Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reformation Renewal

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Reformation A, October 26, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

We are Lutheran. We celebrate our history as a Church. We remember that almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther took a long, hard look at the Bible and realized a multitude of ways that the Catholic church was abusing its authority. With the support of his wife and colleagues, Martin Luther changed the church. Although the Catholic church has slowly adopted Luther’s suggestions over the centuries since his death, the Lutheran church created these reforms.

Martin Luther translated the Bible into German so the laity could study God’s word for themselves. He offered communion to all in wine and bread. Most important of all, Luther preached the grace of God. Luther taught the church that God loves us beyond reason and beyond compare. God gives us eternal life as a free gift because Jesus sacrificed himself for us. Nothing is more important.

We are Lutheran. We continue this legacy. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote in last year’s article in the November Lutheran, “We are a theology of the cross people in a culture of glory…We are sinners utterly dependent on the crucifixion, which not only destroyed sin and death but put to death the false hope of good intentions and human agency. We are saints made righteous by the cross and joined to the resurrected life of Christ that makes it possible for us to bear God’s creative and redeeming word to the world.” (p. 70)

In this month’s Lutheran magazine, the cover article is about “The ELCA’s Aging Clergy Wave.” The Baby Boomer generation is nearing retirement, and as is happening in many industries, they will leave a huge gap in their wake. Thousands of pastors are set to retire in the next ten years, and the seminaries will not produce enough pastors to fill the void.

This article calls the Boomer pastors, “the all star team,” and the last who were ordained before the ELCA merger. Yes, these pastors have served countless years in their ministry doing the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet haven’t we as a church proclaimed that we are “Always being made new”? This large swath of clergy retiring isn’t a tragedy - it is an opportunity!

The world has changed a lot in the ELCA’s twenty-seven year history. With the rise of technology, the internet, and secularism, people are more connected and less attached than ever before. As the world is adapting around us, we the church has been slow to reform with it. 

The Lutheran church is changing, though. There are unique ministry opportunities popping up across the country. In Denver, Colorado, Nadia Bolz-Webber started the House for all Sinners and Saints. In particular, she reaches out to the homosexuals, the transgender, the recovering addicts, and others whom the church usually rejects. She understands and shares God’s grace in beautiful ways. Grounded in Lutheran theology and liturgy, this congregation is completely traditional and untraditional at the same time.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Margaret Kelly started Shobi’s Table, a food truck ministry that caters to the poor and homeless. This food truck, run by volunteers most of whom were homeless, offers healthy free lunches to all who stop by. Then Kelly offers worship and Bible study for any who want to hang around. This ministry, supported by a grant from the ELCA, reaches people who might never step foot into a traditional congregation.

In Seattle, Washington, an established congregation, Gethsemane Lutheran Church, took a bold move of faith. They tore down their old building downtown and in its place built a homeless shelter. Their investment in their building serves the community, not just their congregation. 

These are just three examples of how congregations continues to adapt and reform the world around us. Yet congregations are only one part of the Lutheran church. As Bishop Eaton wrote, “We are a church together. There is no way that the churchwide organization or synod offices can be with the saints and be present in the communities where our churches are planted. The local congregation does that. But there is no way that the local congregation by itself can run camps, train leaders, engage in disaster response or accompany global companions. That is the work we do together as synods, agencies, colleges, seminaries and the churchwide organization.” (Lutheran, November 2013, p. 70)

One example of this is the ELCA Lutheran Disaster Response’s aid for Ebola relief in West Africa. Since the first case of Ebola arose in America, our media has completely neglected to cover the continued problems of Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Yet Lutheran Disaster Response has not forgotten the thousands who are dying. They have shared over $100,000 to help feed those in isolation and contain this epidemic. 

You certainly can read more stories like this in the Lutheran magazine, Stories of Faith and Action, Seeds for the Parish, and other publications of the ELCA, many of which are available in the Narthex.

We are Lutheran, and we continue to reform. Our church is forever changing, and I am the very proof of it. I was born the same year that the ELCA was formed. Some may consider this a drawback, yet I consider it a blessing. I do not know whose feelings were hurt when the churches merged. I do not know what traditions were lost. What happened before the merger is not in my living history, so I can move forward. To me, the ELCA is not a combination of older church bodies. To me, the ELCA is home. 

I can look to the future, hoping to help us together innovate and invigorate this church. You have already seen me create a Facebook page and weekly emails so that we have a presence on the internet. The passion for the love of God is still among us, even if it will look different in the years to come. I know that this church needs to continue reforming to remain alive, and I hope to guide you along the way.

Our Lutheran heritage began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. In the Town Church across the way, there is this altar. It was created by Lucas Cranach the Elder to capture the essence of the Reformation. Most important of all is the painting just above the altar. Here you see Martin Luther on the right standing in the pulpit preaching. The congregation is on the left, listening intently. In the center, the focus of all their attention, is Christ crucified. 

Christ is at the center. Luther is pointing to him. The congregation is focused on him. This is the message of the Reformation. Put Christ at the center of your lives. Embrace Christ’s death on the cross and the life that you experience because of it. Love God, and know that God loves you. Through Christ, and renewed by Luther, God has formed a covenant with us. God is always making us new. Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is God's?

Matthew 22:15-22, Lectionary 29 A, October 19, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Growing up, I cannot tell you how many times people told me that I look just like my father. At church, there were those quintessential old ladies who would pinch my cheek and say, “You are the spitting image of your father.” I may look like you, Dad, but I don’t know about being your “spitting image.”

Why is that phrase so popular? When people tell me that I look like my dad, aren't they implying that I look less like my mother? Or that I don’t look like my sister? I know these old ladies meant well, but I don’t know that I agree with them. I have genetic code from both of my parents, and my sister and I do look alike.

Never, throughout my years growing up in the Lutheran church, did an old lady pinch my cheek and say, “You are the spitting image of our God.” I was created in the image of God, and I bear God’s image just as much as I bear the image of my parents. This word, image, is used in today’s gospel when the Pharisees find the emperor’s likeness on a coin, but Jesus is implying something deeper.

In this lesson from Matthew, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. They ask if it is legal to pay taxes. They want Jesus to pick sides between the government and the church. Certainly if he choses one, then the other would make him an enemy. From the Pharisees’ perspective, this is the perfect way to destroy Jesus.

Instead, Jesus asks whose image is on their coin. Then he gives this famous proclamation, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Therefore, Jesus is implying that the coins belong to Caesar because they bear his image; a likeness of his face is carved into the coins.

Certainly we understand what Jesus means when he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” We must give taxes to the government and fulfill our duties as citizens. As Americans, we have the great opportunity to vote. And as Iowans, our votes this election can make a difference in our local and national government. In many ways, we do give back to our government what belongs to it. 

But when Jesus says, “Give to God what is God’s,” what does he mean? Whose image do we bear? Certainly we look like our parents and our siblings, but our parents release authority over us when we become adults and move out. God never does such a thing. We never move out of God’s house, because this whole world belongs to God. Even from the beginning, God created us in God’s image. 

This is more than just how we look; it also includes how we act and how we live. Because we bear the image of God, Jesus says that we are to give our whole selves to God - our whole body, our whole property, and our whole lives belong to God. Always. Jesus is calling us to serve God through all that we do, all that we give, and all that we are.

So, we bear God’s image in the words that we speak, in the work that we do, and the offerings that we share with the church. Our God loves us so much and gives us so many blessings, ten percent of our income seems such a small way to give back to God.

The season of stewardship is upon us. As we approach the Harvest Feast and a new pledge drive, we need to get a new set of questions. As you consider how much you will give this year and next, do not ask yourself: How much do I need to give so that the church’s bills get paid?
Do not ask: How much can I bear to give up at the end of the month?
Do not ask: What do my donations really do, anyway?

These are business-like questions, not faith-based questions. They are about what the church needs to survive, not how we can help the church thrive. As we consider our giving, our focus should not be on this church or on our own pockets. Instead, our offerings to our God should be based on God’s love for us. 

Instead of those business-like questions, ask yourself these faith-based questions: What percent of my income God is calling me to give?
Ask yourself: How can I return thanks to God for the many blessings in my life?
Ask: How is God calling me to use those blessings?

We may begrudgingly pay our taxes to the government because we have to, but we don’t have to have the same perspective on our tithes. Your giving to this church and your donations outside this church are completely dependent upon your faith. Jesus tells you to give to God what is God’s. 

You bear the image of God. Everything that you have, everything you do, and everything you are belong to God. To quote Harry Wendt, “No longer is the question, ‘How much of my money should I give to God?’ Now the question is, ‘How much of God’s money do I dare keep for myself?’” (Charles Lane, Ask Thank Tell, p. 29)

This is a powerful question, and I pray that you might find a powerful answer. God is calling us to do wonderful ministries through this church. Together, we can bear God's image in this world. Amen.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Golden Calf

Exodus 32:1-14, Lectionary 28 A, October 12, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

“Now, tell me again, who brought you out of the land of Egypt?” I feel like asking this multiple times during the first lesson. Everyone seems to have a different answer. 

The Israelites left Egypt only 18 chapters before in Exodus. They have been wandering in the wilderness for some time, yet they still have ages to go before the next generation enters the Holy Land. Even so, they are restless. They are tired of walking, tired of eating manna, tired of never settling down. The Israelites have lost focus of the big picture.

In Exodus chapter 20, Moses heads up Mount Sinai and receives the ten commandments, which we heard last week. Soon after, he heads down the mountain and shares these laws with the people. He writes them down so they won’t forget, even though they are not yet recorded on stone tablets. Most important of which are the first two commandments. Hear them from the New English Translation: 

1 God spoke all these words: 2 "I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 3 "You shall have no other gods before me. 4 "You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them. (Exodus 20:1-5a NET)

From the beginning, even within these commandments, God establishes His role and authority. God proclaims, “I have brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Not Moses. Not anybody else. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. These people clearly understand who their God is and what authority God has. When they receive the law, they say, “We are willing to do and obey all that the LORD has spoken." (Exodus 24:7b NET) They promise to follow all that the Lord has given them, yet they had no idea how hard obeying these laws would become.

Pretty soon after Moses finished writing down the ten commandments, he went back up the mountain. He simply told the Israelites to wait for him when he continued to receive laws and decrees from God. How long to wait, they didn’t know. An hour, a day, a week, a month?

The Israelites waited patiently for some time, yet after a month had come and gone at the foot of Mount Sinai, they got impatient. “Who is this God of the ten commandments,” they wondered, “and what has he done with Moses?”

Without their faithful leader, they turned to his brother Aaron, saying, “Moses brought us out of the land of Egypt; where is he now? Can’t you do anything for us? At the very least, make an image of God for us!” They were sick of following an invisible God, seemingly walking in circles around a barren wasteland. 

It didn’t take much nagging for Aaron to comply. He probably was sick of always standing in his little brother’s shadow. Like the others, he might have felt restless at the base of the mountain. 

“Ok,” Aaron said, “You want an image of your God to worship; I’ll make you one! Give me your gold.” He carefully melted and molded all the Israelites’ gold into the only symbol of power that he knew - that of a cow.

Aaron didn’t want a pagan god to envelope this idol. Instead, Aaron hoped that this golden calf could be a place for the God of Israel to dwell. Aaron may not have realized that he was breaking the second commandment. 

Seeing this golden calf, the Israelites proclaimed, “This is what brought us out of the land of Egypt!” If they thought that their God was present in this golden cow, then they were terribly mistaken. They didn’t realize how far they had strayed in so little time. 

Aaron decided that if they were going to do this, they were going to do it right. He set up an altar and made sacrifices to the Lord, assuming that the Lord was present in that statue. He used the standard language and procedure to offer legitimate sacrifices. The people of Israel were so happy with this that they partied the entire next day. They no longer worried about Moses or what was happening on the mountain. Yet maybe they should have.

Seeing the golden calf and their worship of it, God burned hot with rage. God was ready to end it all right then. Moses calmed God down, yet when he saw what they had done, then it was Moses’ turn to burn hot with rage.

Moses descended the mountain with the two tablets written by God. When Moses saw the golden calf and the Israelites dancing around it, he was furious. In a rage, he threw down the tablets so hard that they broke into pieces. Moses then burned the gold into ash and dissolved it into their water supply. Moses made all the Israelites drink the remains of their cow idol. They would not be able to recover any of that precious gold.

Still furious, Moses had the worst offenders killed. He could not allow such disobedience among his people. Then Moses went back up the mountain and pleaded that the Lord be lenient. The Lord would not do so. Their punishment was not over yet, but they would live for now. 

Everything that the Lord said to Moses during those forty days and forty nights is recorded in 8 chapters of Exodus. The Israelites didn’t know it yet, but the Lord described in great detail to Moses what the ark of the covenant would be. The Lord told Moses how to build it, only using the finest wood and the purest gold. It would have cherubim on top, spreading their wings over the seat of the Lord. This item would eventually hold the ten commandments on stone tablets. This ark of the covenant would be a holy place for the Lord to dwell among the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness.

You see, the Lord was ok dwelling in a gold vessel, yet there was a big difference between the golden calf and the ark of the covenant. The golden calf was an idol, plain and simple. The Israelites couldn’t handle worshipping an invisible God, so they created what they thought was an image of God. However, they got it wrong, terribly wrong. 

In the second commandment, God essentially says, “I am bigger than anything you can imagine.  So, don’t make anything that you think looks like me.  You will get it wrong.” (Carolyn Brown) God does not look like a cow. God does not look like an old man. God does not look like anything we know because our God is an invisible God. 

Alternately, the ark of the covenant never intended to look like the Lord. The ark is carefully designed and created to be a holy space in which the Lord can - but is not obligated to - dwell. The ark of the covenant is made on the Lord’s terms using the Lord’s specifications.

If only the Israelites had been patient, they would have discovered that the Lord carefully considered their needs and desires. The Lord was willing and able to dwell among them, yet the Lord would only do so in a holy space. Sometimes we also get it wrong. Our idols don’t look like gold calves anymore, yet we still make idols all the time. If we are patient, we might find the Lord among us, not in idols but in the holy places and people in our lives. Amen.

Spiritual Resumes and Rubbish

Philippians 3:4b-14, Lectionary 27 A, October 5, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

If you had to make a “spiritual resume,” what would you include? Maybe the date that you were born, baptized, and confirmed? You might include how long you have been a member of this church and what committees and task forces you have served on. You also might include in a spiritual resume how you are living out your vocation through your job, your hobbies, and your friendships. 

Maybe you would even include how you are passing on your faith to the next generation.
In our second lesson today, Paul provides his own spiritual resume. He was, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (NRSV)

So, Paul was born into the right group. His parents raised him to be a good Jew. He chose to work for the church. He followed all the laws. He looked like the perfect Jew. For his time, he had a pretty impressive spiritual resume. But he wasn’t using this list of achievements to boast. Instead, he says, 

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” 

In his way, Paul is saying that his spiritual resume is meaningless because all that matters is Jesus Christ. Or, as Carolyn Brown writes, “Paul says his impressive life resume isn’t worth poop when compared to God’s love for him.” Jesus loves Paul. That is what matters. 

When you read Philippians, is that what you discover? An intelligent man once told me after worship, “I love the Bible. I read it everyday. But the Psalms and the Epistles? I can’t understand them.” So, he never tried to. Can you relate? Do you ever truly understand Paul’s letters? Maybe. Maybe not.

There are tidbits of these letters that we know and love. Yet overall, Paul’s writing is often too dense for most of us. Even the class in seminary about Paul’s letters didn’t help. Although the professor revealed many great truths to me in that class, he also made everything more complicated and technical. You may not care whether a letter is judicial, deliberative, or epideictic, but my professor certainly did!

The conference that I attended this past week brought Paul alive for me. They used the letter to the Philippians as their focus. Paul may occasionally use dense language, yet in this book, his care for the Philippians comes alive. 

At the time of this letter, Paul is under house arrest in Rome, the prison of that day. He has already met the Philippians and worked with them to form the church at Philippi. This group of house churches has responded with more care for the larger church through financial offerings and other gifts. 

Paul is so kind to the Philippians he shares many words of gratitude and is constantly talking about his joy in the Lord. He didn’t just send a paper copy of his letter to them, though. He sent Timothy and Epaphroditus with the letter. The two of them gathered all of the house churches in Philippi together for a special event. Then, with everyone in one room, Epaphroditus performed the letter for them.

The Philippians already knew this man and were fond of him. When they heard that Epaphroditus was gravely ill, they sent word of their concern to Paul. So, seeing Epaphroditus before them was their first joy. Then to hear Paul’s careful words was their second joy. Yet the only true joy that matters is the joy they have in the Lord. 

This joy in the Lord is a joy that endures suffering. It is like a mother who cares for her baby even when he won’t stop crying. Joy in the Lord is like a son who regularly visits his mother even though she doesn’t know who he is anymore. It is like standing up for a cause even if you make enemies in the process. Joy in the Lord is like spending your time under house arrest sharing the gospel with your jailers. 

This joy is what Paul expresses throughout his letter to the Philippians. In the four short chapters of Philippians, Paul uses “joy” or “rejoice” fourteen times! Even though he does not use this in our lesson for today, this joy penetrates this passage. In this lesson, we hear from Paul how he fits into the larger picture.

Paul embodies this when he wrote the hymn in chapter 2: 
8 Christ was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—
    his death on the cross.
9 For this reason God raised him to the highest place above
    and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.
10 And so, in honor of the name of Jesus
    all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below[b]
    will fall on their knees,
11 and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Good News Bible)

This Christ hymn is the center of the letter and the center of the good news. With this as our focus, we can see how Paul’s spiritual resume means nothing in the end because Christ means everything. If you consider Paul’s credentials, he seems to have done everything right. He was born into a Jewish family and circumcised on the eighth day. He became a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church. He was blameless before the law.

Like Paul, I seem to have a pretty good spiritual resume. I was baptized as an infant and raised in the Lutheran Church. As early as high school, I decided to be a pastor. I carefully studied the Bible and my faith while rarely making any serious errors. But does Jesus care? No! At the end, my spiritual resume is rubbish just as much as Paul’s is. 

Sometimes caring so much about the details of faith blocks us from seeing the truth. We can step back and say, “None of this matters. Nothing matters except Jesus.” Now, even to Christians, Paul’s circumcision and his previous life as a Jew do not matter. What matters is that he knows Jesus. He knows that Jesus died for him and the world. His faith in Christ is all that matters. 

And so with us. Jesus does not care whether we are baptized as infants or as adults. Jesus doesn’t care whether we perfectly follow the law or not. Jesus cares that we are his. Christ has chosen us, given his life for us, so that our spiritual resumes do not matter. Thanks be to God! Amen.