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.