theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

December 24, 2004 (Christmas Eve A)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Hebrews 1:1-3
Isaiah 9:2; 6-7
Luke 2:1-20 (primary text)

My supervisor and I decided we would do a sort of tag-team sermon for Christmas Eve, to give people (especially those not used to coming to church) some variety in the voices and thoughts they were hearing. We ended up doing short vignettes on the different players in the Christmas story. I've included the bits he wrote along with the bits I wrote.

Click on the time link to read the sermon.

Townsfolk by semfem's supervisor
At the manger we find Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, and the wise men. Where are the residents of Bethlehem? Maybe they sleep after a hard day’s work. Bethlehem—-King David’s city—-has had a busy day and bursts at the seams with visitors, even making a shekel or two.

Bethlehem has many masters. One is the Roman Emperor; another is the local king, Herod. With all Israel, the little town looks forward to the day when it can crown its own king, follow its own messiah, and worship its own God. Bethlehem has prayed hard and worked hard—don’t they deserve their own dazzling God?

This dazzling God would probably give people just what they wanted. A prophet of long ago had promised them a child who would be many things: wonderful counselor, mighty king, everlasting father, prince of peace. That’s what they wanted!

We (I mean they) wouldn’t have to see the dark side—the poor in the hills around Bethlehem, the homeless in its streets, the shunned in its stables. In fact we (I mean they) barely see the dark side now. Bethlehem gets on with life, on this busy day and all others, people taking care of themselves.

Bethlehem’s hopes have been modest—-good business, good order-—and daring: When will this mighty king be born? Its fears have been small, too—-crowds, rabble-—with bigger fears lurking: “Will we make it? Will we be joining the ranks of the poor, the homeless, the shunned?” “The hopes and fears of all the years” meet here tonight.

Joseph by semfem
There is a man, a new father, there beside the manger, making the best of the situation. The baby is not his, but he has promised to raise this baby as a good Jewish firstborn son. He has agreed to marry the child's mother as originally promised, and gather them into a family.

It all started about six months ago, with his fiancée’s story about the Holy Spirit that was just unbelievable. He tried to listen, but he wasn't born yesterday. He knew where babies came from. He knew that all the evidence painted a picture of his fiancée’s indiscretion. How could anyone think otherwise? Everyone would think he was a complete fool.

And then, the dream that changed everything, that said, no, Joseph, this woman will be your wife and this baby will become your son. He will need your care and protection to grow into a man worthy of his name--Jesus, “God who saves us.” Forget what the world tells you and believe her.

When they arrived in Bethlehem, his long-lost cousins made their opinion clear about this pregnancy. They followed up with a quick slam of the door. No shelter, no warmth, no safety for the very pregnant woman at his side. Could he find a place for her to rest? Could he find some dinner? Could he make a life for this new family?

How can I raise the Messiah? he thought. I'm just a simple man. I don't know what I'm doing.

Shepherds by semfem's supervisor
What about the shepherds? Watching and listening, fighting off sleep, cold under the stars. King David was a shepherd, a king, a poet. But tonight around Bethlehem the shepherds have no royalty, no poetry. So, what do they bring to the manger? Precious little, that’s what.

Precious-—believe it or not they have a priceless gift. They already know they are poor. This is a wisdom that will elude many tonight: Caesar, Herod, the townsfolk of Bethlehem. Little-—in fact, the shepherds have even less than little. They have nothing. The shepherds know they are very small and weak beneath the winter sky.

A prophet of long ago had spoken of filling in valleys and bringing mountains low. Was this prophecy about more than geography? Would God raise not just the valleys, but also people living in poverty—-people like the shepherds? Would God humble not just the mountains, but also the mighty? Would God change the world?

The shepherds will witness what the townsfolk will miss--the event not just of a lifetime, but of an eternity. God will find, this night, a home in an impoverished barn with nothing to offer. God will find, this night, a home in impoverished hearts with nothing to offer. What we wouldn’t pay for a shepherd’s heart, an impoverished heart!

Mary by semfem
There is a woman beside the manger. No, scratch that. There is a half-grown girl by the manger, who is relieved but a little shocked that she has managed to give birth to her first child, without her mother or a midwife.

She finally tears her eyes away from the baby to look at the man beside her. His face is patient but his eyes are far away. She wants to ask him what he’s thinking, but the silence is too thick to break. Why did he stay with her after finding out she was pregnant?

Nine seems so long ago. Was she dreaming when the angel came to her and told her not to be afraid? Did that angel actually tell her that this baby would be born not only of her flesh, but of the Holy Spirit? What was she thinking when she agreed?

Anything seemed possible now. She had a beautiful new son who would play an important part in God’s plan for the world. She had a faithful husband who had trusted her and was going to marry her-—most men would have left months ago. They didn’t have much, but they had God’s promise.

Mary could feel her heart overflow with hopes and dreams as the rest of the world came to a stop. Great things for you, little one, she whispered. Great things for you.

Magi by semfem's supervisor
Enter the magi—mysterious figures from the East, who spend their time seeking signs, unlocking the past, predicting the future. Today’s scientists would hardly recognize them as forerunners—-maybe we are always a bit embarrassed by our ancestors.

In their watching, waiting, and wondering, the magi represent what most of the ancient world has for science. And now they have detected a very big sign-—something moving in the sky. What does it mean? This night the thing they call a “star” is still over the horizon. So are the magi. But they are on the way.

We know that near the end of the journey, the magi will stop to ask directions from King Herod. True to form, Herod will seek to use them and their science to his own advantage. Herod-—in his own way-—knows where this “star” leads.

What do the magi bring besides curiosity? Packed on the camels are gifts-—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The magi set an example for later generations, not only as scientists but also as bearers of Christmas gifts.

But this journey will teach them that, no matter how much we want to be givers, Christmas makes receivers of us all. Christmas teaches the magi of their impoverishment. And us, too.

Jesus by semfem
As for we approach the manger...what do we see?

We see a tiny baby who cannot even hold up his own head. His words are cries and coos, and his act of love takes place in the warmth and softness of his mother’s arms.

This is the beginning of a life...a human life. The first chapter of a human life. And we all know how human lives end.

When we see this baby, what do we see? Do our hopes and fears fall on these tiny shoulders, into these tiny hands? Will this tiny mouth teach us the meaning of life? Will this baby be the beginning of something new? Will we see the wonder of a God who becomes small to embrace the world?

What are we looking for as we approach the manger? One more Christmas ornament? Or are we seeking God? Here we behold God-—emptied for our sake.

Let us rejoice in the gift lying in the manger. Rejoice that our dazzle has been transformed into joy, our anxiety into peace. See in the manger the God who is always with us, the God who dies and is reborn in our impoverished hearts each day. Amen.

Monday, August 07, 2006

December 19, 2004 (Advent 4A)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Isaiah 7:10-16
Luke 1:46-55 (read responsively)
Matthew 1:18-25 (primary text)

I was getting pretty tired by this point on internship. Click on the time link to read the sermon.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Well. It's almost here. Can you feel it? This is the fourth week of preparation before The. Big. Day. We've been preparing for peace, preparing for the Spirit, preparing for change, and now we are preparing for a sign. Preparing for a sign. It's not always something that is easy to do. In fact, the very nature of signs seems to be that we are usually not prepared for them, or for what they really mean.

Have you ever asked God for a sign? Maybe a sign to help you make a difficult decision. Maybe you were confused, or angry, or scared, or frustrated. Maybe God felt very far away and you needed to know that someone was listening. Maybe your world was falling apart and you needed to know that God was there to help you put it back together. Or maybe you were in a time of doubt, and you wanted a sign to show that God really did exist.

We seem to usually ask God to come in and change something, or come in and fix something. We might ask God for a miracle. We might ask God to come and bring us world peace or eliminate hunger or something else huge like that. Or, we expect God to come in and defy the laws of nature, tearing the heavens open and coming down in a cloud of power like something out of Revelation.

God knows that we humans long for big, obvious signs, for miracles, for visions, for appearances, and for magic. This is exactly why in the Isaiah reading today, God offers King Ahaz his choice of a sign, from the depth of the grave to the height of the heavens. Anything he wants! God has a message for Ahaz, and Ahaz gets to choose how to receive it. So...why does Ahaz pass this chance up? If you had the chance to receive direct communication from God, don't you think you'd take it?

Ahaz claims that he will not ask for a sign because, as it says in Deuteronomy, he is not supposed to put God to the test. But maybe the real reason he refuses to choose a sign is that he knows no matter what sign he chooses, it won't carry the message he wants to hear. Ahaz is trying to decide whether or not to become allies with Assryia to defend against other intruders. He seems to know that God doesn't want him to make the alliance, so he tries to ignore the message he doesn't want to hear.

Doesn't this happen to us too when we ask God for a sign? If we ask a question that starts, "God, if you exist, come down and prove it," we've already made up our minds about the answer. We might ask God to miraculously heal our friend, but if our friend IS healed, the next question might be, how can God heal only some people and not others? How could God be that unfair? It seems like when we ask God a question, we usually have a preferred answer in mind. We might ask God for something, but seldom do we enjoy giving up control over that thing.

Signs are definitely tricky to prepare for, because they seem to give mixed signals. Signs have two very different sides to them. They show us that God is concerned and involved in our world, but they can also carry difficult messages that we want to avoid. We long for a sign from God--we long to know that we aren't alone. But at the same time, we don't want to hear the message of that sign when it conflicts with our own interests. Sometimes, like Ahaz, we are tempted to avoid God's signs.

So what does God do with Ahaz? He says, Too bad, man, I'm giving you a sign whether you like it or not. And since you won't choose a sign to ask for, I'll have to choose for you. Here's your sign: a young woman is pregnant and will name her child Immanuel. I know, it doesn't sound like much of a sign. Young women are pregnant and give birth every day. But that's the kind of God I am. I work within the beings I have created. My will is shown in creation, not apart from it.

Fast-forward to Joseph's time. Joseph can see that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that this is a sign. But at first he sees it only as a sign of disgrace. He seems to be a decent guy who tries to do the right thing, but there's just no good way to handle Mary's apparent indiscretion. Not until God's angel visits Joseph through a dream and reinterprets the sign for him through Isaiah's words, does the sign become a sign of wonder and blessing.

Even then, the sign of Mary giving birth to Jesus probably still gave Joseph mixed feelings. Maybe he was upset and confused there in Bethlehem, wondering if he did the right thing in marrying Mary and adopting a son that wasn't his. Maybe he felt left out of this major event. Maybe he was frustrated that he couldn't find the right words to say--since nowhere in the Bible do we have a record of him speaking. But he was willing to trust God and adopt this new child and care for it as his own.

One more sign was literally on the horizon for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and that is the Holy Star. This is a sign we normally see as a blessing; it shone above the stable to lead the three magi to the newborn Jesus. It signified the cosmic importance of this small child. Yet this star was most likely a comet, and comets were a sign of unluckiness in the ancient world. This sign also has two sides; it acts as a cosmic beacon of God's birth in the world, but for those unlucky baby boys born at the same time as Jesus, the star foretold a time of persecution and death. King Herod clung to his ambition and fear in the face of this sign and lashed out at innocent people. Once again, signs have an ambiguous nature. We long for them--the wise men rejoice at them--but they can have dark results as well.

Joseph's willingness to trust that the sign given to him would be one of blessing, not disgrace, is instrumental in Matthew's gospel. In this text, Joseph is receiving an annunciation of his own, mirroring the one Mary receives in the gospel of Luke. They both seem to have encounters where a sign that appears to be a mistake is reinterpreted as a sign of God's love and God's action in the world. Mary is told that she will bear God's son; Joseph is told that God's son has been entrusted to his fatherly care.

Joseph's annunciation is more mystical and dreamlike than Mary's, because Matthew paints us a picture of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all history. This newborn child is the prism of the ages through which all things are seen. Time and space come to a standstill as the heavens slowly grind into place and the fateful Star takes its position over the stable, where the fulfillment of the universe is being born as a small and helpless baby. Everything is leading up to this moment, and everything afterwards will proceed from this moment. This is truly a sign that is BOTH as deep as the grave and as high as the heavens. Long ago, Ahaz had refused to choose a sign, so God chose one that encompassed all others. The life of God with us--Immanuel--would reach both the grave and the heavens, and everywhere in between.

What does the coming of Christ really mean for us? To borrow a word from last week, it means CHANGE. It seeps into every corner of our lives. It permeates every part of us and makes its home in our hearts. It is a sign with many consequences, a sign that leads to peace, to the Spirit, and to a fundamental change in the way we relate to God. It constantly challenges us to examine signs of disgrace for signs of blessing, and challenges our concept of what we think blessings actually are.

And so we are to prepare for a sign--we are to prepare for an event that will turn the world upside down. We are to prepare for the Spirit's transformation of the world into the reign of God, the time of peace and shalom. And we are to prepare for an infant who is God with us, with us indeed to the end of the age. Let us prepare with watchful eyes and hopeful hearts. Amen.

December 15, 2004 (Advent 3 Midweek)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Luke 1:46-55 (The Book of God by Walt Wangerin)

Some remembrances form a meditation for our midweek Advent services, which each focused on a different translation of the Magnificat--Mary's song. Click on the time link for Walt's words, and to read what I had to say.

Luke 1:46-55, as told in The Book of God by Walt Wangerin

Mary whispered, "Things are changing! I think God is turning the whole world upside down. What do you think? God is lifting up the little people, a lowly maid like me, he is blessing me! Next he will knock the mighty from their thrones! And hungry people will eat, and rich people will go hungry! Things are changing! I know it. The world will not be the same tomorrow. Does anyone else know this, too? God is rising up, just as he did for Israel in Egypt. God is remembering his people! He is remembering the promises which he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham's children forever. My soul magnifies the Lord! I can't help it anymore. My spirit is rejoicing in God my Savior!

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Maybe you heard about this, but there was a huge celebration last Sunday, down at the Catholic church named for Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was a celebration of the day the Virgin Mary appeared just outside of Mexico City to a poor native peasant named Juan Diego, almost 475 years ago. Now, if you were here a few weeks ago, you might remember Pastor Larry telling us the story of Juan Diego and his vision of Mary. It's the story where Mary appeared to this peasant and told him to carry a message from her to the bishop of Mexico, that he should build a temple to her on that very spot. When the bishop did not believe Juan Diego, he was given a sign by Mary: roses, blooming on a rocky hillside in the middle of December. Juan Diego carried an armful of the roses in his cloak to the bishop, emptied the cloak out, and mysteriously Mary's image appeared on the cloak's fabric. This image is actually a photograph of the cloak as it appears today.

Now, the bishop didn't just say, "Okay, I believe you, Juan Diego, let's get started building this temple." He actually dropped to his knees weeping, and prayed and begged forgiveness of Mary for not listening to her messenger sooner. For Mexicans then and now, this is not just a minor historical epilogue. You see, only ten years before Mary's appearance to Juan Diego, Mexico had been conquered by the Spanish in a very violent conflict. In Juan Diego's vision, Mary was not pale-skinned like the conquerors, but dark-skinned like Juan Diego and the people who had been conquered. She spoke not in Latin or Spanish, but in the native language Nahuatl. The bishop's plea for forgiveness was also the conqueror bowing down before the conquered, the European admitting defeat before the Nahuatl. A Mary who inspired awe and respect from the conquerers was immensely important to a conquered people. As far as they were concerned, this was turning the world upside down. Mary's song was coming true! The mighty were being knocked from their thrones, and the lowly were being lifted up!

Today Mary's temple still stands in Mexico City. It is known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. People come from thousands of miles away to pay their respects to Mary, the Mother of God, who was also one of them, their own mother, and one of the "little people" as Walt Wangerin calls them. Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico--towns and businesses have shrines to her and every cathedral has a chapel or an area devoted to her. One market even has a large picture of her made completely of dried beans. The red rose continues to be her symbol. This candle here is a votive candle that bears her image. Everyone in Mexico claims her as their mother and their advocate.

In January of this year, I was able to go to Mexico City with a group of other Lutheran seminary students. When our small group traveled from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, and prepared to visit La Estacion (that is, The Station--one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city), we were honestly very scared about what we were going to see. Everyone who lives there is what we might call a "squatter." They are not allowed to own the land they live on and could be evicted by the government at any time. Some of them have lived there for decades. As you approach the border of La Estacion, you can see the hundreds of illegal wires tapping into other people's power meters. As you walk along the plywood paths inside the settlement, you can hear the makeshift sewers flowing right under where you are walking. Homes are made from corrugated tin, plywood, fiberboard, scrap metal, whatever people can find, and have hard-packed dirt for floors.

As you go in the main entrance to La Estacion, you see two very different sights facing each other. On the right, you can see the only permanent structure in the neighborhood. It is a small but well-kept stone building that looks like a home. In the States it would be about average size. For Mexico, it's pretty large. There is an iron fence around it and a padlock on the doors. This is the neighborhood chapel. It has room to be a full-fledged parish, and room for several priests to live there, but the Catholic church refuses to make it a parish because that would give the appearance that the church approved of the settlement and the people who live there without owning the land. It's an impressive building, but a very sad building. It has no life in it. Nobody has ever lived there. Nobody can ever go there. It serves no real purpose as a church.

Across the street is a rocky vacant lot with boulders and large stones. The ground is dusty and hard and nothing grows there. On the tallest rock, there is a big statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Small flowers are carefully placed on the rocks before her. This is the center of devotion in La Estacion. Men pause to pray for a few minutes before the statue of Mary in the morning as they leave the settlement to try and find work. Children coming home from school pause in the afternoon. Women come there during the day and leave something small in the hopes that Mary will hear their prayer. A simple sign is posted at the base of the rocks. It says in Spanish: "This is holy ground."

Our group visited two women who live in La Estacion. It's not uncommon for needy Mexican women to develop small businesses on the side in order to make even a little money. One of our hostesses, Andrea, offered to sell us dozens of fresh red roses.

You see, the Morales region, not far from Mexico City, is known for growing most of the world's supply of roses. When you buy roses in February for Valentine's Day, chances are they were imported from Morales. Roses are a common product for Mexican families to sell as they scrape together a living. Our group leader bought a dozen on behalf of the entire group.

We walked slowly out of La Estacion in near-silence after hearing the stories of these women's lives, about what gave them hope and what brought them to despair. One had lived in La Estacion for over forty years. We passed the padlocked church and the dusty holy ground of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The rest of the group had walked ahead of me and only our group leader was behind me. On a whim, I asked him for one of the dozen roses he was carrying. I took the rose and stood for a while at the base of the rocks, pondering where I should put it. Finally I carefully laid it on top of the sign that said, "This is holy ground."

What does it mean that many Mexican families sell this symbol of Mary in order to support themselves? Has this sacred symbol now become worthless except as a commodity? Or do these families see the rose as a gift from Mary to help feed their families? Is this how God is lifting up the little people? Is Mary's song coming true in neighborhoods like La Estacion? How much further is there to go before her song is fulfilled?

Between visiting La Estacion and the Basilica of Guadalupe, our group studied and pondered the words of the Magnificat. We started admitting that we felt guilty and helpless about what we had seen. The thought of Mary singing and magnifying God is a beautiful image we love to think about. But her message to us is a stinging one. Those of us who had seen La Estacion knew that if Mary's song were to be fulfilled, we were the ones who would be brought low. We were the ones who would be going hungry. We were the ones who would be knocked off our thrones.

So where does that leave us? Does the wheel simply revolve, putting us at the bottom of the heap and Andrea and Juan Diego at the top of the heap? Is it all just a huge game of worldly power? Mary says NO. And just as she trusts that she, an unwed pregnant teenager with an unbelievable story, will be lifted up, we trust that Christ's coming brings that justice that the world is not capable of manufacturing. A justice where nobody will have too little or too much, and God will refuse to play the power games of this world. A justice that turns the whole world upside down and into something new. Amen.

November 21, 2004 (Christ the King C)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20 (read responsively)
Luke 23:33-43 (primary text)

Often I go back and read old sermons and cringe a little bit (or a lot) inside. Not this one. To borrow a preaching adage, I had a dog and I walked it proud. Wow!

Click on the time link (and ignore the time it says) to read the sermon.

"Save" is the magic word for a lot of people. Jesus saves. Get saved. Follow these five easy steps and you, too, can be saved. "There are just two kinds of people in the world, the saved and the lost." That's a quote from Jerry Prevo, who also says that "Are you saved?" is "life's most important question". Pray these special words and you will be saved. Ask Jesus the magic question and you'll be saved. Don't forget to click on the link that says, "What to do after you're saved." For a lot of people, getting saved is the whole burrito.

That magic word, "saved," is also like a lightning rod for Christians of all traditions and non-Christians as well. Try typing "get saved" or "Jesus saves" into Google sometime. Actually, that's how I got a lot of these images.

You'll find links like the Anchorage Baptist Temple website that give you step-by-step instructions and an exact prayer to pray in order to "get saved." You'll also find a lot of satire, people using these phrases to make fun of Christianity or certain Christian groups. You'll find jokes, like "Jesus saves...but Gretzky shoots, he scores!" and "Jesus saves, Moses invests." You'll even find joke software that claims to save you by deleting your sin and installing Jesus in your life. Whatever it is, the serious and the satirical swarm around that word "saved" like clouds of mosquitos.

Everyone in Luke's story today seems to be swarming around it as well. The leaders of the people scoff, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The Roman soldiers yell, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" And even one dying alongside Jesus whines, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" In other words, "You say you're buddy-buddy with God, so prove it! Do something useful for a change!" Some of these people are using "save" as a joke to make the point that Jesus is the exact opposite of a king. Others are putting all their trust in that one word, using it to test Jesus and see if he is really the Messiah.

Gradually the logic puzzles in this text begin to emerge. First, note that all of them are challenging Jesus to save himself (although of course the first thief wants him to save all three being crucified). They agree that Jesus saved others. But "saving himself" seem to be the two magic words for them. Now, Luke often uses words that already have a meaning established in the cultures of the Old Testament. In this case, "save" has a very particular history. Throughout Israel's history, God is the only one who can ultimately save. However, God is always the one doing the saving rather than the one being saved. Being saved is a one-way street; Israel and Judah need it and God does it. So you see, it's a little confusing when people tell Jesus to save himself. The second thief crucified with Jesus is the only one who can see that Jesus does save, but the very nature of that saving means that it must be given to others, not to one's self.

Here's another word puzzle for you. In every instance, the word "save" is right next to a title, either "King of the Jews" or "Messiah." For some, these titles are jokes; for others, they are desperate cries for help from the powers that be. Traditionally, both of these titles did not mean "God," they meant a human favored by God. But how does that second thief address Jesus? He uses no title at all. He doesn't ask Jesus to save him. He asks Jesus to remember him. Saving someone means that you rescue them from harm, that you allow them to flourish, that you get them out of a tight spot, that you come along and save the day.

So what does it mean to remember someone? Using Luke's method of drawing words from the Old Testament, we see that God remembers key people at key times in Israel's history. God remembers Noah. God remembers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the promises made to them. God remembers Rachel, the wife of Jacob. God remembers Hannah, the mother of Samuel. This kind of remembrance is not a detached recollection of someone completely separate. Part of having memories is having emotions. Strong memories can cause you to feel emotion as though they were happening all over again. Sometimes we encase memories in hard little shells when they are too painful, but when those memories escape, they speak to us as though no time had passed. I discovered this last June when a close friend of mine from seminary suddenly died. Sometimes I can almost hear his voice and I know that his memory is speaking to me.

Memories do not simply come and go without creating a bond between the one remembering and the one being remembered. When God remembers someone, a connection is re-made; a new relationship is being created. This is a remembering that makes someone or something present alongside the rememberer.

So when the second man says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," he is giving Jesus the only title he needs: one who remembers. One who reaches out and draws us close. He knows that Jesus is one with the God who remembered the Israelites in the desert, one with the God who remembered Noah and his family in the ark, one with the God who remembers those who cry out for help. This man knows that Jesus is more than an unlucky human being whom God happens to like. And he says, "Jesus, if you're a king, then you're the king of people like me. Don't let me slip away when you become king." Only in Luke do we hear this man's voice. He has been forgotten in every other story of Jesus' death, but here he's remembered. He knows that Jesus is not the king who rides in on a white horse to save the day and bring independence to Israel and Judah; he is God in their midst who draws all to himself.

This full definition of "remember" lives on in the New Testament and in the Christian church today. Jesus' words are alive in the disciples through their memories of him. In Communion, we remember Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and that memory becomes present for us and in us as we gather to share bread and wine. And the beauty of remembering is that it goes in many directions. It's not just something that happens between us and Jesus, and it's not something that only happens backwards in time, like remembering those who have gone before on All Saints Sunday. We are also called to remember each other. This is what our Colossians reading is talking about when it says, "in him all things hold together." Through the memory of Christ, we are made present to each other.

Does this mean that the phrase "Jesus saves" is completely off the mark? No, it doesn't. But it does mean that Jesus saves others by remembering them and drawing them to him. Those who taunted Jesus and told him to save himself didn't understand the connection. For Luke, saving and remembering go hand in hand, connecting different people and creating a new communion with God. The second man understood this.

Surely there have been times in your life when you don't want to or can't be connected to other people, or times when you want to forget someone or forget that something ever happened. Surely you know of people who think that human beings are generally good and decent--until they start getting together. The philosopher who claimed that "Hell is other people" was from France, but he could have been a stereotypical Alaskan individualist trying to escape the oppressive presence of other people.

What does it take to forge us together in a way that overcomes our own weaknesses? The shared trauma of war forges veterans of armed conflict together. Forty years wandering in a desert forged a chosen people from a wandering group of escaped slaves. Shared life experiences, like raising children or buying a home, forge a marriage from two separate lives. Days like September 11th forge a nation as opposing forces mourn together. And yet all of these can dissolve--friends of fifty years can have a bitter argument, Israel and Judah can split and despise each other for centuries, marriages of thirty years can reach the breaking point, and a nation brought together by September 11th can bicker endlessly about what to do on September 12th.

And yet, in Christ, all things hold together. Invisibly. Cosmically. Things hold together. In the memory of Christ, the jagged shards of each person are melted enough to fit together.

Maybe you've heard "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, with the line, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." This poem dates from the years right after World War I. Indeed, things seemed to have fallen apart. During this same time, as leaders like Hitler and Mussolini emerged from the ashes of the first world war, the Pope first named this Sunday "Christ the King" to point to the true center of things, the only one worthy of ultimate trust. No doubt you can remember times in your history when things seemed to be falling apart. And when things seem to be falling apart, all kinds of centers volunteer themselves. Leaders assure us that they will hold things together. Commercials assure us that certain products will help us hold things together. Self-help seminars and life coaches promise us the power to hold things together.

It is a bold statement to say instead, "Things hold together; Christ the center makes it so." But that is the message we are given to proclaim, in our words and in our actions. It is one thing to "get saved," and another to remember Jesus because he first remembered us. It is one thing to follow a King who can get you off the hook, and another thing to know that you are not alone on the hook. It is one thing to follow the guy on the white horse who saves the day and rides off into the sunset, and another to follow someone who saves us by joining in our brokenness and calling us to resurrection.

Have you ever wondered why we don't have a "Jesus saves" sign here at Amazing Grace out on O'Malley? Maybe there's a city ordinance against neon. Or maybe there's a lot of red tape to wade through, so we just never bothered. We have a different kind of "Jesus saves" sign--an simple illuminated cross. No fancy titles. Not only does it remind us that Jesus saves. It also reminds us that we are held together and remembered by Jesus through his life, death and resurrection. Things hold together. We are held together. Christ, the King, the center, can and will hold. Amen.

Friday, August 04, 2006

October 17, 2004 (Reformation 3)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Psalm 107:1-9
1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Luke 13:29-35 (primary text)

We focused on Reformation for the entire month of October, which was great. We used different parts of the ELCA mission statement ("Marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are claimed, gathered, and sent for the sake of the world") each Sunday, and took an ingathering at the end for future church leadership.

You know the on the time link to read my blathering.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I am the kind of person who is often accused of gathering too much stuff. I take huge suitcases on trips. I have plenty of clutter and boxes of stuff in storage. It's become a joke to my parents and friends, people who have helped me move all of that stuff many times.

I was a little surprised to look up "gather" and find out just how much gathering goes on in the Bible. The Israelites gather straw, animals, grapes, wheat, and manna, among other things. They are gathered by God, who makes covenants with them, speaks directly to them, and gives them the Torah. Those who heard the words of Jesus usually gathered to hear him speak. The difference between gathering on one's own and being gathered by God is that being gathered made the descendants of Jacob into a single people, into the people of God, shaped into his beloved people by the instruction he gave them. They were more than the sum of their parts, and more than people who simply shared a common interest. They were bound together into something greater than themselves. Likewise, those who came to hear Jesus speak were at first coming to hear a compelling teacher, but could not go away without being influenced by his words and healing.

Why is it important to speak of being gathered and not of gathering of our own accord? Because the idea of choosing to gather with others implies that we have the choice of whether or not to be influenced by others. After all, being gathered into community is only slightly younger than creation itself. Even God could see that it wasn't good for Adam to be alone and gave him a partner. Even the shyest of us were created as communal creatures, as people who are influenced by others and thrive when gathered into healthy communities. The concept of community is woven tightly into the entire Bible. An individual cut off from experiencing deep emotion--positive OR negative--for other people would somehow become less human. Not being influenced by anyone or anything would show a loss of life altogether.

Jesus speaks to the reality of being gathered when in another Gospel he talks about the wheat being gathered along with the weeds, because if the weeds are pulled up when the wheat is young, both will be uprooted together. Gathering is not a simple process, nor is it a smooth one. It is not all roses and sunshine and happy families. Frequently it involves a painful uprooting. It is one thing to speak of what God has created us to long for, fulfilling relationships and cooperation with others. It is another thing to see what really happens in communities, in nations, in congregations, in families, and speak the truth. Nothing is done in isolation from others, and pain always enters the equation at some point and in some degree. Even if we try to opt out of being gathered and withdraw from a community that is wounding us, we are still making decisions based on relationships with others.

Withdrawing from communities that wound us is sometimes necessary. Because no community can be completely shielded from pain, people sometimes do need to leave unhealthy situations for self-preservation. This is a natural reaction, just as turtles, hermit crabs and snails contract into their shells and retreat into safety. Humans react the same way once they have been stung or wounded. Eventually, with time and attention, the wound heals and we can once again take the risk of participating in community.

Some people take a long time to heal. Some withdraw permanently, believing they can only be healthy beings if they maintain absolute individuality. Some refuse to be influenced by others, valuing their own independence above everything. But being gathered into a healthy community does not mean that the community is perfect and without pain. It does mean that people do not stay wounded indefinitely. There is going to be pain, but the church is defined as a place where forgiveness happens in the face of that pain. If you were waiting for the Lutheran moment in this sermon, I'll give you a heads-up. This is it! Luther talked about each of us being both saint and sinner at the same time. A community can also be saint and sinner at the same time, both inflicting pain and seeking to heal that pain. Inconsistent? Perhaps. Reality? Yes.

Jesus' words show us that he sees and understands the possibilities and the realities of being gathered into community. On one hand he cries out that he has longed to gather all the children of Jerusalem, not as wheat into a storehouse, but as chicks under a hen's wings. But only a few sentences earlier he predicts that what God created us for will one day come true; that people will come from every direction to eat at God's table. Notice how the grammatical voice here has shifted so that people are gathering, rather than being gathered. In this future, the difference between gathering and being gathered by God has disappeared, because the will of God and the will of people are no longer opposed. God gathers, but the people want to gather as well. Jesus is all too aware that people in this world often resist being gathered for many reasons. He knows that the time when every last person gathers at God's table without pain is still in the future.

It is easy to see and think of examples of being gathered in the context of this congregation. Think of the feeling you get when we join hands after Communion or for the Lord’s Prayer.
Think of the joys and sorrows of others in this place that you have borne as if they were your own.
Think of someone here you have been angry with, and how that was or was not resolved.
Think of the path by which God gathered you into this place.

This last week, I've been thinking of a story that pushes the boundaries of who is gathered into a congregation. It’s a true story that happened just a few weeks ago to a congregation in Sacramento, California.

Gail was not yet forty years old. She worked part time as an administrative secretary for this congregation. She did not belong to the congregation, but those who knew her loved to talk with her about anything and everything. Some said that she was more authentic than many “proper” church people. She was beloved by her co-workers as a “real person.”

The week before last, Gail called in sick from work each day. She was struggling with severe back pain. The staff—pastor, intern pastor, and other office workers—called her each day that week, asking, pleading and finally begging Gail to let one of them take her to the doctor. Gail said no each time, refusing their help. On Saturday she didn’t answer her phone, but each of the staff left messages offering to help her in any way needed. Perhaps she had gone to the doctor after all, they thought.

But she did not return any of the phone calls, and so on Saturday night the pastor went over to Gail’s apartment and knocked—no, pounded—on the door. He could hear Gail’s dog, barking and barking, inside the apartment, but nobody answered the door. All he could do was call 911. Help arrived, and they found Gail in her bed. Nobody knows quite when she died.

The intern pastor—who shared Gail’s story with me—was sad that Gail had died, but most of all she was angry. Angry that Gail had refused to be cared for by the community around her. Angry that the congregation had chosen not to provide Gail with health insurance because she was a part-time employee. Angry that Gail had not sought medical help. Angry that she had been gathered into a relationship with this woman, which was now filled with pain.

It is not far from her grief and sadness to the lament of Jesus, when he cries out to Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus sees the brokenness of the world, he sees both the joy and the pain that gathering causes, he sees the many children of Jerusalem fighting each other, and he weeps for it. But he does not give up on the children of Jerusalem. He continues to long to gather them together. In the words of the first verse, and also in the words of our psalm today, Jesus longs for a day when we can gather and be gathered at his table, from all directions, and there will be a place for everyone.

Today we are gathered into a community that both hopes and longs for this vision, but at the same time knows the pain that being gathered can cause. The good news is that God's love is greater than us and stronger than our disagreements. It gathers us together and is every day molding us as a church into the image of Christ, to bear each other's burdens and rejoice with each other. Amen.

September 26, 2004 (Pentecost 17C)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Psalm 146
Luke 16:19-31 (primary text)

This was my first sermon while on internship. And of course:
  • my supervisor was out of town and I was doing all three services
  • the day before we had the first snow of the year, and the power went out while I was writing my sermon
  • I couldn't get the thing printed out, so I preached from my laptop.

And, check that text out. Just what every intern wants to start out with. Yeesh.

(One note: This congregation would almost always omit one of the readings, so there were usually two readings and a Psalm or poetic prophecy, and they often would go off-lectionary. You'll see what I mean in coming entries if you know what the lectionary readings would have been on a particular Sunday.)

Click the time link to take a look.

When I opened up the Bible and found the text for today, I discovered that it was about just what every new intern wants to preach on: Money and Hell. These are two things that make us very, very uncomfortable.

In our world, money and faith are often considered private matters. Often we are taught to never discuss politics or religion in polite company, and we could easily add to that list the admonition, “Never ask how much somebody earns!” I know I heard that from my mother at some point. So I realize that often it takes a strong rapport between pastor and congregation in order to speak honestly with each other about money and faith—especially the parts of Christian tradition and the Bible that we struggle with.

I'll be honest. I’m not sure if we have that rapport yet. After all, you just met me and I just met you, and we’re still getting to know each other, sort of like a blind date. But I hope that we can struggle with this passage together.

Jesus said to them, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day." Remind you of anyone? Let me suggest a few images. When I read this, what popped into my mind were the rich and famous who were shown on the Emmy awards the other night, and all the designer outfits and jewelry they wore. Entertainment shows on TV afterwards told everyday consumers how they would soon be able to buy "cheap" copies of the gowns that Sharon Stone and Jennifer Aniston wore. These "cheap" versions would cost only a few hundred dollars instead of thousands of dollars, so that women all over the country can dress like their favorite movie stars. Another example that came to my mind were people whose names are known by everyone for being so rich and smart in business. People like Donald Trump. Bill Gates. Steve Forbes. And you can probably name others.

These are the success stories in our society--people who had an idea and worked shrewdly to build an empire from it. But here's a hint about Jesus' opinion of people who are famous for their riches. Jesus leaves the rich man in this parable nameless AND he makes sure we know the name of the poor man. This is quite a twist for a world that knows who Donald Trump is but doesn't know the name of the man who comes up to you in the Carr's parking lot and asks for bus fare. Also, by leaving the rich man nameless, Jesus leaves the way clear for anybody--including us--to identify with him. This is where the entire parable starts to get really sticky. You have probably heard the statistics about North Americans having more than their share of the world's wealth, that anyone who can eat three meals a day and has their own place to live is already wealthy by world standards. Being new here, I'm just starting to learn about the Permanent Fund Dividend checks being sent out and how important that chunk of change is to the economy and also to life in Alaska. No matter how you slice it, in this parable we are not the ones under the table waiting for crumbs. So, yes. A sticky and uncomfortable parable. I think it shows that money is a lot like heroin. We can't get away from it, and the idea of living without it is frightening and to us, simply impossible.

The strongest reaction we might have from hearing this parable is a sense of guilt for not doing more to reverse this situation. But this leaves us at a loss about how to think about this parable. I think the key to what keeps the rich man in hell can be found by looking at how he acts once he gets there. First off, he cries to Abraham--not God--for mercy, which makes me wonder if he has ever seen God in anything. But more importantly, he asks Abraham to SEND Lazarus. Obviously he is still living in a world in which he had the ways and the means to send for people and have them do errands for him. This parable is not just about money. It is also about power, and the fact that so much of our world is built around the idea that money equals power. This is why our lesson from First Timothy today talks about money being the root of all kinds of evil--because the weeds of power grow out of the root of money.

The rich man just never seems to figure it out. His first request is for Lazarus to come to his hell and ease his suffering. How long do you think a drop of water on a thirsty tongue would really last before another drop is needed? What happens after that drop is gone, is he going to ask Lazarus to come back and give him another drop? Did the rich man even call Lazarus by name when they were alive? Did he ever speak to him at all? Even in the afterlife he talks to Abraham and tells him to "send" Lazarus--he knows his name but even now will not speak directly to him. He can't stop acting as though he still lived in the world and was rich and successful and able to order people around. He knows he is in hell, but it doesn't change him one bit. He is worried about what will happen to his brothers--but only for their own sake, not for the difference they could make in the world. The rich man plays by the rules of the world, the rules that we are all taught to play by. These rules that brought him success in this life are the rules that now create the impassable chasm.

One of the most uncomfortable parts of this parable comes when Abraham says to the rich man that nobody can cross this chasm, that those in hell are abandoned to it. I think many of us know how a “fire and brimstone” approach to serving Christ—that is, do these things or else you will go to hell—has been used (or abused) to scare people into behaving a certain way. This image of a yawning chasm between sinners on one side and saints on the other is the greatest potential for abuse in this text.

But let's look at a few other details. What does it mean that Abraham, who is on the heaven side, was actually very wealthy when he was alive? Apparently the chasm is not as simple as "rich people on the hell side and poor people on the heaven side." Perhaps the chasm between heaven and hell can also be understood as the chasm between the way our world works and the way God’s vision of the world works. It is the chasm between money as intoxicating power (which is what it becomes) and money used for the good of all God’s people (as portrayed in First Timothy). It is the chasm between the way our rules are supposed to insure happiness, and the way God's world works. Perhaps the chasm has not been set up by God in order to keep the rich man out of heaven. Perhaps the chasm has been set up by the rich man in order to keep God out of hell, where he can continue to live by the rules that brought him worldly success.

But joy, not fear, is the operative here, because even though we cannot cross the chasm alone, and not even Abraham, the giant of faith, can cross it, the chasm can be bridged. This is what happened when Jesus was crucified, died and buried. The Apostles’ Creed makes a point of saying that Jesus descended to hell. Jesus descended to where the rich man was! Jesus became part of the rich man’s world and loved it even though it rejected and killed him. Let me suggest a minor revision to the Apostles' Creed. Jesus did not only descend, past tense, long ago, into a place we call hell. Jesus descended and every day descends into the hells of our lives, into the places that hold us fast and separate us from God, and into the hells that are all over our world and communities today, the places that seem to be forsaken by God.

The chasm was also bridged by God in our baptism. The sinner and the saint in each of us are divided by a chasm that runs through the center of our very being, a chasm between what we are and what God has called us to be. Baptism does not erase the chasm, but every day Christ crosses the chasm, descends into our hell, and rises again--and calls us to follow him on this path every day.

Parables like this one operate on a twist. They count on surprising the listener, on causing the audience to stop short and say, "Wait! That's not how the story is supposed to go!" And they confront the listener with a question--usually more than one. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man gives us questions about heaven and hell, questions about how someone who follows Jesus ought to use money, and another very big question, one that really leads us to look at the concrete: How do God's people live in the midst of suffering?

Dan Erlander, a Lutheran pastor and author, suggests a way of life that is consonant with what we hear in First Timothy today. He calls it "manna living." Manna living is living as though everything you receive is like the manna that God gave to the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. If you take more than you need, it becomes rotten. When everyone takes what they need and no more, then everyone can be fed. The division is not as simple as "those who are rich" and "those who are poor". Instead it is between those who live with open hands, and those who live clutching whatever they receive. Christians are challenged to separate money from power. It may sound simple, but money's addictive qualities do not go away simply because the person handling the money follows Christ.

I want to be clear here that while we are called to action on behalf of those who suffer, this action is not a tool to gain resurrection. Only those who realize they are dead can be resurrected. The rich man, although he was dead, still lived according to the rules that had given him success in the world. He saw nothing but death before him, and reacted as though he was still the person he was when he was alive. We could say that Lazarus, with the dogs licking his sores, was dead before he even died. He knew that the ways of the world lead to death. Likewise, if we cling to the rules the world teaches us, we will always be searching for a way out of death. We can only act once we know we are dead and are being resurrected, here and now. Sometimes it is not an easy thing to learn. May God guide us in our learning, in our dying, in our rising and in our living. Amen.