Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sermon - Advent 2 - Year A

Matthew 3:1-12


The story of John the Baptist figures very heavily in the story of Jesus’ birth.  It is impossible to get through the Christmas story without mentioning this fiery country preacher.  In the four short weeks of Advent (the season in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus) two Sundays are given over to John.  This week we hear a short section of his preaching; next week we will learn of his attempts to determine whether or not Jesus is truly the Messiah.

John is very important in the story of Jesus’ birth.  He is the messenger who comes before Jesus in order to prepare his way.  He is the herald who announces that the Son of Man is coming.  He is the first act of the one-two punch which stirs the Judean countryside and causes alarm among the civil authorities.

And yet, there is something very different about the message of John and the message of Jesus.  They are interrelated, but they are not the same.  Jesus came to remove our sins.  John’s role was to make us aware of just how sinful we can be.

I want to be very careful, from the outset, to point out the reason for discussing this difference between John and Jesus.  It is important to note the difference so that we can dispel the false notions which would have us believe that confessing our sin is all that is necessary.  Too often, in our good southern churches, we have heard a continuation of the preaching of John the Baptist.  What we Christians ought to be hearing is the message of Jesus. 

John convicts us of our sin; Jesus – by his death and resurrection -  proclaims our forgiveness. 

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, the message he proclaimed was a call to repentance. 

The scriptures contain very little of his actual sermons, what we get are a smattering of phrases and comments.  But these are enough for us to realize that John's message was not a pleasant one.  He came with a word of warning, a word of judgment, a call to account­ability.  John, through his preaching, delivered a message, a notice, that Jerusalem and all of Judea must acknowl­edge their sin and returned to God.

The word that is used by John is "repent."  The baptism he offers is a “baptism of repentance”.  To repent is to turn around.  It is to go in the opposite direction from the direction our current course would take us.  To repent is to identify where were are doing wrong and from this point forward to do the right thing.  To repent is to make the changes in our lives which align us with God’s hope for our lives and the world.  To repent is to turn around and prepare ourselves for the in-breaking of Messiah.

I want to be careful, not to repeat what I referred to earlier as the theme most often preached in our good southern churches.  Repenting does not make us right with God and thus assure where we will spend eternity.  Repenting does not complete our quest for salvation.  But we also need to be careful, not to so forcefully separate the messages of John and Jesus that we ignore John’s call to prepare.

John figures heavily into our Advent readings and our Advent preparations.  John is not Messiah.  The Messiah will come after John is finished.   The work of John is to prepare the way.

So, let’s return to this concept of repentance; of turning our lives around.  For John, this is a confession.  But it is also a change in behavior which produces visible changes.  Twice in today’s passage Matthew quotes John saying that we ought to “bear good fruits.”  Once they are called “fruits worthy of repentance.”   

What are these fruits worthy of repentance and are they evident in our lives?

I do not want to make you squirm in your seats – well, not squirm too much.  But it would be a disservice to the appointed Gospel lesson to fail to ask whether we have fully embraced the scripture’s message.  Have you heeded the call to repentance?  Martin Luther’s insistence that we remember our baptism each morning as we wash our face is surely a call to also look each morning at the invitation to repentance.

Let’s approach it from a more tangible side – where is there an absence of good fruits in your life?  Maybe a complete and total turning around is too much to ask or hope for.  But what one thing might you change which would make your life one in which fruits were found.

Maybe you need to stop saying bad things about Clemson football fans.

Perhaps you need to repent of the way you have found to cheat (just a little bit) on your income taxes.

Is there opportunity and reason to repent of the way you speak of the stranger and sojourner? 

Maybe repentance is needed in the way you use the resources at your disposal?  (Yes, I am talking about whether you live up to the biblical standard of giving a tenth of your income.)

In my own return to repentance, I find myself greatly challenged when it comes to “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the kindest of ways.”  I am so quick to find fault and to blame and to speak ill of them and never even attempt to talk to them so as to understand their perspective.

Where is repentance needed in your life?  How might you live a life in which there is a greater abundance of good fruits.  REMEMBER:  this is not the whole of the story; John’s call to repentance is a preparation for the arrival of Jesus.  But as preparations go, it pretty darn good.

In the first draft of this sermon, I actually had you turn to someone next to you and identify the one thing of which you need to repent.  There is a part of me that would still like to do that.  But I won’t.  Here is what I would challenge you to do – make a covenant with someone to spend ten minutes (just ten minutes) talking about the call of John and how it speaks to your life.  Discover with them where repentance is needed and what you can do to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

I know that this will be extremely difficult.  But I also know such self-reflection will lead to the ability to give your family, your friends, and your neighbors a Christmas gift beyond comparison. 

The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Sermon - Advent 1 - Year A

Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44           
                                                         All the Nations Shall Stream to It 

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, or the Son, but only the Father.

True - we might not “know” the day and hour, but this isn’t something which we worry about not knowing.  Jesus’ words have a sense of urgency about them, but it is my hunch that most of us don’t worry too much about that day coming, at least not any time soon.  Am I off target?  Did you linger over your good-byes at those Thanksgiving gatherings?  Is the anticipation of the return of the Son of Man so heightened among us that in speaking our words of farewell we acknowledge the arrival of that day on which one will be taken and one will be left might interrupt our seeing each other again?

It is difficult to observe the Season of Advent in a world where there is little interest in ushering in the arrival of God’s anointed one.  This is what Advent is supposed to do; it is our time of getting ready, it making sure we are readying our lives for that which we hope will happen and pray will happen soon.

It is the reading from Matthew 24 which tells us to be ready.  I want to spend most of our time this morning looking at one phrase in the reading from Isaiah which may expose if this is something we have any interest in doing.  So, turn to Isaiah 2.  It would be helpful if you have your bible or a bible app on your phone.

First - a bit of background.  I hope at least one of your previous pastors has taught you that Isaiah has three distinct parts.  The first 20 chapters are warnings of what is going to happen should the people of Israel continue on their current path.  These warnings go unheeded, so the next 20 chapters are spoken to Israel during the time of occupation by non-believing invaders.  The final 20 chapters speak of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of hope. 

Part I (which obviously includes Isaiah 2) are those proclamations spoken by Isaiah during the anxious years.

Now, it should be made clear that not all were anxious.  Part of Isaiah’s challenge is to catch the ear and attention of those who were very content with the situation as it was.  The effects of Jerusalem’s decay were slow to reach those nearer the top rungs of the ladder.  Isaiah attempts to warn them.

Chapter 1 of Isaiah makes it clear where the trajectory they are on will lead.  Follow along: 
Vs 7 – Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire
Vs 3 – The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand
Vs 2b – I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.

Many were content with the system the way it was – but others were shouting out in frustration and anger.  Isaiah collects their emotions, pours them into his oracles, and then speaks the word of God in the midst of all this.  Would they listen to him?  Would they hear him?  Did they perceive that the time of cataclysmic upheaval was upon them?  Or did they not worry, so much.  Did they give lip service to readying their lives while continuing to live the same lives they had lived for generations?

Their challenge was not so different from the one you and I are facing, as we begin together this season of Advent.  Do we expect something to happen?  Happen soon?  Happen to us?  And in our lifetime?

We are about to go from the general to the very specific.  I want you to look at the first phrase of the second verse of chapter 2.  On our bulletins, it reads, “In days to come.”  This is the New Revised Standard Version translation.  Other translations interpret the phrase a bit differently.  Does anyone happen to have a New International Version translation?  The NIV translates the same phrase as “In the last days.” 

“In the days to come.”  “In the last days.”  Same phrase, two different translations.  And while I don’t want to make mountains out of mole hills, these differing translations can also align themselves with differing attitudes regarding how ready we need to be and the role we are to play in the unfolding of these promises.

The NIV interpretation tends to be preferred in congregations where the focus of our assembly is in the far-future.  Reading Isaiah’s words as “In the last days,” put the action on that final day, the day of Christ’s return, the day of God’s in breaking.  The NIV interpretation may suggest to us that we see Isaiah’s words as something which will come to pass at the final consummation of all things.  It isn’t something we are to expect now - it is something that will happen at the return of Christ.  It isn’t something that will happen in our life-time – and therefore it isn’t something we affect or influence or bring closer by our participation.

I want to acknowledge that the NIV a translation has solid backing.  Those who translate the phrase “In the last days,” have done research.  In fact, this translation is more in keeping with the historic translations favored by the Church from the 16th century till the 20th.  “In the last days” is the mood in the Latin Translations and thus also in the King James Translation.  You can find further support such an interpretation when you cross reference the Hebrew phrase as it ­is used in Daniel 2:8 and 10:14. 

However, I want to attempt to persuade you that this is not how Isaiah meant these words to be understood.  Verse 2 of Chapter 2 is a foreshadowing of the promises outlined in greater detail in Chapters 40-60.  For Isaiah, “the days to come” may be indefinite, but it is not vague.  It refers neither to the end of time nor to some point beyond time.  It is a reference to God’s activity within time. 

Isaiah’s oracles assure God’s people that the promises of God will not forever evade us.  We will find it possible to set aside our longings and our desires and to experience the arrival of that which truly satisfies.  While systems of evil and power and domination may attempt to maintain their stranglehold, God’s people can and will break free.  And all this isn’t some distant last day, it is in the days which will come.  Perhaps those days will come even before Isaiah finishes his book.

To be sure, the prophet Isaiah expects a radical transformation of history, as the remainder of his prophecy demonstrates.  But Isaiah does not speak of some future integration of the things of heaven with the things of the earth.  He is talking about what he sees God doing in the history which we call human history.

It is very important, how we understand those four little words.  If we accept the ­interpreta­tion of the NIV then we are justified in accepting the continued presence of hatred and war and violence and loathing of others.  Such an interpretation would allow us to believe that it is beyond us to live in a world where swords are bent into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  But, if we accept Isaiah’s words as God’s promise which comes within time - then we find ourselves looking for ways that our history might be transformed into a history of peace and good will.  If we join Isaiah in describing the days to come, we are also presented with the chance to participate in the making those very same promises a reality.

Some will sit and wait for the “last days.”  They will resign themselves to the war and hatred and violent talk.  They will forever perceive our world and shared existence as one devoid of words and instructions of the angels. 

Others, will listen for the announcement of the angels.  They will insist on seeing today as the “day to come;” the day on which the “mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established.”

Those horrible images I shared from Isaiah 1 are offset by the invitation of Isaiah 2 to not only dream of the days to come, but to make them come.  The Lord will do his part.  Then we are to do ours.  Read verse 5 with me:  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Will we sit back and remain indifferent to “The last days”?  Or will we allow our hearts to come alive at the angels’ song?  Will we see “Peace on earth, and goodwill among men” as a future and far-off possibility?  Or will we join the prophet Isaiah in streaming to the highest of the mountains where God “may teach us his ways… that we may walk in his paths”?

This is the opening question of the season of Advent.  It is answered by the place we focus our attention and our preparations.   Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sermon - Christ the King Sunday

Luke 23:33-43
Christ - Our King

            The sign which hung over Jesus' head read, "This is the King of the Jews."  If you are partial to the Gospel of John, you will remem­ber that the chief priests argued with Pilate over this inscription.  They wanted Pilate to re-write the sign so it would read:  "This man said, I am the King of the Jews."  They disputed the wording, but their suggestion would have been even more incorrect.  The sign, which no one wanted, hung there (over Jesus' head) with the words:  This is the King.

            Jesus didn't look very much like a king, hanging there on that cross.  There had been no great and climatic battle during which this "king" had been taken into captivity.  Jesus had none of the external trappings of a king.  The scriptures say they cast lots for his cloth­ing - a tunic and some undergarments.  He had no robes of purple or crowns with jewels which one would expect of a "king."  As he hung there on that cross, Jesus did not carry himself with a royal air.  Instead, he suffered; he ex­pressed anguish; he cried out, asking to be re­lieved of his pain.  This man was so bound to the agony of human existence it is difficult for us to think of him as "king". 

            The sign that hung above his head read, "This is the King."  But on that day, Jesus was no one's king.  What he was – was the servant of God.  And in his role as servant he was dying.  Dying on a cross.  Dying so that we might have life.

            It is always surprising, when we find ourselves confronted with the distinction between the historical Jesus (the man who died on the cross) and the Christ of the church (the "King" whom we worship).  We find ourselves becoming startled as we begin to review the differ­ences between Jesus' message and ministry - and many of the traditions, doctrines and beliefs which developed as the Church took form.  There is a difference between the way Jesus carried himself and the role he begins to take on in the developing traditions of organized religion.

            Christ the King Sunday is an opportunity to acknowledge this distinction.  On Christ the King Sunday we boldly profess Christ as our King.  Yet, the lessons which were carefully selected for this day remind us that it was no king who hung upon the cross at Golgotha.  The biblical record and the traditions of the church stand juxtaposed on this day.  And from where we sit we can begin to see where the one ends and the other begins.

            The historical Jesus, the man who walked the streets of ancient Israel seemed reluctant to think of himself as one with any titles.  He does speak of the Kingdom of God as being very near to those with whom he ministers.  He promises the thief hanging on the cross, "today you will be with me in Paradise;” he refers to himself as the way, the truth and the life; but only the woman at the well is allowed to directly associate Jesus with titles such as "Messiah." 

            We will never know what Jesus "thought," but we do know he acted in such a way as to downplay any association between himself and titles of power or dominance.  In John 18.36, Jesus insists, "My kingdom is not from this world."  Whatever he might have "known," Jesus does not seek - even among his disciples - recog­nition as "king."

            Jesus came with a simpler (or might I say purer) purpose in mind.  Jesus came to pro­claim the Good News of God's favor.  Earlier in Luke's gospel, just as Jesus is beginning his public ministry, he returns to Nazareth.  He goes to the temple and stands up to read.  They hand to him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  He unrolls the scroll and finds the place where it is written:  "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  The scripture tells us that he rolled up the scroll, sat down, and when all eyes were fixed upon him, he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  (Luke 4.18-21)

            It is debatable whether Jesus had a notion of himself as "King."  What is clear is that Jesus understood it to be his purpose to remind Israel of God's favor.  Jesus did not embrace titles like "King," or "Lord," or even "good."  He rejected them, insist­ing that glory be given to God.  Jesus would not allow his disci­ples to defend him or to defend his honor.  He was only concerned that the message of God's salvation be preached to all who had ears to hear.

            There is that interesting little story, earlier in the same chapter as our lesson for today, in which Jesus is before Herod.  Luke 23.8 says Herod was very glad, for he had been wanting to see (Jesus) for some time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see (Jesus) perform some sign.  This passage hints that had Jesus displayed even a bit of his kingly power, he might have been spared execution.  But Jesus will have none of this.  His purpose was to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.   He would have nothing to do with stage tricks.  Such displays of power or authority had no place in what he had come to do.

            Jesus is so single minded in his commitment to care for others that he will do nothing to preserve himself.  Jesus will die rather than abandon his mission of setting free those who are held captive.  He is the servant.  He is the one who is hung upon the cross for others. 

            This is the witness of scripture to the man whom we know as Jesus.

            After he died, his followers began to look for titles which would adequately reflect the way they felt about this man.  It was in that search that the language of "king" began to emerge.  Jesus did not come to lord himself over us, but we willingly enlisted as faithful subjects.  We bind ourselves to him, no less committed than any devotee to their king. 

            The introduction of “Christ the King Sunday” does not happen until 1925.  It was first instituted by Pope Pious XI.  Most historians agree Pope Pious did this as an attempt to counter the rise of nationalism.  The rise of nationalism is sometimes identified as the cause of World War I.  To make sure his purpose was heard among those whom Pious thought to be the gravest of transgressors, Pious selected the day of observance as the last Sunday in October.  While Norwegians and Swedes and Danes already had something akin to a national day of observance on the last Sunday of October, the Germans were sure to realize that Christ the King Sunday would trample all over their observances of Reformation Sunday. 

            Who is your “King”?  To what do you give your strongest allegiance?  Is it the state/church structure which has supported so many of our cultural identities (and prejudices)?  Or is it the crucified servant of God?

            The Germans didn’t take well to this.  We did soon find ourselves in World War II. 

            Christ the King Sunday has nothing to do with God demanding that all the world fall on its face and acknowledge him as Lord and Master.  Christ the King Sunday is our opportunity to affirm our belief that in this Jesus of Nazareth we have seen the way which leads to salvation, and that “way” is the way of a servant.  It is living our lives in service to the least, to the helpless, to the outcast, to the lost.

            The problem with titles is that as soon as you start to use them, they begin to take on a life of their own.  We hear the title "Christ the King," and rather than allowing the association of "Christ" with "King" to call into question everything we previously associated with kings, we begin to think of Jesus as just another guy with a lot of power and an over-grown ego.  The humble master whom we enlist as our King is lost to the notion of yet another powerful and authoritarian ruler. 

            Christ the King is the final Sunday of the church year.  Next week, when you come into this place, we will be starting all over again with a brand new year.  During this new year, make yourself a resolution to listen attentively to what Jesus is saying; to give attention to what the Church teaches; and then to ultimately decide whether this man has anything to say to you.  Are you prepared, will you be willing to give to him the title of "King?"   And if you are, are you willing to follow his way.  His is not the way of power and dominion.  His is the way of service and sacrifice.


Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 23 - Year C

Luke 21:5-19                                                    

Signs of the End

Every now and then, we have to stop and admit that there is more to this Christianity business than any of us would like to acknowledge.  There are aspects which we had just as soon avoid all together.  Within scripture, there are messages we had rather not hear.  That's fine, because the only thing more unpleasant than hearing these "teachings" is having to preach them.  My heart sank as I realized that so soon after having begun to serve as your interim pastor I would be called to preach on these verses from Luke 21.

Beware that you are not lead astray...when you hear of wars and insurrections ...they will arrest you and persecute you...You will be betrayed even by par­ents and brothers, by relatives and friends;  and they will put some of you to death.

Unpleasant teachings; difficult lessons; painful writings.  Yet they are as much a part of our Gospel as is the story of Jesus' resurrection.  They are written as clearly as is his promise to bind up the broken hearted and restore the downtrodden.  Jesus tells his followers, “You will be hated by all because of my name.”

These words, spoken by Jesus, come as he is about to end his earthly ministry.  The time is drawing neigh when he will be delivered into the hands of the chief priests.  He knows that if there is anything he hasn't told the disciples, he must do it soon, else it will be too late.  And so he begins to speak to them all sorts of warnings.  The few warnings read this morning are but the beginning.  He goes on to tell them that all of Jerusalem will suffer destruction.  He tells them there will be cos­mic signs as the Son of Man makes his return. 

And, he tells them, unless they are prepared, they will not share in his glory.

I can see why Jesus would leave this part of his teaching off to the very end.  It isn’t ex­actly the kind of thing that one would put on a recruitment brochure.  Jesus waits as long as he possibly can, and when he can wait no longer, he tells them.  Time is drawing short.  They must ready themselves.  Jesus must tell them now.

We know, from our vantage point, that the things of which Jesus spoke did happen.  Jerusalem was destroyed.  Wars in Israel began shortly after the death of Jesus and have con­tinued right up to our day.  The disciples were pursued, imprisoned and even executed because of their faithfulness.  Jesus' words rang true in the lives of those who heard him.

Given our vantage point, we can read these lessons as some sort of an introductory history lesson.  Or, we might look upon these passages as reinforcement for the notion of Jesus as a prophe­t, as one who could see into the future and predict what was going to happen.  This section of Luke’s gospel might serve the purpose of allowing us to deepen our appreciation for Jesus’ ability to read the times and predict the future.  But reading these words for such reasons alone is not enough.  This passage isn’t read in order that we might know what happened back then.  Nor is it included so that we might think more highly of Jesus.  These words were not written solely for the original twelve disciples - they were written for you and me.  Just like the earliest disciples, we need to hear the warnings and acknowledge that Jesus is also calling us to a journey that isn’t all roses and comforts.  Wars and pest­ilence, famine and persecution, betrayal and death - these are ours as well.

Too often, we suffer from an illusion.  We think that times have changed and that being a disciple is no longer a dangerous thing.  We believe that we can profess our faith and not fear persecution.  But it is an illusion.  Bearing testimony always results in being threatened.  Following the way of Jesus will put us out of step with the world around us.  Being passively out of step is generally tolerated, but when the disciples of Jesus begin to speak the message of the one to whom they have given their lives the toleration turns to vilification and rejection and sometimes death.

I would lift up Martin Luther King, Jr.  Or Pope John XXIII.  Or former President Jimmy Carter.  If you have not read the life history of Former Senator Paul Simon I encourage you to do so.  Same needs to be said for the Baptist preacher who brought the world’s attention to Hell’s Kitchen, NYC – Walter Rausenbusch.  I don’t know that his life is seen as one of undue suffering, but the witness of Greenville native Bishop William Willimon should be familiar to all of us living in this zip code.  Among his writing is “Who Lynched Willie Earl?”

The Church’s message is firmly rooted in the simple and unwavering acknowledgement that Jesus loves us.  The depth of that love is revealed in Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice his own life rather than allow oppression and self-advancement.  The followers of Jesus have the assurance that God is with us and that God is protecting us.  That oversight on the part of God is particularly important when we see the need to question abuse and exploitation and neglect.  When we faithfully live out the gospel message – God will protect us.

Look a little further down in this morning's lesson.  Jesus says, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives ­and friends; and they will put some of you to death.   You will be hated by all because of my name.  BUT NOT A HAIR OF YOUR HEAD WILL PERISH.  By your endurance you will gain your souls."

Bearing witness to Christ is painful.  It is lonely, but it is the only way we can ever hope to obtain the gift of God which Jesus calls life.

Our call to faith may not be as dramatic as others, but it will represent an opportunity to be criticized and condemned.  Our call to faithfulness may lead us to take positions or to articulate arguments that go against the mainstream of our culture and climate. 

Jesus warns those who follow him that doing so will cost them.  They will not be happy; they cannot be content.  But they will be alive.  Not a hair on their heads will perish.

Premature death comes to many.  It happens when one realizes that purpose and direction and intent are lacking.  Premature death is frightening and produces great worry and anxiety. It happens in far too many, simply because they have listened to the words of Jesus but never made them active in their lives.

The words of Luke 21 are difficult to hear and to preach. But as the twelve say in another location, these are the words of eternal life.  Resurrection begins the moment we worry less about our standing in society and among our neighbors and stand firmly for the Word of God.  When this happens, not even the hair on our heads can be threatened.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sermon - All Saints' Sunday

                                       JUST WHO ARE THOSE SAINTS ANYWAY?

The children's sermon has already given you a hint as to lesson I want to leave with you this morning.  But just in case I was talking too softly or you didn't quite understand - the question for us on this All Saints' Sunday is:  "Just who are the saints of the church?"  Because what we want to do today is honor all of the saints, not just some of them.  On this Sunday we remember the saints of old, we recognize the saints who have recently died, and we want to encourage the saints who are struggling to become comfortable with the title.

On this day we honor all of the saints, not just some of them.  That is why the name is written in the plural possessive.

All Saints' Sunday is a day dedicated to St. Peter, St. Anne, St. John, St. Tecla, and St. Matthew.  It is also a day dedicated to Sts. Faye Moss, Katherine Ruff, Thurl Amick, Larry Clark, and Ralph Mellom.  But as we celebrate the gifts of these saints, we also want to say a few words about Sts. Howard and Cynthia, Sts. Honnalorie and Richard.

If nothing else is remembered from today's worship, I hope you will remember that on All Saints' Sunday it’s not nearly so important that we remember those to whom statues and memorials are erected.  The essential thing is recognizing and honoring those who still struggle to become comfortable with the title:  saints like you and me.

Regardless of the role one makes of saints in their own spiritual life, most folks have grown to be quite comfortable with the first group of saints.  This group consists of the heralded saints of old, the men and women you think of as Saints of the Church:  Matthew, Mark, Mary, Lydia, Peter, Paul.  We paint portraits of them and hang them in honor­able places.  We use them for lessons in Sunday Church School.  We stamp their images onto medals and wear them around our necks.   While each saint in the church has his or her own day of observance during the liturgical year, on All Saints' Day we honor them as a group, acknowledging, as a whole, their contribu­tion to the life of the Church.

In American religious experience, saints have sometimes gotten a lot of bad press.  Contrary to what some Protestants are told, it is not true that Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches "worship the saints."  Saints are an aid to worship - no less than repeat­ing The Apos­tles' Creed or praying the Our Father.  While there are differ­ences between the official teach­ing of the church and the prac­tice of one's indi­vidual piety, it is not true that venera­tion of the saints is "worship of the saints".  It is veneration, adora­tion, the establishing of a beneficial relation­ship.  There are some who have over-emphasized the roll of the saints, but we should never allow this to form our full opinion or prevent us from learning from those who call upon the saints in their prayer life.

The relationships between living Christians and departed saints began quite innocently.  A member of the congregation would go to their pastor and ask the pastor to pray for them.  If there were particular concerns of great importance the pastor would ask other pastors to share in this process of offering prayers.  They prayed hard and diligent­ly.  Somewhere in the process, someone asked, “What are the saints, already in heaven, doing with their time?"  The answer had to be that they are praying too, but what do they pray for?  They must be praying that God's will be done on earth.  So..... why not ask them to join us in our prayers for that particular concern which is weighing heavy on our hearts?  Good idea!

As time passed, a particular saint came to be preferred.  If there was a saint who shared some earthly characteristic with me, it seemed natural to ask that saint to pray for me.  Saints who were miners become the one whom miners ask to pray for them.  Saints who were doctors are asked by other doctors to pray on their behalf.  It was from this preference among the saints that patron saints begin to emerge.

Calling upon the saint in prayer had nothing to do with any notion that these saints had the power to save, they were simply in a good position to offer prayers on behalf of those still working out their salvation on earth.

How many times have you asked someone to pray for you?  In so doing, you were doing nothing different than those millions upon millions of believers who stand before the statue of a beloved saint, asking her to pray on their behalf.  They are asking her to pray with them; enlisting their aid as they lift their concerns before God.

The second group of saints we want to honor on All Saint’s Sunday is also rather obvious.  These are the persons within the Church who have died in the current liturgical year.  On All Saints' Sunday we make it a point to remember the members of our parish and community who have served as examples and models for us.  We remember those who have died in the faith. 

The list of names printed in our bulletin represent those who have had a profound impact upon our pilgrimage of faith.  We list their names as a way of remem­bering the Saints who have nurtured us in the faith, those who have served the church, those whom it has been our privilege to know and to love.  We remember them as saints, as those who have now experienced in full the resurrection of Christ.

This group of saints is very important to us.  They are the saints who have had the most direct impact upon our lives.  In many cases, they are the ones without whom we would never have come to have faith.  There is no greater witness to the saving power of God's Word than those who live by it.  We look to their witness and from that witness we see how we should live.

Which brings us to our third group of saints: The saints of today.  This is the group of saints who are most often over­looked, too seldom consulted, rarely even noticed.  These saints are you and me.  We are the saints of the church present.

"Sainthood" is not limited to those who are venerated with their own day on the liturgical calendar.  "Sainthood" is not a title conferred only upon those who make a tremendous sacrifice or do some unimaginable deed.  Sainthood is the name given to all those who live in the reality of God's forgiveness.  The pastor who guided my home congregation during my formative years was a man named Aaron Lippard.  Pastor Lippard defined a saint as a “forgiven sinner.”  He ­insisted that Saint be the title of recog­nition given to all those who struggle to live their lives in faithfulness to God.

Great leaders are wonderful for the life of the church; we couldn't get along without them.  But they do nothing unless they inspire the masses.  Of what good would Martin Luther's reform have been if it did not reach out to those who were in the pews?  In reality, one of the reasons Luther began his reform was his frustration with those in leadership.  He saw that the leaders of the church were living cloistered lives, cut off from the peas­ants and having very little interaction, let alone impact, on the vast membership of the Church.  The bishops were inaccessible.  The priests were locked securely in their monasteries.  And the teachers spent their time in private study.

Luther's reform had the effect of getting the saints out of the church and into the world.  His intention was to illustrate that Christian faith, if it was to be true to its roots, must be a lived faith and not a field of study.  Unless the leaders of the church took seriously the responsibility of educating the members and assisting them in living the faith - they were not doing the will of God.

The task of all the saints is to proclaim through word and deed the saving message of Christ.

All Saints' Sunday is our day.  It is our day to celebrate the wonderful gifts we have received from saints of old and the saints of recent years.  It is also a day for us to recognize our status as saints, to see ourselves as forgiven sinners upon whom Christ's church now depends.

You and I are the saints of today.  When future generations call upon the name of Christ they will do so because our witness has inspired them.  When future temples are built and statues erected, it will be a result of our faithfulness, our praying on behalf of those who are struggling to understand themselves as chosen by God.

On this festival of "All Saints'", I pray that you will remember those who have inspired you, those who have loved you.  But I hope you will give more attention to those with whom it is your good fortune to share the love and acceptance of Christ.  As Saints of Christ, this is our role, this is our duty, and this is our honor.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sermon - Reformation Sunday 2019

Romans 3:19-28                                      

                                                             Moving from Fear to Love

I am never quite sure, on Reformation Sunday, whether to emphasize what is unique about the theological tradition in which we stand or if it is better to talk about what we hold in common with the whole of Christianity. 

Martin Luther wanted to remain firmly rooted in the whole of Christianity.  He insisted that “No one be known by the name ‘Luther.’”   His immediate followers, as well as the folks who currently attend “Lutheran” Churches in Germany, we known as the Evangelischies, or Evangelical. 

Then again, it seems appropriate to spend a bit of time talking history.  More and more of those who find themselves in a Lutheran worship service got there by means of a differing route that baptism in a Lutheran congregation and three years of instruction in Lutheran Catechetical class.  So, maybe we do need to spend some time speaking with the voice which is uniquely ours.

The decision on which way to go came during the discussion a few of us shared last Sunday.  I found myself asking why it is important that there be a Lutheran church at all.  Why should we give of our time, talent, and treasure in order to keep this place running?

The answer has to do with the opportunity to gather each week and practice forgiveness.  You heard me right – practice forgiveness.  The world is not a place where forgiveness is readily offered.  When the world discovers a mistake or a short-coming there is pouncing and exploitation.  Seldom is there understanding and forgiveness.

Lutherans are not unique in that we are the only denomination which believes in and practices forgiveness.  But our history begins there.  And while there are issues which divided the Church during that period of history called The Reformation, it was the centrality of God’s grace which served as the impetus for the Lutheran theological tradition.

The whole of the Reformation can trace its origins to the fear Martin Luther had that he was not going to be saved.  His life story (which I will turn to in just a moment) returns time and time again to the issue of whether God would or could forgive him.   His writings, his sermons, his table talk conversations were all geared toward helping others come to understand that God’s grace is boundless and God’s forgiveness is always at hand.

Luther lived in a time when life was rather bleak.  Some peasants (his father among them) had started scratching their way up out of the pits by means of increased mechanization and an openness to an emerging merchant class.  Hans Luther had great hopes for his son.  He spent a good sum of that hard earned money to send Luther to the Latin School in Esienach and finally to Law School in Erfurt.  But the young Luther was not at peace with himself.  In conversations with his classmates he revealed a disdain for the pleasures and trinkets of the world.  He was drawn to the life of a monk; he expressed a desire to spend his time contemplating the fate of one’s soul.

The crucial point came as he as making his way back to Erfurt from his parent’s home.  A terrible lightening storm had come up and he was frightened.  When a bolt struck close by him he is reported to have considered it an attack from an angry God.  He prayed to Saint Anne to intercede on his behalf, promising that if she were to see to his survival he would enter the monastery.  As one Lutheran historian was quick to quip – “She did; so he did.”

But Luther’s attempts to appease and angry God did not end there.  Even among the monks he was unique in his attempts to demonstrate his dedication to God.  It was reported that he would often throw off his blankets.  He would punish himself with long hours in the confessional booth. 

In the end, it was his confessor, Stauptz, who exposed to Luther his misguided attempt at justification.  After one particularly long and tedious attempt at delineating his sins, Stauptz lost patience with Luther and snapped at him, “Good God man!  All that is required is that you love God!”  “Love God?”  Luther is reported to have replied, “I hate God!”

You cannot love a God whom you believe is looking for every opportunity to condemn you to hell.  You cannot love a God who sets up traps to lead you away.  You cannot love a God who is vengeful and ready to condemn.  The God who is lovable is the God whose grace is abundant and never ending.  The God who is lovable is the God who is more ready to forgive that we are to ask for forgiveness. 

Every Christian denomination in the world would agree with this.  Lutherans are not unique in believing this.  What makes us unique is that we begin (and end) every theological discussion there.  Our history compels us to return over and over and over to the central affirmation that nothing should ever be allowed to cause us to doubt the abundance of God’s grace.

If it has been a while since you read the Augsburg Confession (that is the foundation document for the Lutheran Theological tradition) if it has been a while since you read it, I suggest that you do so soon.  You will find two articles which deal with the issue of Free Will.  These articles lay before us the role of grace in the assurance of salvation.

The first is Article 4 which speaks of the complete absence of free will when it comes to salvation.  Salvation is the gift of God, it is the act of God, and it is totally beyond us and our influence.  This is not an addition to the message of the scriptures – it is what lies at the center of the New Testament.  Read also that Romans text printed in your bulletin.  Or the whole of the book of Galatians – sometimes referred to as the Christian Megna Carter.  We are justified by (God’s) grace as a gift.

There is a second article in the Augsburg Confession which addresses free will with regard to temporal things.  The writings of our church affirm that we do have the ability to choose how we will respond to the goodness of God’s mercy.  Article 20 points out that we can chose to do good or we can choose to misuse our freedom.  Our good works are added to our faith, but it is not a prerequisite.  

Many in our world, in our neighborhood, will abuse God’s unlimited eagerness to forgive.  But their misuse does not change God or God’s attitude toward creation. 

God remains loving and forgiving; compassionate and merciful.

Lutherans are not the only ones who speak of God in this way, but we are among those who speak of it most often and most clearly.  There is not a Christian in the world who would disagree with the Lutheran rally cry of “Justification by grace through faith.”  It just that some of them would emphasis the faith over the grace; or speak of faith in a way which makes it something other than a trusting relationship.  You can make faith as much of a “work” as any other prescribed by the law.

Our observance of Reformation Sunday should not take the form of a celebrations to glorify Martin Luther or the congregations which bear his name.  What this day should be about it a strong and faithful reminder that it is God’s grace which saves us; God’s grace, and nothing else.  Faith, itself a gift from God, is the vessel which makes it possible for that grace to reside in us.  It is God’s grace which saves us, and since our God is a gracious God there is no ending to his salvation. 

There is no fear that it will come to others and skip over us.  And there should never be any doubt that God has forgiven us of our sins.


Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sermon - 19th Sunday after Pentecost - Year C

Luke 18:1-8
                                                                        An Unjust Judge 

I want to set aside all the techniques and tricks associated with preaching a sermon and say one thing with as much clarity as I possibly can:  In this parable, Jesus is not placing God in a parallel position to the unjust judge.  There are no shared traits between the two and the parable does not imply one.  The only reason Jesus speaks of this unjust judge is so we can see that contrary to his nature and attitude he finally does what it is that God is prepared to do from the very beginning.

Look at verse 7:  “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will (God) delay long in helping them?”

Jesus’ encouragement to pray always and not lose heart is not rooted in a fear that God is only sometimes listening or has to be worn down through pesky persistence.  It is Jesus encouragement to continue to pray, even when we fail to “find faith on earth”.  Jesus tells us not to lose heart, even when it seems as if there are far too many unjust judges who continue to stand in the way of God’s hope and vision for life on earth.

Have I said this with sufficient clarity?  Anyone still unable to hear Jesus’ words?  If anyone is having difficulty, it is most likely as a result of some exchange in your past in which you were allowed to think that the number of prayers or the repetitions in petitions or the spiritual purity of the person praying make some difference in God’s response.  Shame on anyone who told you this or any preacher who preached this!  Again, that is why the unjust judge is in this parable.  So we will quickly recognize that God operates differently.  God operates much differently.  The Lord (does) keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

This is most certainly true – but it might not feel this way.  There are many instances in which the way of God is hindered.  There are multiple examples of God’s Word being ignored.  And while the Law of Moses makes it clear how we are to treat others, that law is broken over and over and over again.

The widow in this morning’s reading can be Example A. 

This legitimacy of woman’s case is not the issue.  The problem is the one to whom she must make her appeal.  By this man’s own admission, he has no fear of God or respect for anyone.  He just doesn’t care.  He is flagrant in his failure to abide by the standards of justice for which he now serves as judge.  In the laws of the Jews, widows are given a special place.  It is called a “preferential treatment.”  It means their claims are to be advanced beyond their merit.  Widows (and orphans) are to be treated differently; be treated better.

This was obviously not happening in the “certain city” Jesus speaks of in his parable.  An unjust judge sat in the judgement seat and that judge took his motivation from something other than the Word of God.

Seeing this, perhaps realizing how true this was in far too many cities, the followers of Jesus could easily begin to lose heart.  Why would they bother to pray?  Why should we trust in God - when all around us deception and corruption and self-advancement are winning the day?  They may have been prepared to answer to Jesus’ question as to whether the Son of Man would find faith on earth when he returns.  The evidence.  Their life experiences.  Suggested the answer may very well be “No.”  There are too may unjust judges, and too few able to put them in their place. 

But, thankfully, there are some pesky widows, emboldened by Jesus’ admonitions, and they won’t leave alone those who would deny the justice of which God speaks.

I want you to look at verse 5.  You sports fans will be delighted to hear that there is a sports metaphor here which has been lost in the translation to English.  The encounter, in its original tongue, makes use of a boxing metaphor.  See that phrase, wear me out?  A better translation would be “give me a black eye.”  This judge is worried that this pesky little widow might land a right hook.  Pesky; feisty; not easily dismissed - this representative of Jesus’ disciples will not allow those who disregard God disregard the call for God’s will to be done.  The God who is more ready to listen than we are to pray sends among us those who will not be silent or silenced.

God hears our prayers and does not delay long in helping.  If there doesn’t seem to be evidence of this in the places where we live, maybe it because the pesky/feisty followers of Jesus have abandoned the things for which Jesus has taught us to pray.

There is rarely a week when our congregational prayers fail to mention the beauty of creation and our appreciation for all that God has made.  And yet, our prayers are quickly forgotten when we have reason to discuss environmental protection or global warming agreements.

Every Sunday we ask God to bless and care for the homeless.  Then, during the week, we are silent as refugees are denied entry and deported.

Christians love to feed the hungry.  But questioning why the poor have no bread is considered “political” and off limits on a Sunday morning.

We pray for the sick and those who care for them and then ignore opportunities to provide universal health care.

The parable Jesus tells is very clear – this woman is seeking justice.  “Justice” may have been the last thing this unjust judge wanted to see.  Justice is quite often avoided or skirted or denied by those who have no fear of God nor respect for others.

God will not turn a deaf ear.  God stands ready to see that justice is meted out.  Some of Jesus’ followers will lose heart, precisely because they see the creative and crafty ways that justice is avoided.

But we know not to worry.  When the Son of Man comes he will find faith on earth.  The Son of Man will find faith in us.  And he will see how that faith has motivated us to advocate for a living wage for all workers and a full stop to any tolerance of gun violence. 

The unjust judges are among us.  And in too many instances they sit in the judge’s seat.  But among us too are pesky widows insisting that governing norms do give preferential treatment to the least among us.  God bless you +, in your faithful service to God.  Lift your prayers and do not lose heart as you live out the baptismal calling to see that God’s will is not only done on earth is being done by you.