Saturday, July 30, 2016

Sermon - July 31

11th Sunday after Pentecost - Year C
Luke 12:13-21 & Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:18-26

Attending to the Soul

 I sent a note to our listserve of students this week.  There were things I thought I might put in the note, but stopped after completing the opening line.  That first sentence read, “I miss you.”

I do miss them.  The summers are great.  But when we suspend the Wednesday night student meals, something about who I am gets lost.  I am a campus pastor.  And while that identity includes work beyond chaplaincy with the students, it is difficult to be a campus pastor when there aren’t students around.

            I share these thoughts on my identity as a way of starting a conversation this morning about identity. Not just my identity, but the identity of each of us.  Identity is important.  The way in which we define ourselves – or find ourselves being defined – gives us direction and purpose in life.  Finding our identity is more than an exercise in navel gazing - it is a practical necessity.

            Today’s lessons talk about identity.  The Gospel story raises questions about Jesus’ identity.  Who was he and what did he came to do.  Gaining a hold on his identity gives us direction as we try to establish our own.  From Ecclesiastes we hear words which would help us find our identity in that which is lasting and sure.

            What isn’t very lasting or sure are our possessions.  The Gospel lesson in particular reminds us that our identity should not be found in the things that we own. 

Possessions are at the root of the request made to Jesus as he is walking along.  Someone in the crowd stops Jesus and says to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”    While we might think it odd that such a request be made, let’s make sure we see it as odd for the right reasons. 

The right reason is not because this is an unreasonable request to make – even of Jesus.  In ancient Israel, at the time of Jesus, it was the teachers of the Law who decided matters such as inheritance.  When you had a dispute against your brother, or any other member of the community, you would go to a teacher and ask them to settle the matter for you. 

            This man may have been justified in seeking the assistance of a well known and respected teacher.  His brother might not have done that which is right in the eyes of the law.  In ancient Israel, at the time of Jesus, the first born son in a family was entitled to all of the father’s inheritance.  The father could instruct the eldest son to divide the inheritance among the other sons.  Legally, the elder son had the right to ignore his father’s wishes.  However, to do so, he would be ignoring the commandment to Honor Father and Mother.  Only a teacher of Hebraic Law could weigh the testimony and say what is expected.  The man who comes to Jesus might have been seeking justice in such a situation.  The man may have had a legitimate grip against his brother.  And coming to a “Teacher” is what one was instructed to do.

            And yet, Jesus rebukes the man.  He says to him, “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  Jesus ignores the man’s request.  He refuses to give the man what he wanted.  But why?  Jesus’ response suggests it may have to do with Jesus’ identity.  He is not here as a judge or arbitrator of the ancient laws; he is here to fulfill another purpose.

            That purpose, comes into focus in the parable which Jesus tells.

            In the parable, the thing we might miss is the significance of the language the man uses as he speaks to himself.  Seeing all the possesses which he has accumulated, he says, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years…..relax, eat, drink and be merry.’”  In speaking to himself he speaks to his “soul.”  That is the English translation of the Greek word.  The Greek word literally means the “whole of who I am.”  To speak to one’s “soul” is to speak to that which is even greater than one’s self.

The “whole of who I am” is more than my possessions.  The “whole of who I am” also includes that part of us which came to us as a gift from God.  The man speaks to “the whole of who I am” failing to remember that part of who he is is the breath that God breathed into his nostrils of clay.  He fails to remember that with each breath, God reenters our bodies and thus makes “the whole of who I am” possible.

The man has confused who he is with what he has.  He thinks that what he has identifies him.  He forgets that it is God who gives us our life and the very breath we breathe.

            And so, seeing this person’s inability to understand his true identity, God comes to reclaim what God has given.  God leaves the man with the things which he has accumulated.  But, of course, the man is now without the thing which he most needs to order to be the whole of who he strives to be.

            Jesus tells this parable in order to help the crowd understand that we find our identity not in the things we own but in the one who is our Lord.  The man who comes to Jesus is like the man in the parable – they miss an opportunity to obtain an identity which cannot be taken from them.

            Jesus is not some judge, sent to serve as arbitrator or interpreter of the law.  He is the one who identifies us as brothers and sisters, children of the Heavenly Father.  God gives us our identity, not the things we own.

            Nor can we find our identity in the things which we think.

The small section of Ecclesiastes read for us this morning deals with possessions.  But if we look at the entire book, we see a much broader presentation of mislaid identities.

Ecclesiastes was probably written sometime around the 3rd century B.C.E.  At that time, there was within Hellenistic culture the notion that underlying all of life were undeniable, universal truths.  Sometimes, individual religions were seen as little more than alternate methods for approaching this universal truth.  You followed the teachings of a particular prophet or guru and hopefully moved beyond their words and into the realm of univer­sal truth.

This school of thought had a profound influence on the religion of the Israelites.  Yahweh, being the one true God, certainly led the way in the search for this universal wisdom.  The book of Proverbs is an example of such thought.  In those writings, you begin to see "wisdom" as a personi­fied agent of God.  Scriptural law and the writings of the prophets came to be seen more as the revelation of wisdom than as a record of God's historical activity.

The writer of Ecclesiastes felt that those who adopted such thinking had mislaid their identity.  They were seeking to find themselves in the pursuit of universal truth, in the pursuit of wisdom.  Many had shunned all possessions, so as to be free to truly pursue wisdom.  The trouble is that no less than the rich man in Jesus' parable, they too had defined themselves in terms inconsistent with who they really were.

The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that we don't find who we are in the pursuit of things, nor do we discover our identity in the pursuit of wisdom. 

An interesting concept is lost in the translation of these passages into English.  The word, vanity, used so many times in this book, denotes a breath.  Vanity is exhaled air that disappears.  When we speak, no matter how eloquent, no matter how insightful, no matter how wise, all we are doing is exhaling.  Our thoughts, like our breath, dissipate and disappear.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher ... All is vanity.

Ecclesiastes, thus, represents a protest against the ever-present temptation of faith to shore up its own uncertainty with dogmatism and against the constant tendency of human under­standing to overrate its potentiality.  We don't find our identity in our great thoughts or in our eloquent words.

So, if our possessions don't define us and neither does our wisdom (which you can further divide into knowledge, or insight, or understanding.)  What's left?  How do we define who we are?  What makes us, us? 

Put most simply, what makes me me is the identity I have received as a gift from God.  Put most simply, what makes you you is the image of God which you bear and the breath of God which fills your lungs.

Searching for an identity elsewhere is – well, vanity.           


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon - July 24

Pentecost 9
Luke 11:1-13, Genesis 18:20-32
            It is a difficult thing – to pray.  It is a difficult thing – to know how to pray.  It is sometimes not difficult enough – not to know what to pray for.

I love every story in the Bible – and I love that story from Genesis 18.  It is a beautiful and wonderful story.  And when told and retold among the religious communities of the ancient near east, this story was a tremendous statement about the graciousness of the God of the Hebrews; this story exposed the unthinkable thought that a “god” would listen, even to a faithful servant, and care what that servant had to say.

But we don’t live in the ancient near east.  And 4,000 years have passed between the time of Abraham and the times in which we live.  I wonder, if perhaps, we have become too comfortable with the realization of God’s graciousness and eagerness to hear our petitions.  What if that is the case, so that when we hear this story from Genesis 18 we think THIS is the way that the followers of Jesus are to pray.

Here is what I fear – that after reading of Abraham’s bargaining with the Lord, we might read Jesus’ instructions on prayer and think that this he is encouraging the same behavior.  I am afraid, that all too often, we already misunderstand prayer – thinking of it as an opportunity to negotiate. 

I just don’t believe this is what Jesus intends us to do.  I don’t believe that such an understanding of prayer is helpful to us or to our life of faith.

Prayer is important.  Understanding prayer is a life-long process.  And it isn’t (always) easy.  Why else would Luke introduce this whole section with an acknowledgement that the Disciples come to Jesus, asking him to teach them to pray.  They needed instruction.  Why would we assume that we do not?

There are countless prayer books. easily identified 252,086 titles.  AugusburgFortress (our church publishing house) listed 76 matches.  I haven’t read that many books on prayer; but I have read a few.  Perhaps you have, also.  In which case you can support me when I say that not all of those books are in complete agreement.  Those who write books on prayer usually write because none of the previously written books speaks directly to their own experience of prayer.  Searching for that which does articulate their experience, they make another contribution to the offerings.

Prayer is very individual.  Prayer is extremely personal.  Prayer speaks the deep yearning of our hearts. 

Jesus’ disciples come to him and ask, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  (I have kind of glossed over that part – that Jesus’ disciples have noted that John taught his disciples.)  Jesus’ disciples ask him to help them learn to speak the language of one’s soul.  His response is to give them the prayer we continue to pray, each and every Sunday.  By-the-way, I did a search of for books on “The Lord’s prayer.”  Fewer titles than before – but I still got 31,385 suggestions.

I resisted the urge to start ordering books.  I also know that I am a slow reader.  What I decided to do was pull a small book (very small book) off my shelf and re-read it.  Maybe you have one of these books in your house, too.  Perhaps you have parts of this book committed to memory.  At one time in your life, you probably did.  Luther’s “Small Catechism” doesn’t teach us everything we would want to know about prayer, but it points us in a good direction.  (I almost said “Right Direction” but I realized that would be “wrong.”  There is nothing more “right” about Luther’s understanding of prayer.  It only has importance among us because we have self-identified as individuals who find his presentation of the Gospel to be a comfortable fit with our own.)

If you no loner have Luther’s Small Catechism committed to memory, you can look it up on the back of the hymnal – it begins on page 1160, in the very back.  You can also use that handy-dandy QR code on the back of your bulletin to download a copy to your smart phone.

As much as I would like to do so, I won’t turn this into a two-hour lecture on Part III of the Catechism – that part which deals with the Lord’s Prayer.  I will use this time to re-direct you to your own study, reminding you that Luther scoffed at those who would read the Catechism once and toss it into the corner as if it had been mastered.  He returned, daily, to the Catechism.  Committed it to memory and drew from it in practically every situation.  It is my own reading and re-reading of the Catechism which lies behind my revulsion at the mere suggestion that prayer is an opportunity to bargain with God.  Luther sees it quite differently.

When he writes on the 4th petition and the 6th petition, he instructs us that we need not plead our case before God, God is already on our side.  “Give us this day, our daily bread,” (Petition 4) is for Luther a prayer which reminds us that this is indeed what God has already done.  God sends the rain, scripture tells us, on the just and the unjust.  Praying the prayer our Lord taught us is not an opportunity to ask God for something that we lack, it is an opportunity to be reminded that God has already provided for us “everything needed for this life.”  When we pray, at the bedside of a sick child, we ought to be so thoroughly schooled in God’s graciousness that our prayers are offered with the confidence that God already knows our need.  When we speak of “answers” to our prayers, our repetition of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that God has already come to us.  God delivers us from the time of trail; He does not lead us into temptation. 

Martin Luther was a monk in the Augustinian Order.  Augustinian piety was pervasive in the 16th Century Church.  This piety allowed, if not directly encouraged, us to think of ourselves as persons engaged in a constant battle to please God.  In Augustinian piety, salvation was a promise (for when we died) but it was not yet a reality.  One lives their whole life trying to believe, think, say, and do those things which would lead to a positive verdict when it was time to determine whether salvation had become effective for us. 

Luther spent his youth and young adult years in mortal fear that when the time came, God would judge him rightly.  Luther knew that where he to be judged rightly, God would need to acknowledge all his failings and therefore condemn him to Hell.  What a gift it was, to Luther, when he had the opportunity to study and write on the Lord’s Prayer.  In examining the introduction to the prayer, Luther was reminded that Jesus instructs his disciples to see God, not as some fierce and angry judge, but as a loving parent. 

Luke opts for the shorter introduction phrase.  He simply refers to God as “Father.” Matthew has the more familiar, “Our Father in heaven.”  Luther understood the power of this opening.  How differently might we pray to God if, rather than thinking of God as the one who judges us we find it possible to understand God as a loving parent?  After all, what parent, when asked by a child for an egg will give them a scorpion instead?

I do believe that it is injurious to our life of faith when we approach prayer as an opportunity to bargain with God.  Not that I haven’t done it, on occasion, myself.  But it doesn’t help.  Jesus offers this prayer in response to the Disciples’ request that he teach them to pray.  If they could acknowledge a need for instruction, why shouldn’t we?  Amazon has 252,086 titles.  You could go home and start ordering (and reading.)  Or, you might pull out your copy of the catechism, dust it off, and see what happens when you re-commit to memory the words of a teacher who struggled - but finally made peace - with the God of our salvation.