through grace, so we also must always forgive our neighbor who does us harm, violence and injustice, bears malice against us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that you are forgiven in heaven. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven - not on account of your forgiveness (for God does it altogether freely, out of pure Grace . . .)” [Book of Concord, Fortress, 2000 edition, p. 453]

April 25, 1958 - Philadelphia PA. Korean student at the University of Pennsylvania, waylaid on the way to Post Office by a street gang. Beaten, robbed, killed.

City of Philadelphia appalled, prosecutors called for death penalty.

In the midst of the furor, a letter arrived from Korea. It read:

Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action . . . .

In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released.

We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the Gospel of Jesus Christ - who died for our sins.

How do we truly forgive one another? Only through remembering that we have already been forgiven much by God.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

September 7, 2008

Sept. 7, 2008
Matthew 18:15-17
A sermon preached at Peace Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit my mother on the farm where I grew up in the foothills of Virginia. Leaving worship at Hatcher’s Chapel Methodist, I glanced down the road and across a pasture at the Pentecostal Church and remembered a story my late father had told me about that church. It brought a smile to my face as I stood at his grave.

Most of the denominations in NC were against tobacco, but the vast majority ignored the fact that many of their members were tobacco farmers or worked in tobacco factories. Not the Pentecostal Holiness. They took their anti-tobacco stance seriously.

Daddy told me that every spring, when the farmers in his congregation planted their tobacco, the Preacher would go and see them and read them the section in the Pentecostal Holiness Discipline forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade” and the scripture we read from Matthew. A few weeks later he brought two elders with him and did it again. And some time before Memorial Day, the women and children of the congregation gathered in Solemn Assembly to excommunicate their Fathers and Husbands and Brothers, etc. Then everyone would go home to a nice Sunday Dinner.

Sometime in the Fall, after everyone had harvested their crop and sold their tobacco, the women and children would gather again and vote their menfolk back in, just in time, my father added with a wink, for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the tobacco sale.

Somehow, while following the Bible literally and carefully, the good folks at the PH church managed to miss the entire point of Jesus’ teaching in this matter. They used this text as a way to keep the CHURCH clean from the messiness of sin while Jesus meant it as a way to bring messy, sinful people back into the household of faith.

It is interesting to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is the only bit of Scripture cited explicitly, chapter and verse, in the Model Constitution for Congregations of the ELCA. It is in Chapter 15, THE DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS.

The wording of the constitution is important here. It says, “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18.” Did you notice? “PRIOR TO disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted.”

This text is not about “How to throw someone out so the church will be pure.”

This text is about “How to love somebody back in so that they might be saved.”

There are three things in the text that show us this:

1) CONTEXT: Matthew placed this episode between two important sayings of Jesus about forgiveness and the reclaiming of the lost.

It comes after the shepherd leaving the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep
and before Jesus tells Peter that we should forgive sinners not seven times but
seventy time seven. It is obviously a part of a forgiveness reconciliation section.

2) Within the text itself, verse 15, Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” indicating that the whole point is to bring people back into the family of faith.

3) And for me, the most important point is the one most misunderstood, verse 17,
“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

This text is usually taken to mean that we should exclude, ignore, shun, excommunicate, disown, debar, avoid, treat as null and void and nonexistent these folks; but let me ask you an important question: How did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and Tax Collectors?

Let’s see: Matthew, in whose Gospel we read these words, was a what? Does anybody know? Matthew 10:3 “Matthew the tax collector.” That’s one tax collector he invited into his inner circle.

What about Zaccheus? The “wee little man” in a sycamore tree. A Tax Collector.

The Pharisees were always fussing about Jesus, mostly for eating and drinking and partying with whom? “Tax Collectors and Sinners.” That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding to me.

And what about Gentiles? Let’s see. There’s the SAMARITAN woman at the well. There’s the Roman Centurion who sought to have his daughter healed. Wasn’t that the person Jesus said had more faith than anyone in Israel? That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding and excommunicating to me?

Matthew certainly had a reason for telling us that Jesus said we should treat sinners like Gentiles and Tax Collectors; but it does not seem to be have been the reason we have traditionally assumed.

We thought it meant that we should wash our hands of them, shun them and have nothing to do with them. And because Lutherans, generally speaking, just don’t act like that, we have ignored the whole thing. We have not attempted reconciliation under Biblical Standards because it is too messy emotionally and we don’t want to deal with getting to the end of the process and having to kick somebody out.

But kicking them out is not the point. What Jesus really meant was that we should treat people with whom it is hard to reconcile as people in need of serious love.

This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved.

It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away. It is about loving others enough to talk to them about their behaviour and to offer them help in changing it.

And it is about refusing to give up on anybody, anybody at all.

It is about the willingness to go that extra mile to find a lost sheep.

It is about a willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive, until the sinner is redeemed.

Simply put, it is about treating other people the way Jesus treated Gentiles and Tax Collectors, as people to be loved and brought into the Kingdom of God.

There is an old Jewish Midrash that goes like this:

A fervent new student came in to see the Teacher.

He zealously reported on his fellow students' sins and imperfections and vehemently demanded that they be expelled from the learning community.

The Teacher said: “No, that is not what we need to do.”

The Student was appalled, “How can you tolerate evil like this?”

The Teacher said, “Your father is a carpenter isn’t he. He makes furniture doesn’t he? You know how to handle an axe don’t you?”

The Student said, “Yes.”

Teacher: “Well, I need your help. See that table by the window. It has a scratch across the surface and one leg is wobbly. Chop it up into firewood for me, won’t you?”

The Student said, “Are you crazy? That table is made of a very fine oak! And I recognize the design. It was made by one of the most famous furniture makers in Europe. There’s no need to throw it away. The scratch is minor and I can fix the leg.”

“Just so,” smiled the Teacher, “God is the Master Craftsman of our souls, and God is unwilling that any should be discarded because of a few scratches and imperfections. What we do here, in this community of faith and learning, is make repairs and improvements.”

And here, in this community of faith and learning called Peace Lutheran Church, we too are busy making repairs and improvements. We too are busy learning how to love because Jesus first loved us, Gentiles and sinners though we may be.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

August 24, 2008

August 24, 2008
A sermon preached at Messiah Lutheran, Madison, AL.

Matthew 16:13-19

I have often wondered why Jesus decided to give “Simon-bar-Jona” the nickname Rocky, for that is what the name Peter means. It comes from the Latin “petra” meaning rock or stone. The most familiar English usage is in the word “petrified,” meaning “turned to stone”.

Most of the time people who are nicknamed Rocky are stalwart, unmovable, straight-ahead, no-nonsense kind of guys, like Rocky Balboa. Somehow the name Rocky doesn’t seem to fit Simon son of Jona.

For this Rocky, this Peter, was, to put it bluntly, not very dependable. He was hot one minute, cold the next.

I’ll walk on water, Lord. Oops, I’m sinking!

I’ll never let them take you Lord, give me that Sword. Jesus? Never heard of him.

Lord, I’ll stand by you forever. Well, Jesus is dead, I’m going fishing.

Was Jesus making fun of Simon by calling him Peter? Was Jesus joking when he said that on this rock of questioning, unstable, doubting and undependable faith I will build my church?

Or was Jesus being both more realistic and more daring than we can ever imagine?

When Jesus picked someone like Simon bar Jona to be the backbone of the church, Jesus picked someone remarkably like us. We are all probably more like Peter than we would like to admit.

We grow hot and cold in our enthusiasm for God; we are often confused about our faith, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus; we continually stumble on our journey to Jerusalem.

There are TWO great confessions of faith in today’s Gospel Lesson:

One is Simon saying to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The other is Jesus saying to Simon, “You are Rocky and on this Rock I will build my church.”

Ever since I was a little kid I have found many things in the Bible hard to understand. Mostly Old Testament stories that conflicted with the science I was being taught in school and stories of God killing people or telling the Israelites to kill people in God’s name, stories that conflicted with the God of Love I believed in.

I have spent my adult life sorting out answers to those questions.
But I have to tell you that the thing that has astounded and befuddled me the most is how on earth God could place the most precious Jewel of Eternity; the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; into the weak and fragile hands of people like us, like you and me.

But, that is indeed what God has done.

When Jesus says to Simon, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church . . . . “

We should hear, “Members of Messiah Lutheran Church, you are Rocky and on this rock, I will build my church.”

There are many things that come to mind when one says “Church;”
Building. Worship Service. Sunday School Classes and Women’s Circles and Youth Groups and Men’s Breakfasts and Social Ministry Projects and council Meetings and Offering Envelopes and Annual Meetings and Stewardship Campaigns.

All those aspects of being the church are built on just two things:
1) Our Faith in God; and
2) God’s faith in us.

A better way to say that would be that the church is built on just one thing; the relationship of love that exists between God and God’s people.

God chose to build the church on the somewhat uncertain rock of our faith and our discipleship and our commitment to Christ and the Gospel.

God risked everything by trusting us with “the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I have two grown sons. I did not realize what a tremendous thing God had done in giving us the keys until I had to give my oldest son the keys to the family car when he turned sixteen. But, after a few speeding tickets and small fender benders he began to live into that trust.

God has handed to us the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. God has shown a tremendous amount of faith in us. And let’s be clear. It is not trust that we have earned; it is trust that we have been given in the fervent hope and belief that we will grow up enough to handle it.

It is a scary thought, and a humbling one, to realize that God has put the Gospel, the Keys to the Kingdom, into our hands. It is a thing that is so, so big, and we are so, so small; that we don’t even know where to start.


Those are the first words of what is being called “The Prayer of Oscar Romero.” It has circulated on the internet and printed on posters, etc.

Romero was the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed at the Altar during Mass by a government death squad. The words were actually spoken by another bishop, a Cardinal, at a Mass for priests who had recently died, but they speak for all of us about our place in the work of the Kingdom, God’s hand in all eternity, and God’s hand on us.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 2008

August 17, 2008
A sermon preached at Holy Cross Lutheran, Athens, GA

Matthew 15: 21-28

Title: I Don’t Know

I have two sons, ages 22 and 25. When the boys were little, they thought I knew everything. And I must confess that I did little to dissuade them from this highly flattering delusion.

I am sure that somewhere in the recesses of their minds there is a file of totally incorrect information about why the sky is blue or how come the people in Australia don’t fall off. (God is a Tarheel and people in Australia wear special shoes with suction cups on the bottom.)

Anyway, as time goes by, and there comes a day when the delusion that Daddy knows everything is replaced with the equally powerful assumption that Daddy knows nothing. As Mark Twain famously said,

When I was 14, my father was the most ignorant man in America. When I turned 21 I was surprised at how much HE had learned in seven years.

In between the stages of DADDY KNOWS EVERYTHING and DADDY KNOWS NOTHING there falls the short stage of WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW?

A period of genuine astonishment that sometimes Dad answers questions with a sincere and unfeigned Gee son, I don’t know.

The idea that Daddy doesn’t know and is willing to admit he doesn’t know takes some getting used to for most children.

In the last thirty years I have discovered that a similar relationship between Pastor and parishioners. In matters religious, there is an assumption that the pastor knows.

Sometimes at social gatherings, someone I’ve just met follows up the What do you do? question with what they perceive to be a real zinger,

If Adam and Eve were the first people and Cain and Abel were their children, after Cain killed Abel and was banished to the Land of Nod, where did Cain’s wife come from?

Without an hour to go into the rudiments of Hebrew Bible higher and lower criticism to establish the basis for an intelligent answer, I usually just shrug and say, I don’t know. How ‘bout them Bulldogs? Somehow, that doesn’t seem to satisfy them.

Now, as I hinted, we pastors play into this whole PASTOR KNOWS game by sometimes acting like we’re the only ones capable of understanding a particular Biblical passage. We mumble about Hebrew and Greek and Contextualization, etc. etc. but, truthfully, some of our answers are about as accurate as the whole suction cups on the shoes thing.

Take today’s Gospel Lesson. Here we find Jesus behaving in what seems to us a totally unChristlike manner.

There is really no way to see what Jesus said to the woman about taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs as anything other than insulting and demeaning to her, both as a woman and a Canaanite.

And, insult aside, we have a hard time reconciling the understanding we have of Jesus as Saviour of the world with his statement that he came only to the lost sheep of Israel.

So many pastors and Biblical scholars have, at times, turned to a series of “explanations” that get Jesus off the hook, so to speak, sort of.

1) There are those who see this as an acted out parable. They say that Jesus was just saying what he knew his followers thought in order to correct it. This is the

He didn’t really mean it approach.

2) Some Bible Scholars opine that this is an unauthentic saying, that the whole thing is a creation of the early church. For them, the question is one of the theological needs of the early church and why did they include such a story but the story itself doesn’t reflect on Jesus because

He didn’t really say it.

3) Others say that Jesus was not referring to her in a negative or insulting way at all but was simply using a Jewish adage, like our the early bird gets the worm. Does anyone get offended if they happen to be the worm in the analogy? Of course not. This is the

We don’t really get it answer.

Now that I’ve set it up, you all look at me expectantly and say, Okay Pastor, which is it? And I get to say,

Gee, I don’t know.

Really, I don’t know. Did Jesus have an authentic conversion experience here? A conversion to seeing his mission as going beyond Israel to the whole world?

I don’t know.

Did Jesus already know that his mission was to the whole world and just used this encounter as a brilliantly ad-libbed teachable moment?

I don’t know.

There is one important thing that I do know. This text defines for us the mission of Jesus as going beyond the geographic and ethnic limits of Israel and Judaism to the whole world and for all people.

However he got there, from this moment forth Jesus is shown to us as one who understands himself as having a mission to ALL God’s children.

As I said, I don’t know if Jesus had a conversion moment in this encounter or not, but the text certainly makes it looks as though he did. And if Jesus has conversion moments, perhaps we need to look to ourselves and see if there are any places where conversions are necessary to our understanding of the wideness of God’s Mercy.

Several years ago, at an Episcopal/Lutheran clergy gathering in Nashville TN, the Episcopal Bishop told of being elected by the diocese of Nashville and moving from Detroit for his first experience of the South.

He said the Catholic Bishop, a native Southerner, took him to lunch and told him, The first thing you have to learn, Bishop, is that here in the South we’re all Baptists. You’ve got your Baptist Baptists of course, but you’ve also got the Methodist Baptists, the Presbyterian Baptists, the Lutheran Baptists, and yes the Episcopal and Catholic Baptists. Different name on the sign, but somewhere deep within, we’re all Baptists.

The Bishop was joking around, but at core he had an important point. One of the realities of living in the Baptist dominated South is that Southern evangelical religion is dominated by issues of conversion. Are you saved? is Evangelical for Have you been converted?

We Lutherans have a tendency to shy away from that question for it is not the way we think and talk about our faith so we’re unsure what to say.

We don’t want to say I don’t know, yet what we do say often sounds like that, and our reliance on our baptism and confirmation doesn’t sound much like conversion to the people asking.

I have finally decided on my answer to that question. When someone asks me if I’ve been saved, I usually reply,

Yes, many times.

As I look back on it now, I realize that my life has been a series of conversions, of times when my ideas about the nature of God were dashed on the rock of God’s Word of hope and promise to all people.

Out of that collision of my hard head with God’s firm Law and Gospel a new understanding of myself, of others and of God’s love and mercy were constantly emerging.

I think I count my first conversion as a conversion from racism, in an incident too embarrassing and shaming for me to tell except that when I was in high school hurt a good person and a dear friend very, very deeply and in the process I learned the depths of the evil of which I was capable and also I learned that only God’s love could put it right and it did.

Over the years, I have had numerous conversions. Conversions about Liberals and Conservatives and Communists and Asians and Hispanic and Jewish people and women and Yankees and rednecks and intellectuals and homosexuals and, and, and . . .

Every time I have come to a place where I think I’m okay, I’m finished converting; God opens up another area where I am attempting to limit God’s love and grace, mercy and power to people like me, leaving out people “not like me.”

And one more time I have to go through the process of being broken down and rebuilt through the power of God’s love and redemptive power.

It’s like this. I bought a pair of clip-on Sunglasses recently. For two weeks I fretted and fussed because they didn’t fit right. Finally I discovered it wasn’t the clip-ons, it was my glasses that were crooked.

It’s like that with the Word of God in our lives. We continually try to bend God’s Word to fit the shape of our lives, and it continues to be an uneven fit.

The salvific moment, the moment of salvation and conversion, comes when we begin to bend our lives to conform to the shape of God’s Word.

This is not something that happens in a moment, in an instant. This is something that takes place over the course of a lifetime.

Did Jesus have a genuine conversion with the Canaanite woman?

Still, I don’t know.

Are we called to spread the love of God in word and deed to all those around us?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Amen and Amen.

Friday, August 08, 2008

August 10, 2008

August 10, 2008
Holy Trinity Lutheran, Kingsport, TN

Texts: I Kings 19:9-18, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14: 22-33

Almost 40 years ago I stood in the hallway outside a College Admissions office, sweating uncomfortably in my Sunday Suit and twisting the postcard with the time and place of my appointment in my hands.

I pushed the door open slowly and looked around. I saw a man sitting at his desk, seemingly absorbed in his paperwork. I eased into the room, looking for a place to sit when suddenly he looked up and barked at me, “What are you doing here?”

Startled, I stammered out that I was looking for the Admissions office. He said, “This is it. What are you doing here?”

Again I attempted to answer. “I’m Delmer Chilton and I have an appointment.”

He grunted and said, “I know that, but what are you doing here?”

Know that expression, “Look like a deer in the headlights?” That was me. I was completely bumfuzzled. (My grandma used to say that. I really like that word; bumfuzzled.)

Finally I shrugged my shoulders threw up my hands and said, “I don’t understand the question. You’ve got to help me out here?’

Again the man grunted and said, “What are you doing here? Not here in this room but here in this life? Why do you want to go to college? What is your calling, your purpose, your passion? What ARE YOU doing here?”

I don’t know how good that man was at recruiting students; but he sure was good at asking the important questions.

Did you notice that his question was the same question that God asked Elijah on the mountain, “What are you doing here?”

At one level it’s a question about why Elijah is hiding in a cave far from where he’s supposed to be. At another level it’s a question about what Elijah’s calling in life is.

Without going too deeply into the history, Elijah had been called by God to oppose Ahab and Jezebel, the rulers of Israel. Ahab, under the influence of his wife had reintroduced Baal worship and many of the people were adopting it.

There was a big confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal that involved the sacrifice of a bull and the calling down of fire from heaven. It’s a real interesting story. It’s in I Kings 18:20-40. You should read it some time.

Anyway, The 400 priests of Baal failed and Elijah succeeded in calling down fire from heaven and the 400 Baal priests were killed, but instead of proving anything to Jezebel and she got mad and decided to have Elijah killed.

And here’s the interesting thing. Elijah had just successfully called down fire from heaven and now he turns tail and runs. After that gigantic demonstration of God’s power, at the first sign of trouble he gives up.

And God comes and finds him in the cave and asks him, “What are you doing here?” “Why did you run away?” Elijah’s answer says it all, because his answer is not about God, it’s all about him,

“I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with a sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah’s fatal flaw at this moment is that he believes that he is the one who has done good things for God; when in reality it is God who has done good things for the world through Elijah. (Repeat)

This moves to the second meaning of the question, the meaning my College Admissions Officer was getting at. What is your calling, your purpose in life?

Elijah had forgotten that his calling was to serve God and to allow God to work in and through him for the benefit of Israel and ultimately the world.

Moving for a moment to our New Testament story of Jesus walking on the water; we discover that Peter had a similar problem. When he looked at the problems around him, the storm, he forgot that it was God who was holding him up. He began to think, “I can’t do this, I’m walking on water,” and thus began to sink.

Now, let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about some form of “positive thinking” of “look deep within your self and BELIEVE!” pseudo-psycho-babble.

What I’m talking about is remembering that we DON”T do great things for God. God does great things for us, and God does great things through us for the salvation of the world.

Remember when the little WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets were all the rage? I used to joke about needing a WWPD bracelet; What Would Peter Do? Now there’s a standard I can live up to.

But I was sort of serious about that. The trouble with WWJD is we are not Jesus, so we can’t do what Jesus would do. That is precisely the point of these stories; we are dependant on God, and God is trustworthy.

Jesus could walk on water, Peter couldn’t except with God’s help. Elijah didn’t make God send fire from heaven, God sent Elijah to call for the fire.

Way too often we in the church think it’s our job to do great things for God. We want to build big buildings, attract huge crowds, be a “significant” and “important” congregation in our community and Synod.

None of which is bad except if we think that we do those things on our own, as a service to God. We don’t. It is not our calling to be successful, as the world defines success. Rather it is our calling to be faithful, as God defines faith.

It is our calling as the church to Proclaim the Word and Administer the Sacraments, to serve the world in the name of the one who came and served us.

It is our calling to be proclaimers, in words and deeds of the Glorious Good News of the love and Grace of God. How are they to hear without someone to tell them? (Romans 10: 14)

That may result in size and significance in the eyes of the world, and it may not. But that is not the issue.

The issue is remembering that to say “Jesus is LORD,” is also to say “And I am not.”

The issue is remembering the words of Martin Luther in the Small Catechism, “Not by my own reason and strength can I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,” and I would add “or serve him.”

The issue is remembering what we’re doing here.

The issue is remembering that our calling is to be a means of grace in the world, a place and a people through whom God can love and serve the world.

Amen and Amen.