Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pentecost 14/Lectionary 22

August 29, 2010
Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

(A sermon preached at Crowell's Chapel Lutheran Church, Shelbyville, TN.)

The College Football season begins this week (MTSU vs. MN. - UT vs. UT-M)
I thought I'd start the sermon with a football story.

Shug Jordan was the long time coach at Auburn. He to asked a former player to scout a High School game.

One player said:, I'd love to help, but what kind of player are you looking for?

Coach: Mike, you know when you go to a game, there's always that fella that gets knocked down and stays down?

Mike: We don't want that fella, do we coach?

Coach: Naw, we don't want that fella. And Mike, you know there's that fella that gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up and then gets knocked down and stays down?

Mike: We don't want that fella either, do we coach?

Coach: No, we don't want that fella either Mike. Then there's that fella that always gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up . . .

Mike: that's the Fella we want, ain't it coach?

Coach: No, we don't want that fella neither.

Mike: Well then coach, who do we want?

Coach: Mike we want the fella who's been knocking everybody down!

Today's Gospel lesson is about the question, "Which fellas do we want?"

At one level it's about what fellas do we want at our table, in our home, as our friends, on our social calendar.

On another level it's about what fellas does God want us to want, not only in our personal lives but also in our lives of faith.

Put another way, it's about who is included in God's love and therefore should be included in our love and in our community of faith.

First, let's look at verses 7-11:

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

This echoes our reading from Proverbs 25:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

In the book of Luke, in particular in chapters 13 through 15, Jesus turns our assumptions about God and goodness upside down and inside out.

Over and over again, Jesus proclaims that most of us are totally mistaken about who's in and who's out; who's acceptable and who's expendable; who's good and who's bad; who's a saint and who's a sinner, who's saved and who's damned.

Jesus teaches that what it means to be a "Child of God," has nothing to do with our pedigree and everything to do with God's gracious propensity for love.

Over and over again Jesus teaches us this; we are servants, not masters; we are to wash one another's feet; we are to take the last place, not the first; we are to see in the least and most despised the real face of Jesus our Lord, our Christ, and on and on.

It is only when we recognize that ALL places at GOD's table are places of honor that we become willing to accept and enjoy whatever place God has chosen as the right place for us.

We are all God's chosen people, serving God in the place where God has placed us.

If we sit around wishing we were someone else, doing something else, in some other place; we can miss the joy of being who we are, doing what we're doing, where we are.

In verses 12-14 we move on to Jesus Second Parable; this one aimed at the Host of the dinner:

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

The importance of this story is not so much whom we are to have to our homes for dinner; though it wouldn't hurt most of us to invite some folks from outside our comfort zones once in a while.

Jesus is really addressing the issue of who is to be welcomed into the presence of God, the issue of who is to be considered acceptable in the church. Remember the person who wrote Luke also wrote Acts and it's all one book.

And in Acts we have the problem of whether or not the Gentiles, the unclean, can be in the church. Remember Peter's dream and his argument with Paul, etc.

This is a part of that larger story.

In Leviticus 21:17-20 it spells out the fact that those who "have a blemish" are not to "draw near" to God. No one who is "blind, or lame, or has a limb too long, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or an itching disease or scabs."

When Jesus is portrayed saying, "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind," it is intended as a direct argument against the text from Leviticus.

The message is: this is a totally different community than you thought it was, and the standards for admission are completely the opposite of what you thought they were.

The question for us today is simple: Are we ready to follow Jesus' lead?

Are we ready to be humble servants and are we ready to be radically inclusive in admitting people to God's Church and to God's table?

These two sayings of Jesus are held together by the fact that all of us here are both HOSTS and GUESTS at the banquet of the LORD.

We are all of us the poor, the lame, the blind, the undeserving strangers and sinners whom God has invited in.

And we are also all of us the Hosts at this banquet; given the duty of inviting and welcoming the other strangers in the world to come to the feast.

Next weekend I'll be back here in Middle Tennessee as the Chaplain for a youth event, a Happening, at Trinity in Tullahoma. In preparation for this event, I looked over some notes and found this from a teen-ager's talk at a Happening 15 years ago.

Laura Pomeroy is now a Physician, but then she was a High Schooler in Birmingham, AL.

She told the other kids that she believed that, "The greatest joy any Christian will ever receive will be when we all sit together at God's great Messianic banquet and someone looks across the table at us and smiles and says, "Thank you for inviting me." AMEN AND AMEN.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


A sermon preached at Reformation Lutheran Church, Greeneville, TN.

Pentecost 13/Lectionary 21
Luke 13:10-17

Ravi Zacharias tells this story:

On his way to work every day, a man walked past a clockmaker’s store. Without fail, he would stop and reset his watch from the clock in the window, then proceed on to the factory.

The clockmaker observed this scene morning after morning. One day he stepped outside and asked the man what he did and why he set his watch every morning.

The man replied, “I’m the watchman at the factory, and it's part of my job to blow the 4:00 o’clock whistle for the end of the day. My watch is slow so I re-set it every morning.

The clockmaker laughed and said, “You won’t believe this. That clock in the window is fast, so I re-set it every afternoon by the factory whistle. Heaven only knows what time it really is.” (retold from The Real Face of Atheism,
BakerBooks, 2004, p. 52)

That story is about the search for a true, reliable standard by which to measure time. And about the problems that result when that standard is simply what others are doing.

Our Gospel lesson is about the search for a true and reliable standard by which to measure morality. And about the problems that result when the standard is anything other than love and compassion.

Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath day.

There is a woman present who has suffered for almost twenty years from a crippling disease.

Jesus responds to her illness with love and compassion; he reaches out and heals her.

And immediately, the leader of the synagogue attacks Jesus for having the wrong standard for moral behavior, for coloring outside the lines, for not following the exact letter of the law.

Jesus responds by pointing out that even the strictest interpretation of the Law, the most reliable eternal timepiece, allows people to untie their cows and horses and mules and lead them to water on the Sabbath in order to prevent unnecessary cruelty.

Jesus then asks the rhetorical question:

“Is not a woman’s unloosing from the suffering of disease as important as the unloosing of an animal from its thirst?

We will lose the point of this story FOR US if we dwelltoo long on the subject of Sabbath observance; that battle has already been won or lost, depending on your point of view.

Very few of us here would really hesitate to do anything on Sunday that we would do any other day of the week.

About the only thing that Jesus could have done in this situation that would have shocked us would have been to NOT heal the woman because it was the Sabbath.

For us to get the point FOR US: TODAY, in Greeneville, TN, in 2010, we must think outside the box and consider ways in which our understanding of religious rules and regulations could block us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need.

HMMM. GEEE. I can’t think of any right off the top of my head.

Which is precisely the problem.

No one of us considers our self to be a cruel and unjust person.

Nobody here thinks that our way of being Christian gets in the way of being kind, caring and compassionate.

I'm sure the leader of the synagogue surely thought of himself as a kind man; and so did his neighbors. After all, they made him their leader.

He’s just a local working man, a fisherman or cobbler or farmer or tentmaker, who has taken on the volunteer leadership role. He’s doing his best to interpret and enforce the rules as he knows them.

He says,
There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath Day.

I’m sure he never imagined that one day, 2000 years later, he would be held up in sermons to millions of people as an example of religious hypocrisy.

He would surely protest; But, But, I’m an unpaid leader of a tiny congregation. I spend countless hours aiding the poor and the widows and the sick in our community. All I was trying to do was keep order, make sure everybody followed the rules, after all, that’s my job.

Ken Callahan is a Church Consultant and a prolific writer of books on Church Management. In his book Dynamic Worship, he says;

Across the years I have frequently asked congregations what one thing they like best about their church.

Again and again the answer is: “We’re so friendly”

Virtually all congregations believe themselves to be a friendly group of people. (This is because) the only people who are not at that church are the people who did not find it friendly. They are somewhere else, somewhere that feels friendly to them.

What applies to friendliness also applies to the rest of our faith life; what it looks like to us may not be what it looks like to others; to someone looking in from the outside.

We may think we are friendly and caring and compassionate people, while other eyes may be the ones who see us more clearly as we are.

This is why we need Jesus to look at us and speak to us about ourselves.

Just as Jesus broke into the pat little world of first century Palestinian Judaism with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice; we need to let Jesus look US over and tell us what he sees.

We need to hear and heed the call of Christ to break out of our old comfortable way of seeing things and doing things; we need to look at the world with the fresh eyes of Jesus, we need to look at the world as a place filled with opportunities to bend the rules in the name of love.

We need to follow Jesus to the Cross, and there at the Cross, we need to take the risk of doing new things for an old reason, THE LOVE OF GOD.

In his book How Sweet the Sound, Billy Graham's long time songleader George Beverly Shea tells this story about one of Graham's classmates at Wheaton College:

Mr. Frizen, called Bert by his friends, was a talented and popular singer on campus, involved with several singing groups . . . .

He went on to serve in the military during World War II and was involved in the famous Battle of the Bulge . . . .

Bert was wounded during one of the attacks and lay on the battlefield, slipping in and out of consciousness.

At one point, with his eyes closed, he started singing his mother's favorite hymn as best he could, "Jesus Whispers Peace."

When he opened his eyes, he saw a German soldier standing over him with a drawn bayonet.

Bert understood enough German to know that the soldier was saying to him, "Sing it again; sing it again."

Bert continued; "There is a Name to me most dear, like sweetest music to my ear/And when my heart is troubled, filled with fear/Jesus whispers peace."
Soon he felt himself being gently lifted up in the arms of the enemy soldier, who carried him to a rock ledge nearby where the American medics found him a short time later, taking him to safety.

In the midst of war, one German soldier broke the rules in the name of love, in the name of compassion, in the name of Jesus.

Our challenge today is to set our spiritual clock by the unchanging rhythm of God’s love.

God calls us to look deep within and to find the courage and the faith to break the rules in the name of love, in the name of the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Installation Sermon on John 21:15-17

If you preach the Lectionary, this won't help you much, or any, but if you are a pastor, or have a pastor, or are thinking of becoming a pastor, it's worth reading.

Installation: Christ the King ELCA, Cumming, GA
August 15, 2010, 4:00 PM

Text: John 21:15-17

Pastor John Ortberg tells this story in a recent book,

A man is being tailgated by a woman in a hurry. He comes to an intersection, and when the light turns yellow, he hits the brakes.

The woman behind him goes ballistic. She honks her horn at him; she yells her frustration in no uncertain terms; she rants and gestures.

While she is in mid-rant, someone taps on her window. She looks up and sees a policeman.

He invites her out of her car and takes her to the station where she is searched and fingerprinted and put in a cell.

After a couple of hours, she is released, and the arresting officer gives her personal effects, saying "I'm very sorry for the mistake, ma'am. I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, using bad gestures and bad language.

I noticed the WHAT WOULD JESUS DO bumper sticker, the CHOOSE LIFE license plate holder, the FOLLOW ME TO SUNDAY SCHOOL window sign, the fish emblem on your trunk, and I naturally assumed you had stolen the car.
(When the Game is Over, It all Goes Back in the Box, 2007, p. 115)

Today we have gathered to install Seyward Ask as one of the pastors at CTK, Cumming. To take on such a public position is to commit to live in a particular way in relationship to both this congregation and the world. And people are watching and people are judging.

There are probably as many opinions and ideas about how a pastor is "supposed to behave," and what a pastor "represents' in the church in the world as there are people in this room.

The word pastor comes from Latin and French and basically means "one who tends to sheep," or as we would say, a "Shepherd."

The shepherd was a powerful symbol in Israel. For much of their history they were a nomadic people dependent upon their sheep for their livelihood.

The King was often referred to as the SHEPHERD of Israel, harkening back to King David, a shepherd boy in his youth, who is the king by whom all kings are measured.

The ancient kings of Israel were different from the kings of the nations around them. The other kings were held up to be Gods on earth, divine beings in human form. The kings of Israel were not believed to be divine; they were known to be ordinary human beings who represented God on earth and ruled in God's name.The idea was that God had placed the responsibility for the nation in their hands. The kingdom was not theirs to do with as they pleased. The kingdom was God's and they were to take care of it and God's people in God's name and with God's help.

And even great King David failed to do it right all the time. Between David and Jesus there were many years and many kings, and all the kings of Israel failed in one way or another. None of them lived up to the image of the Good, the True, the Real Shepherd of Israel, especially not the Emperor in Rome or his puppet King Herod.

Elsewhere in John's Gospel, especially in Chapter 10, the writer makes much of the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd of Israel, the one to whom God has given the responsibility for taking care of God's beloved people.

Now, in this last chapter of John, here is Jesus, after the resurrection but before the Ascension, handing off this "pastoral" duty. Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" Jesus poses this question not once but three times. The number is not by accident. Jesus is rewinding the clock, turning back time. Peter denied Jesus three times on the night he was betrayed. Now, in the early morning light, three times he swears he loves Jesus. And each time, Jesus calls on him to take care of his “sheep.” Twice his says "feed them," once he says "tend them;"

I don't often insert dictionary definitions into sermons, but this one is just too interesting. In Webster's Seventh New Collegiate, (Yes, I know it's old, it was a HS graduation gift almost 40 years ago!) the etymology line of the word pastor jumped out at me. Etymology is the history of the word, what language it came from; the definition is what it means now. The Etymological root of pastor is tied to the past participle of an old French word that means "to feed." That is; the shepherd, the pastor, is the one who feeds the flock.

Now, unlike most people these days, I grew up on a farm and Seyward, I want to tell you something important; feeding and tending sheep isn’t all that exciting or spectacular; it is repetitive and boring and tedious and normal, and oh so necessary.

To change analogies, washing dishes and cooking meals and doing laundry and mowing grass and cleaning house and changing diapers and paying bills and driving kids to school and going to work and drawing a check and sitting up all night when somebody’s sick are nowhere near as interesting as being in love and going on dates but is much more like being married.

Just so, being a pastor; tending God's sheep, feeding God's flock, taking care of the Body of Christ, seeing to the needs of God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is seldom exciting or spectacular. It is much more often ordinary and mundane, a matter of planning programs and going to meetings and visiting hospitals and talking to kids and listening to parents and, and, and . . . .

And, sometime after the new wears off, every pastor worth a ----darn begins to chaff at all this ordinariness and to wonder if this is really what God had in mind; both in starting the church and in calling your truly to the ministry.

When those moments come to me, as they still do, I am comforted to remember a story told to every Senior class at Lutheran Southern Seminary by Professor Marty Saarinen.

Pastor Marty graduated from Seminary back in the early 1950s and went to his first call in the UP of Michigan. Pretty remote and rugged now, much less then. Not too long after Pastor Marty got there he learned of an elderly couple who lived way back in the woods and who seldom got to church anymore and he resolved to go visit them.

He was advised to borrow a jeep, which he did, and he drove the paved road and then the dirt road, and then two ruts, and then a creek bed, and then he parked the jeep and climbed up a hill and through the wild bushes and found a cabin with a tiny wisp of smoke wafting into the sky from the chimney.

Pastor Marty walked onto the porch and knocked on the door and waited and waited and knocked again and waited and then he heard a noise and the door opened and a little old man stared at him for a long time and then he spotted the pastor's collar and turned around and shouted to a woman sitting in front of the fire in a rocker,

"Hallelujah, God has not forgotten us."

Seyward, God has called you to be a pastor of this particular flock. And that calling is primarily one of tending and feeding God's people in such a way that they will know that God has not forgotten them nor the world in which they live.

Amen and amen.

Friday, August 06, 2010

And now for something totally (well somewhat) different

I'm not preaching this week. I wrote this for the Synod blog. It might get a prime a pump or two. Delmo

Thursday, August 5, 2010

As an Assistant to the Bishop I spend a lot of time on the road. Although my personal preference is the "scenic route," the pressures of time and distance dictate that I spend most of that time on the large network of interstates that crisscross our synod. Sometime during a marathon seven city, four state, 1500 mile road trip, I began thinking about the church and how it works. It was an alternative to saying things a man in a minister's collar shouldn't think, much less say.

One thing that I spent a long time thinking about was the "two lanes, three types of driver," problem. It is my opinion that there are three broad categories of interstate drivers: 1) Go as fast as you can, 2) go 5-10 miles over the speed limit, 3) speed limit or below. This is fine when there are three or more lanes. Slow to the right, fast to the left; everybody else in the middle. Traffic flows, people find their spot, things work. Now; put those three styles of driving on two lanes and let traffic get a little heavy, and; oh my! The really fast people are trying to share the left lane with the moderately fast people and getting frustrated; a "go the speed limit" driver thinks the right lane is for people going slower than the speed limit and moves left, or a "5-10 over" is trying to drive in the right lane to get out of the way of the "real speeders," and gets frustrated by the slowness of the "go the speed limit" people, and so it goes.

I will not identify my driving type, but I started thinking about how sometimes the church is like that; we have people with a lot of different "spiritual speeds," and we try to force them into two lanes, or worse, one lane. We try to make everyone think alike or grow spiritually in the same way and at the same speed and then we leaders tend to get frustrated when our envisioned "mighty army of God," marching forward with precision and purpose turns out to be a bit of a motley crew; a ragtag army at best.

Just as it is is sometimes difficult for us to accept other people's driving styles, (an editorial page quip in the Seattle Times noted, "Why is it that everyone who drives slower than me is an idiot and everyone who drives faster is a maniac?") it is also often hard for us to accept the spiritual, theological style of others. When people aren't at the same place we are, too many of us are way too quick to point fingers and call names. It is important for us to do all we can to give each other room to move within the faith, within the church.

The key to that is not only accepting others, but also accepting the fact that God is in charge and we are not. Too much effort on our part to control the outcome of today's theological battles is akin to the person who tries too hard to get the other drivers to drive the "right way." It's not going to happen. What one must do is drive as carefully and as politely as one can and trust things to unfold safely. The same is true for the church. We must all move through our church life as faithfully and as politely as we can, trusting that God is in control and others are doing their best to be faithful as well