Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pentecost 18, September 26, 2010

Text: Luke 16:19-31
(A sermon preached at the Installation of David Hood as transition pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Nashville, TN.)

I started my career as a pastor in three little churches in rural NC.

Wood-frame buildings on isolated dirt roads, a few dozen farmers and shop-owners and their children and grand-children who drove out on Sundays from the cities to visit the folks and go to church.

One weekday noon I went into a church member's place of business for lunch: Alvis Brigg's Bar-B-Q.

As I walked in, a Briggs grandchild, a boy about 4 years old, spotted me.

He stood up in the booth where he was sitting and yelled out, "Hello . . . " and then he was silent, because he couldn't remember where he knew me from.

He tried a couple more times, "HELLO . . . " then silence and meditation, "HELLO . . ." again, and more thoughtful silence.

By this time everyone in the room was quiet and looking back and forth between the boy and me.

Finally his face brightened and he shouted, HELLO CHURCH!

We are here today to talk about and celebrate and cement that basic connection between what it means to be PASTOR and what it means to be CHURCH and how the two are uniquely and inseparably entwined.

Particularly for us ELCA Lutherans, to be a minister of the Gospel, a pastor, requires a connection with a congregation.

While in many traditions, once you're ordained you are always a pastor no matter what you do for a living, this is not so for us. When people finish seminary, they are not ordained until a congregation calls them to be their pastor. If you want to be a Seminary teacher, or a Hospital chaplain, or a counselor, our church, the ELCA, requires that you first serve three years as a Parish Pastor, and after that, if you are not serving in a congregation, you must apply every year to the Bishop and Synod Council to maintain your status as a pastor, showing cause why you need to be ordained to do what you are doing.

In our church, to be a pastor is, by definition, connected to serving a community of God's people gathered around Word and Sacrament.To put it bluntly, being a Pastor is not a private, personal identity. It is a communal, relational, cooperative venture; rooted in the call and gift of God.

Many times I hear about such and such a pastor as being GIFTED. He has so many gifts for ministry; she is a gifted speaker, or musician, or counselor; he has the gift of leadership, etc. and I applaud and revel in their giftedness. So many people have so many gifts that I don't have and that I envy.

Singing, for instance. Not only do I wish I could sing; other people wish I could sing too. Being creative with Liturgy. Wow, I wish I could do that. I'm a setting One, Two or Three, pick three hymns kind of pastor. I don't have the gift of being creative with liturgy.

But it's important to remember why we pastors have been given our gifts for ministry.We have received these gifts not for ourselves, not for our own enjoyment and not so that we can be praised and lauded for having these gifts.

We have received these gifts for the benefit of the church, for serving God by serving the world, for preaching and teaching, for spreading the Good News of Christ to the world.

The difficulty of this task is revealed to us in our reading from Luke's Gospel, in the very last line, where Jesus tells the rich man in Hell, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even someone rises from the dead."

Well someone did rise from the dead, and many are still quite unconvinced, and we, the pastors and the people of the church, still find ourselves talking to people so enamored of their stuff that they are unable to hear the word of truth.

The first part of our text, verses 19 through 26, is a familiar middle eastern folk tale.

In the modern world, we recycle jokes and urban legends. Names, professions, locations change but the point is always the same. In Jesus' world they recycled these folk stories, and when a good story teller started to tell one, everyone settled in to see how well he told it, what clever riffs he used. Here in Nashville, we might think of a singer making an old standard song her own by singing it in a unique way. Creativity grew out of the art of adapting the story, not in creating a totally new one. So as Jesus began the story, everyone knew where he was going, they just weren't sure how he was going to get there.

The rich man/poor man reversal in the afterlife was a familiar moralistic tale; often used to shame the rich into being more generous to the poor. So when the rich man sees Lazarus in the "bosom of Abraham," and cries out for mercy, everyone is ready for the discussion of the finality of Hell, the great chasm that has been established and can't be crossed, etc.

What they are not prepared for is the next part, New Testament Scholar NT Wright says,

"In the usual story, when someone asks permission to send a message back to the people who are still alive on earth, the permission is granted. Here, it isn't; and the sharp ending of the story points beyond itself to all sorts of questions. . . " (Luke for Everyone, p.200)

Jesus' story was aimed at some familiar targets: those who think that being rich is a reward from God and proof of their goodness and those who think that poverty is largely deserved and either divine punishment for evil or just desserts for those who seem able to work but aren't very successful at it.

These words are also aimed by Luke at the early church, the first tellers of the Good News of Jesus, to remind them of the difficulty of their task. The people of Israel had had Moses and the Prophets, revealed words from God, for a thousand years and many were still sinful and in need of repentance. Just adding the Resurrection of Jesus to the story didn't make it easier for people to accept, believe and live out; indeed, for most people it made it harder.

Our calling as a community of faith is to take the old, old familiar story of God and sin and rescue and rebellion and death and resurrection; a story that has been told so often that many no longer listen, or if they listen, they think they know what it means and how it's going to turn out.

We are called to take that story and like Jesus, tell it in new ways, with surprising endings.We are called to tell that story to this generation, to people in the 21st century.

We are called to aim the story at the spiritual needs of people living now, in this time of richness and poorness, in this age of technology and social networking and the collective national attention span of a gnat.

We are called to bring the great truths of Moses and the prophets to people on this side of the grave, so that they will hear the call to repent, to turn, to change, to bring their lives into alignment with God's will and God's way.

And David, your calling in this place, and for this time, is to lead these people in discovering their voice in telling that story.

It is your calling to help Holy Trinity find the unique and God-given talent they have for making God's love known in this community NOW.

David, you are called here to lead this congregation in realizing who they are and what they have to say and do in the world, so that when people see them coming, they will shout with their hearts if not with their lips, "Hello CHURCH!"

Amen and Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19

I am really late posting. it's been quite a week, from Atlanta, to Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama to Middle and then East Tennessee, 2000 miles, 9 churches in 8 days. And wrote two sermons along the way, whew!

Pentecost 17, Sept. 19, 2010
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Ooltewah, TN

Text: Luke 16:1-13

Almost fifteen years ago, when I was pastor at Holy Trinity in Nashville, Ellenita Zimmerman was the Director of Christian Education. She was over 70 and soon to retire.

Ellenita had a Master's degree in Bible and Education; she had been a missionary in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; she had been on staff at Holy Trinity as DCE and Organist/Choir director for almost 30 years.

One night Ellenita and I were meeting with the Worship and Christian Education teams to plan a month's worth of coordinated worship services and Christian Education classes when this lesson came up as one of the Gospel lessons for the month.

I read it out loud and glanced around the group for ideas and nobody said anything; they just looked a little stunned. Finally Ellenita said,

Why don't we just skip it? I never did understand that story anyway.

Well, I kind of agree with Ellenita, though I'm not sure her son, a NT professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Hong Kong, would let her get away with skipping it!

It is a hard story to understand, isn't it? Or, to say it more honestly; it's a story we all understand; it's the way the world works and we all know it. It's what Jesus says about the story that's hard to take.

Look at the uproar about Derek Jeter of the Yankees. For those of you who don't follow baseball,
Jeter plays for New York and they are in a tight pennant race with Tampa Bay.

During a game this week, Jeter was at bat, the pitcher threw the ball, it bounced off Jeter's bat, and he started shaking his left arm and screwed up his face in pain, and grabbed his elbow and the umpire decided the ball had hit Jeter and awarded him first base.

Now, nobody but the home plate umpire thought Jeter had been hit, and after the game, when he was asked, Jeter admitted it, confessed that he had pulled a fast one on the umpire.

And, the newspapers and sports talk shows on TV and Radio had a field day, arguing if Jeter was a cheater or just smart ballplayer. (Yankee fan/Yankee hater?, how and when you learned to play baseball, etc? great argument.)

It seems to me that Jeter and the unjust office manager have a lot in common; both of them pulled a fast one, and the man in charge rewarded them for it.
The gospel lesson is a strange story. A business owner finds out that his office manager is guilty of mismanagement. He calls in the manager and says "You've got two weeks to get ready for an audit. Now get out of here."

The manager knows he's in deep trouble. Too proud to beg; too weak to work; what to do? What to do?

Suddenly, he has an idea. He calls in some of the company's biggest customers. "Have I got a deal for you?" he says. The plan is simple. He cuts their bills in half, destroys the paper trail and writes new invoices.

Now when the audit happens, no one can prove that he cheated and all the richest man in town will owe him a favor. His future is secure.

Of course, when the owner looks at the doctored books he knows what has happened but there is nothing he can do about it. He knows he has been conned.

And here's the surprise. He says to the man: I have to admit it, you were pretty smart. You got me. Now get out of here.

As I said, up to this point the story makes perfect sense to us; maybe even more so in these years after the Wall Street crash involving loan schemes that nobody understood, financial sleight of hand that caught everybody off guard.

What doesn't make sense to us is the fact that Jesus seems to join the owner in praising the manager for his dishonesty.

But a careful reading of the text shows that Jesus is NOT praising the man for being dishonest.

Rather, he is pointing to the man as an example of someone with single-minded devotion to a cause, which in this case, happens to be himself.

Jesus point here turns out to be pretty simple. Here, he says, is someone who knows how to give his entire heart mind and soul to the service of his god.

Hey, Jesus says, what if we, the citizens of the Kingdom of God, were to give such single-minded and complete devotion to the cause of the one and only true God!

Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, says: that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

This story of the unjust steward confronts us with some serious questions we have to ask ourselves, the first one being WHAT REALLY IS MY GOD?

Is it my #1 concern in life to preach good News to the poor? To heal the sick? To give sight to the Blind?

How much of my valuable time do I spend each week in prayer and Bible Study? In visiting the sick and lonely?

How much of my time and money is given pursuing help and justice for the poor of the world?

These are the question Jesus is asking us in his story of the con-man office manager.

He's smart and devoted to serving his god; are we smart and devoted in serving ours?

We have this day talked a lot about Peace, the need for peace, God's desire for peace, our call to be peacemakers.

Building peace in this world begins on a small scale, not on a large one. It begins with each and every one of us resolving to give our complete and total selves to the service of the God of peace.

NT Scholar and Preaching professor Fred Craddock says:

The life of a disciple is one of faithful attention to the frequent and familiar tasks of each day, however small and insignificant they may seem.

The one faithful in today's nickels and dimes is the one to be trusted with the big account, but it is easy to be indifferent toward small obligations while quite sincerely believing oneself fully trustworthy in major matters.

The realism of these sayings is simply that life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities.

Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.

More likely the week will present no more than chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor's cat.
[LUKE Interpretation Commentaries pp. 191-192]

Our call to peacemaking is the call to a single-minded devotion to the Cause of Christ, who is, most of all, the Prince of Peace.

Our Call to Peacemaking is a call to making peace in all that we do, to making all that we do work toward the goal of a more peaceful and peace-filled world.

Our Call to Peacemaking is a call to see each person in this world as a precious child of God whom God has called us to make peace with in his name.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

For Sept. 12/Pentecost 16

(A sermon preached at Peace Lutheran Church, Memphis TN)

Luke 15:1-10

"Is God a grown-up or a parent?" That's the question Kathleen Chesto's five year old asked her one day.

Writing in the Catholic Digest, Chesto admits her own confusion, "I'm not sure what you mean. What's the difference between a grown-up and a parent?"

"Well," she said, "Grown-ups love you when you're good and parents love you anyway."

It's a good question, isn't it? Is God a grown-up or a parent?

Does God love only when you're good? Or does God love you anyway?

What is the nature of God's love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really?

And, if that's the nature of God's love; what does that mean for us?

Do we have to love everybody too? Or, are there some people we're allowed to dislike because we're pretty certain God doesn't like them either?

In Luke's Gospel the Pharisees and Scribes are shown as grown-ups, as people who have spent a lot of time figuring out all the dos and don'ts of life; of good and bad behavior.

And they are real unhappy when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up. Even though he knows that the people he is partying with are not acceptable and nice and "good" people; well, he's going to party with them anyway.

They can't stand it. They thought he was one of them, they thought he was on their side.

They thought because he knew so much Bible and because he talked so much about giving your all for the Kingdom and because he was so obviously such a good man,

Why, he must be a Pharisee or a Scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and Scribes and, . .
well, they just could not figure his behavior out.

What was he doing, eating with THOSE people?

Doesn't he know WHO they are, where they've been and what they've been doing?

The Pharisees and Scribes had decided that the people Jesus was hanging out with were Bad people who violated the rules of Good behavior and should be avoided and shunned and in general treated badly; both by God and by us good people.

Therefore, when they saw Jesus eating and drinking and partying with these "tax collectors and sinners," they were appalled and disgusted and decided that Jesus could possibly be the Good Person they had presumed him to be.

Jesus responded to their distress not with argument or protest, but by telling them stories; stories about who's in and who's out; who's hot and who's not; and how God treats those the world has decided are OUT.

These stories have two "God figures," people who, according to Jesus, act the way God would act.

One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices for Jesus to make because Pharisees and Scribes considered both shepherds and women OUT.

Shepherds were nomads. They slept, bathed, ate and lived outdoors. Because of this they were unable to keep most of the Purity laws that were so important to the Pharisees.

And women were a problem for Pharisees, who preferred to neither see them nor speak to them any more than was absolutely necessary.

These stories each have the same two points:

FIRST: Just as a shepherd values his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, just so, God values all people enough to spare no effort in looking for us. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and God will ransack the universe getting us back the way the woman ransacked her house hunting that coin.

These are incarnational stories; stories about God coming into the world to seek out and save God's lost creation. Jesus is the Shepherd looking high and low for those not in the fold; Jesus is the woman sweeping through the house, turning over chairs and pulling out couch cushions, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

SECOND: In telling about the parties given by the Shepherd and the woman; Jesus is pointedly chastising the Pharisees and Scribes for their hard-heartedness in grouching about Jesus spending time with the so-called "sinners."

Look, Jesus says, God is real happy these people are interested in Spiritual Things. These people are thinking about God and their life and about what it means to be a good person.

This is cause for Celebration.

One of my Mother's childhood preachers in the Virginia Mountains said, "Instead of being happy they came in for a bath, those old sourpusses sat around complaining about the smell."

It seems clear that for Jesus, God is a parent, not a Grown-up. That is; God does not just love us when we're good, God loves us anyway.

The question for us today is do we know that God loves us anyway?

Dr. William McElvaney was president of the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. One day he was driving to the airport to pick up a person who was giving a speech at the Seminary. To get there he had to drive across the Paseo Bridge over the Missouri River.

About a half mile from the bridge he got stuck in traffic. Nothing moved. After about fifteen minutes, traffic moved again. There was no indication of why traffic had stopped, no road work, no accident, nothing.

The next morning Dr. McElvaney read in his morning paper about a depressed man who stopped his car on the bridge, got out and crawled over the rail and got ready to jump. People saw him and called the police.

Officers leaned over the rail and talked to him, trying to get him to come back to safety. Meanwhile another officer fitted himself with a harness and a long rope. He secured the rope and crawled over the rail, inching toward the man.

Just when he got close enough to reach out and touch him, the man jumped off the bridge.

And the patrolman jumped after him, wrapping his arms and legs around him in a tight embrace.

They fell together until the rope was tight, and they swung above the river.

Up above, on the bridge, people could hear the policeman yelling in the ear of the jumper,

"If you go, I go! Because I'm going to hold onto you until hell freezes over!"
(Dr. Tex Sample, The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World p. 117-118)

What is the gospel for us today?

Is God a Grown-up or a parent? Does God love us only when we're good, or does God loves us anyway, all the time, until Hell freezes over?

God has clearly been revealed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus as a loving parent who will never stop loving us, ever.

Christ left the safety of Heaven and leapt into the world to seek and save us.

Christ has grabbed onto our soul and has promised to hold onto us until the fires of Hell burn out,

"I am with you always," Jesus said.

And Christ calls us to bring others into the grip of God's love, a love that takes any of us, anyway we are.


Thursday, September 02, 2010

I'm not preaching this week, so instead of a sermon I am giving here some reflections on the Gospel text, Luke 14:25-33.

The text opens with Jesus speaking to a large crowd who had begun following him, hoping to see him perform a miracle. Here we see Jesus turning on the crowd to explain to them that this is serious business, not a carnival side show. Anyone unwilling to pay a high price in terms of commitment and sacrifice should turn back.

He uses three examples to make his point: family, business and the military.

Family: We are shook up by these words about hating father, mother, wife, children, brother, sister. Much of the church has staked out a large "family values" corner for the church. Many people in the pew will be waiting for, hoping for us to say something like, "Well, obviously, Jesus didn't mean this. He was just trying to get our attention."

Don't go there too fast. There is absolutely no indication in the text that Jesus meant anything other than what he said.

Though I am so not a language scholar, I spent some serious time looking for loopholes in the Greek text. And I found little help. The word used here is MISEO, which according to my Greek/English dictionary means hate, despise, disregard, be indifferent to.

The best I can conclude is that Jesus didn't command us to bear an emotional animosity toward our relatives; no more than when he commands us to "love one another," is he asking us to work up affection for people we don't like.

Jesus words here have to do with actions rather than feelings, priorities rather than emotions.

In this case, disregard and be indifferent to; not hate or despise.

Jesus knew the hold family has on us, all of us. It has first place in the average person's affections and behavior, first call on our loyalty, duty and commitment.

His point is that when the choice is between obedience to family or obedience to God, we must be willing to "disregard" or "be indifferent to," family and obey God.

This is not an easy call. Sorting out the "higher call," from the call to the others we love is a part of the cost of discipleship. Following God's call in our lives, while staying connected to those we love, who sometimes do not share or understand or appreciate our sense of call, is one of the prices to be paid.

And, here's another hard part, the rewards of obedience are neither immediate nor even this worldly. It is impossible to say to those around you, "Just wait, you'll see, following Jesus will pay in the end." For the end comes, in this world, just like it does to everyone else, with suffering and death.

That's where the business and military images come in; building a building and waging a war.

In both cases a lot of energy and money are expended before any rewards become evident. If you quit before it's over, you would have been better off not starting.

Here Jesus warns us, "This won't be easy and it won't be rewarding except in the sense of devoting yourself fully to God's will and God's way. Don't start if you don't intend to finish."

In his book Jesus in the Church's Gospels, Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary professor John Reumann writes:

In the cathedral church at Haderslev, Denmark, near the main entrance, in the south aisle, hangs an unusual painting. Seen from one angle, as you move down the aisle, it portrays the crucifixion. Move a bit and view it again, and this "perspective painting." Framed within its ornamental pilasters, has become a portrayal of the resurrection. The position and condition of Jesus have changed. The colors shift from somber blacks and grays to a more brilliant array. Even the audience changes; at least the figures in the resurrection scene are no longer bowed down in grief; they look upward in joy and awe.
The painter's trick perspective may strike art connoisseurs as just a step removed from those pictures of Jesus where his eyes follow the viewer across the room. But whatever the verdict on the technique, this Danish artist has captured a profound point in the New Testament's picture of Jesus Christ; cross and resurrection belong together.

(Fortress Press, 1968, p. 110)

This text calls us to avoid accepting, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, "cheap grace," for if we remove the cross from Christianity we have nothing worthy of the name left.

The resurrection does come, the empty tomb does come; but not before Good Friday; not for Christ, and not for us.