Sunday, February 24, 2013
The Good Life
Lent 2 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
February 24, 2013
Luke 13.1-9, 31-35
It was a horrific event, several innocent people attacked and slaughtered in a senseless fashion. The community was shocked by the brutality of it all and the utter disregard for human life. Reeling from the dreadfulness of the experience, they gathered as communities of faith asking why and how this could happen. The forgoing describes the scene in our reading today, but unfortunately it can also describe many others. Where did your imagination go? Newtown? The World Trade Center? Oklahoma City? Columbine? Human history does not lack for irrational acts of brutality or for our attempts to make sense of them.
We don’t know the particular events that are referred to in our reading from Luke 13 today. In a sense, we don’t have to because the point is that people of all ages struggle with pointless acts. The only difference is in the nature of our questions. You and I want an explanation for how a loving God can allow these things to happen or what we can do to prevent them from happening. The people of Jesus’ time want to know who sinned to deserve God’s punishment and, reading between the lines, they hope and pray that they aren’t nearly as bad and therefore will avoid God’s wrath.
So, imagine their shock (and ours) when Jesus tells them to repent or “perish just as they did.” Then he stretches their imagination with a story about a fruitless fruit tree given one last chance to produce, or else. To make sense of what Jesus is saying, it is helpful to remind ourselves that Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the cross in the fulfillment of God’s mission to reconcile all of creation to him. Jesus is preparing his disciples and the people who have gathered around him in the ways of faith. It is also helpful to remember that the word repent means to turn around and go the other way. Furthermore, though the way faith is not irrational, it is not as much about explanations as it is about a way of life.
As a pastor I have had the responsibility of walking with many people on their journeys of faith. An overwhelming number of those travels have been joyous: births, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries, and Confirmations to name a few. Yet, a significant number have been painful: a mother being crippled by a drunk driver; a son murdered by his wife and her lover; a daughter drowning in a pool; a cancer diagnosis; an infant dying suddenly; Alzheimer’s disease. In the midst of these events I have learned what Jesus is trying to teach his disciples, that explanations aren’t as important how we respond, and that a good response is to remember how quickly life can change. Many times after walking with people through these times, I go home and kiss my wife a little longer and hug my daughters a little harder.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to ignore the hurt and brokenness in the world because we are to be workers with him against the injustices in our society and standing with the marginalized. But there is also a place for us to step back and realize that life can change any moment, to reflect on where in our lives that the branches are barren of the fruit God wishes to produce in us. Or, to switch up the metaphor at the end of our reading, to examine our lives for those ways we have resisted God’s call to love God and neighbor and return to be gathered into God’s loving embrace.
This reflection on our lives in Christ and our acceptance of God’s invitation is life-long, but it is particularly important during Lent. How might we respond? In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Perhaps this Lent you can choose one of these fruits that need some manure added to it. I could use some help on any number of them, but I think I’m going to ask God to ask me to work on my self-control. I can react rather than respond sometimes and I’d like to have God work through me rather than be reactive. How about you? Where is God inviting you into the life he wishes for you? Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. There is no explanation for that, only gratitude. Amen.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
When Christians Are Unchristian
Rev. Mary Iverson, Epiphany, Eagle Lake, MN
February 20, 2013
Matthew 23:1-3, 8-15 (The Message)
Six neighboring Lutheran Churches are joining together to ask a hard question of ourselves. What are Christians doing wrong? I’m certain that we have no choice but to ask this because we are at a crisis point in the history of Christianity. Year after year, it seems like there are times in the life of Christians when they gravitate away from the church. It’s a pattern that has been seen in many generations, when many young people drift away from the church. So often the majority of young people would make their way back to the church when there was a wedding or when they had children to be baptized or in need of Sunday School. While that was the pattern, the “drifting back to the church” hasn’t been happening for a large segment, as was once common. When the young people reach their mid-30s, they are not coming back. Numbers are down in every single Christian denomination. This doesn’t just affect worship attendance or membership numbers. It is shifting our entire culture because where we were once a Christian culture, we are becoming a secular society.
This shift is getting the attention of churches and church leaders. Studies are being done and books are being written because we are losing a generation.
It is important to note that this younger generation isn’t rejecting Jesus. They are rejecting organized religion. And at least part of the reason they aren’t coming back to church is because they see in organized religions and in people who call themselves Christians a huge disconnect, as compared to what they know about Jesus and living a life of faith. Quite frankly, they do not see the light of Jesus shining in and through us and think that church-goers act in UNCHRISTIAN WAYS.
I want to say this one more time: many of these people who aren’t coming to church have a faith in Jesus. And not only that, they want to help make the world a better place to live. But they are rejecting the church largely because of the ways that people inside of the church act.
First, a story. On January 25, Pastor Alice Bell and nine members of her Missouri congregation went out to eat at Applebee’s after worship. Most restaurants assign the tip for the wait staff when it is a large table and Pastor Alice apparently had an issue with this. When the restaurant tab arrived, she completely crossed the tip off the receipt and wrote a note to the waiter, asking why the waiter’s tip should be more than she gives in her tithe to God. And then the Pastor wrote PASTOR along with her name. I don’t think that God wants us to use our offering as an avenue to argue about a tip. More than that, I think this whole incident represents what the younger generations sees in us…they see us calling ourselves Christians and not acting like it. The St. Louis Applebee’s waiter showed the receipt with the Pastor’s snide remark to one of her co-workers, who took a photo of it with her cell phone and posted it on the internet. And by the end of the week, it had been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people as it went viral.
Numerous comments were posted along with photos of the receipt – some from waiters saying that they can’t stand working on Sundays because so many church people go out to eat after worship and that we are least generous people they see all week long. The pastor complained that the receipt was posted online and the person who posted it got fired and even more comments were shared about Christians – because this pastor did represent the Christian faith when she did something like that. One person posted: If you are going to represent Christ, act like Christ. Others called her a hypocrite. We church goers are often viewed by outsiders as people who go to church and learn about Jesus but when they walk out of the doors of those churches, and don’t act like the Jesus we claim to love and serve.
A recent study by George Barna asked people aged 35 and under to provide positive and negative adjectives of Christians. 85 percent of people who consider themselves OUTSIDERS (living outside of the church) – 85 percent described us as HYPOCRITES and that is one of the reasons they stay away.
Hypocrite is a word that is included in the Bible. It from a Greek word that means ACTOR. He used this word thirteen times to describe someone who is two faced and phony and doesn’t live out their faith but pretending.
Jesus reserved his harshest words for religious folks, like us. Jesus was frustrated that the church leaders were caught up in judging and tearing people down rather than lifting them up to God.
And today’s Christian Church has followed that same pattern. And it is one of the ways we are UNCHRISTIAN and one of the reasons people are leaving the church in record numbers. As the old saying goes, we in churches too often MAJOR IN MINORS. We worry about whether people are wearing the right clothes to worship or if the piano is being played correctly and miss God’s call to act justly. We fight about minor points in the Bible or complain about whether the coffee is strong enough or if the lawn is being mowed often enough and we forget about feeding the hungry and comforting the hurting and caring for the sick. We are sucked into the minutia and it is unchristian when we have that be the focus of a church.
Preacher Tony Campolo was meeting with religious insiders and shared this quote . He was talking about this issue of the church today. Tony said: “there are three things I would like to say today. (One): While you were sleeping last night, thirty thousand children died of starvation or diseases caused by malnutrition. Second, Most of you don’t give a DAMN about it. What is worse, is that most of you are more concerned that I swore and not that thirty thousand children died last night!”
And if I quoted Tony Campolo as you actually said it (stronger word), you would have gone home and said, “I can’t believe that the pastor from Eagle Lake swore from the pulpit.” Why? Because Christians get all fired up about little things like language. But if we let people starve, oh well. Those priorities that we have as Christians inside of churches is why younger people are leaving the Christian Church in record numbers. Those outsiders think that we have our priorities all screwed up when we worry more about language or what we wear or fighting about what music is being played when people are starving and our world is in need.
That is the impression that the younger generation has. That we get so bent up about little things and don’t seem to care about the bigger issues, like hunger and starvation and homelessness and treating people with justice. And they call that UNCHRISTIAN and think, therefore, that we are hypocrites who have a huge disconnect between God’s message and the way we act.
In Galatians, Paul writes about who we are as Christians. He uses the image of putting on clothing to help us be more Christ-like. We are challenged to take off all that hypocritical, church in fighting that we do and clothe ourselves in a manner that would make us be authentic. That is who God calls us to be.
We little choice about how we begin and end life, but we do have choices about everything in between. “As God’s chosen ones, clothe yourselves with compassion (instead of judgmentalism), kindness (instead of back stabbing), humility (instead of puffed up pride), meekness and patience. Bear with one another and if any has a complaint against another, forgive, just as Christ forgives us. Above all, clothe yourselves with love. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”
We have a chance to from wrong to right. What would it look like if we treated each other with Christ-like love? Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
He Loves to Tell a Story
Lent 1 (NL3)
February 17, 2013
Cindy and I don’t go to the movie theater very often, but we happened to see three recently within about a month and a half. One of them was Lincoln, which focuses on the last year or so of Lincoln’s presidency as he worked to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. I learned many things about Lincoln, one of which was that he was an incurable storyteller. There is a delightful scene where, during a tense time Lincoln was clearly winding up to tell a story. Before he can do so, one of his officials exclaims, “Oh no, he’s going to tell another story” and bolts from the room. Undaunted, Lincoln launches into a story that expresses his thoughts both poignantly and pointedly.
This Lent we are walking with Jesus, his disciples, and a cast of characters on his way to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus is going to prepare us for what it means to be his followers, a people of the cross. In most of the readings between now and his crucifixion, death, and resurrection he tells stories. Jesus knew what Lincoln and others have known: stories are powerful because they open up our imaginations. That’s one reason why we have been using the Narrative Lectionary since last September. We are able to read the great stories of the Bible in their proper context as part of God’s greater story.
Today’s reading is a good example: not only are we able to read the stories of the lawyer and the Samaritan and Martha and Mary as part of Jesus’ teaching, we get to read them together. Normally, we would read these two separately and in the middle of summer. However, read together in Lent they take on a much different character. Not only do we see that being a follower of Jesus means balancing doing and being and listening, we are able to imagine different ways of thinking about the characters in the story Jesus tells. That’s important, because we are so familiar with the so-called Good Samaritan, we might be tempted to run from the church screaming, “Oh no, he’s going to tell that story again!”
I had a similar reaction when I saw the text for this week, but reading it in light of Lent and our journey to the cross has opened me up to some different ways of thinking about what Jesus is saying. First of all, as we did on Ash Wednesday, we have to acknowledge that when Jesus gets to the point in his story where the Samaritan enters the scene his audience would have been shocked. The feelings between Jews and Samaritans were just as intense as between Jews and Palestinians, except that neither the Jews nor the Samaritans had missiles. That gives us a clue that there is a lot more going on in this text than simply, “Do good to others.”
Second, one way we can stretch our imaginations in this story is “try on” different characters. I found myself wondering what it would be like to be the man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Because Jesus is on the way to the cross, one ancient interpretation of the text identifies Jesus as the man who was beaten, just as he will be in Jerusalem. Another interpretation identifies Jesus as the Samaritan who comes along and “saves” those of us who are in the ditch, beaten and half-dead because of sin. However, I’d like to invite you into imagining what it would mean for us to be that person in the ditch, the one in need of a neighbor.
I think one of the hardest things for me to do is to admit when I need help and then accept it when it’s offered. I don’t think I’m alone. Even those times when I’m beaten up, stripped, and half-dead I’ll just suck it up and handle it myself. I’m trying to be better. Two winters ago, I returned from Winona having to shovel 6-10” of snow. However, I also needed to pay a visit to someone in a nursing home that I knew was actively dying. A neighbor offered to help with his snow blower, but I wasn’t about accept help; I could do it myself. Yet, a few minutes later I changed my mind because I was tired and knew I had a lot to do. With his help, we were done in less than a half hour and I was on my way. I made it to the nursing home just a few minutes before the person died and was able to share that time with the family.
I wish I could tell you that I have gotten over my pride and difficulty receiving neighborly help. For every time that I have accepted help I can name many more that I have not. Hearing Jesus’ story about the Samaritan and the half-dead man in the context of Lent helps me get over myself. Though it may be hard, this Lent I’ll try not to run from the room screaming when Jesus tells a story because I know it’s something I need to hear and enter into. What about you? Where do you find yourself in this story today? How is Jesus stretching you? Jesus is calling us to walk the way of the cross, a way that ironically leads to life. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Relating to People of Other Faiths
Ash Wednesday (NL3)
February 13, 2013
“Are you born again,” she said, and I cringed, fearing what was about to come next. “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” was the most likely follow-up, and there it came. I had encountered “gunslinger evangelism” before, “Christians” who seemed to care about where I was going to spend their vision of eternity and were prepared to shoot holes in any resistance I might have to offer. I appreciated her passion and her willingness to share Christ with me, but I cringed because I sensed that she didn’t really care where I was on my faith journey. She only wished to put another notch on her Jesus belt because I was just another conquest, another person who believed as she did. I also sensed that if I didn’t come around, she’d shake the dust from her feet and leave me to burn, saying that at least she wasn’t going to be to blame for my eternal damnation.
It seems as that kind of attitude toward people of differing beliefs was one held by Jesus’ disciples James and John. From their point of view, Samaritans were Jews who weren’t really Jews, and therefore repulsive. Frankly, the Samaritans thought the same thing, and there were some pretty intense conflicts. It’s important that we understand how much Jews and Samaritans hated each other. They make the division between Democrats and Republicans look like a small difference of opinion. So, when a particular Samaritan village does not extend a welcome to Jesus, his disciples react with an over-the-top solution: they want to impose their version on judgment and damnation
Fortunately, a cooler head prevails. Jesus rebukes his disciples and they continue their journey to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this attitude of the disciples persists and not just between Jews or Christians; it happens between people of other faiths. In fact, we need to acknowledge that most of Christian history is filled with Christians persecuting people of other faiths. There have been forced conversions, mass killings, and acts too horrific to mention. The fact that people of other faiths have done the same is irrelevant. We have to admit that, in the course of trying to “get it right” we have gotten it wrong, often terribly wrong. As Mahatma Gandhi has famously said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
This Lenten season, beginning with today, Ash Wednesday, we are going to explore the topic, “When Christians Get It Wrong,” based on the book by Adam Hamilton. It’s a provocative title and we use it intentionally. We are doing so because when people, especially young adults, talk about problems they have with Christianity and the church, they name attitudes and behaviors practiced by Christians, including condemning people of other faiths. This may seem like an odd topic for Ash Wednesday, but I think a good share of today as well as this season means coming clean about how we get it wrong and reflect on ways to get it “right”
First, getting it right doesn’t mean abandoning our deeply held and cherished beliefs. Nor does getting it right mean having to say that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. Our experience of Nazi Germany and Hitler disabused us of that notion. Getting it right respects the fact that the bulk of the scripture stands witness to the fact that God loves the whole world and that Jesus’ mission was not to condemn the world, but to save it. Second, we are to realize that where someone spends eternity is not our concern, nor is it even and important question. It is God’s concern. Our concern is simply to share our faith in Christ with others.
Third, it’s important that, before we share our faith with the Other, we listen carefully and thoughtfully to their faith stories, looking where we see God working in their life. People of other faiths are as much child of God as we are. When we do so, I think it will be like learning a foreign language. I learned far more about English when I studied French and Greek than I ever did in an English class. The same is true for other faiths. By listening and learning we’ll discover more about what it means for us to live and authentic Christian life.
By the way, we must do this sincerely and not pretending to be interested in order to contradict what the Other says. About a year ago I was contacted by a young man who was attending a conservative Christian college. Apparently they did not teach trinitarian theology, about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he said he wanted to know more about it. However, after about a half hour of his debate and rebuttal of everything I was sharing, I finally called him out and told him that I wasn’t interested in a debate. He had expressed interest and I was trying to accommodate. In other words, he didn’t really want to understand; he wanted to be able to prove he was right and I was wrong.
Finally, as followers of Jesus we are to walk the way of the cross, setting our faces toward Jerusalem as he and those first disciples did. Our call to follow Jesus means serving others as signs of God’s self-giving love to the world. In other words, preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words. God be with on your journey this Lent as you follow Jesus, trusting him to help you “get it right” as we related to people of other faiths. Amen
Sunday, February 10, 2013
How Good, Lord, You Are Here
Transfiguration of Our Lord (NL3)
February 10, 2013
Last week I mentioned that Cindy and I saw the movie, Les Miserables, based on the book by Victor Hugo. Set during the French Revolution, it is a story of grace, transformation and redemption. I also mentioned that it was a very powerful movie with a stirring ending. What I didn’t say is that I was so moved by what I experienced I left the movie virtually speechless. About the only thing I could say was, “Wow,” and it was a muted one at that. There have not been many times in my life that I have had this kind of experience. Participating in the birth of our daughters was probably the most profound. And there have been times when I have been awed by the beauty of creation, such as seeing the Badlands in South Dakota and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
So, I wonder if this is how Peter, John, and James felt as they came down the mountain with Jesus. They went up on the mountain with Jesus to pray and were stunned when Jesus was transfigured before them, somehow recognizing two of the most revered Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah. However, Peter being Peter and not knowing what to say, says it anyway. He offers to build three tents, presumably to prolong the experience. Yet, even Peter is rendered speechless as a cloud settles over them and a voice from heaven commands that Jesus is the Chosen One of God, the one to be listened to.
I’ve mentioned before that I left the church after Confirmation, entering my agnostic phase where I doubted the existence of God. However, in May of 1978 after being invited back to church and much soul searching, I rededicated my life to Christ, believing the answers to my questions would be found in the church, not outside of it. One of the reasons I remember it so vividly was that after I did this, nothing happened! There was no choir of angels singing and surely no voice from heaven declaring me to be chosen or beloved. In fact, I can say that I have not had the same reaction of Peter, John, and James very often in my life, to be overwhelmed by God’s presence. I have not had anything close to what other Christians describe as a mountaintop experience.
Whenever I hear about other people’s mountaintop experiences of God, a sadness and wistfulness settles over me. I wonder if I’m a defective Christian or if God just ignores me. I don’t think this is helped by those Christian groups that place a huge emphasis on experiences in the life of faith. When I was in the business world, I had an employee, Rick, who was a member of a Pentecostal church that emphasized speaking in other tongues as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Rick would imply that I was not really a Christian because I hadn’t received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
We had some interesting conversations because I knew enough about God’s grace to not buy into the necessity of what he claimed I needed to experience. I appreciated Rick’s passion, but I have come to realize that God works in many ways in our lives, more often quietly than not. God is not always in the storm or the wind or the lighting, but often in the sound of sheer silence or still, small voice, as it says in 2 Kings. In fact, one of my most profound experiences of God’s presence was hearing, but not hearing, this voice at an ordination service “saying” to me, “You need to be doing that,” meaning that I should become a pastor. And several years later, I was blown away by an aunt who, out of the blue, offered to help subsidize seminary for me and my family should I do so. More importantly, I have experienced God in, with, and through you, the Body of Christ in quiet, but deeply profound ways.
I think the most important part of our scripture today is not Jesus’ transfiguration, nor is it the healing of the demon-possessed boy, nor Jesus’ “passion prediction,” as important as these things are. The most important part is not even the speechlessness of Peter, James, and John. I think the most important thing is God’s command to us that we are to listen to his Son, Jesus. Listening involves stopping our mouths along with the rest of ourselves and to pay attention to what God is up to in our world. Hearing Jesus’ voice will be especially important as we come down the mountain and join with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, because he will ask us to leave behind our ideas about what it means to follow him. For Jesus is the Chosen of God; listen to him. Amen.
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Epiphany 4 (NL3)
February 3, 2013
Cindy and I recently saw the movie, Les Miserables, based on the book by Victor Hugo. It was a powerful and moving experience. Set during the French Revolution, the story revolves around Jean Valjean who, as the movie opens is in a brutal French prison for having stolen a loaf of bread. His absurd four-year sentence was stretched to 19 because of repeated escape attempts. When he is released on parole, he’s unable to find work. The only welcome he finds is in a cathedral, where the bishop feeds him and gives him a warm bed. Valjean betrays the bishop’s kindness by stealing the church’s silver, only to be caught, beaten, and hauled back to the church for his reckoning.
In a startling turn of events, the bishop tells the police that the silver was a gift to Valjean, asking Valjean why he forgot the priceless candlesticks as well. After the police leave the bishop tells Valjean that God has set him aside for a purpose. I won’t spoil the rest of the movie, but I will tell you that, freed from the burden of his past, Valjean is a changed man who changes the lives of others. This is not easy for him, because his old prison guard and nemesis, Javert, refuses to release him from his old way of life as the bishop did.
I think that our scripture reading from Luke 7 is an equally moving and powerful story of forgiveness. I don’t know that Hugo had this in mind as he wrote Les Miserables, but there are certainly similarities. We are told that an unnamed woman had “many sins,” but we are not told what they were. Nowhere does Jesus deny her sins, but claims that she, like Valjean, no longer suffers from their burden. The woman, as Valjean, is freed to live a new life, a freedom and release she expresses lavishly in tears and costly ointment. The fact is that forgiveness changes who we are and it changes who we believe God to be. There is an old Jewish folk tale claiming that before God created the world, God forgave it. It expresses the important truth that forgiveness is vital to all creation.
However, this story would be not much more than a Hallmark Movie Channel offering if it weren’t for the woman’s outpouring of gratitude and the response of the religious leader, Simon. The woman’s behavior with Jesus was scandalous, a modern equivalent might be a lap dance given to a priest. Simon is outraged that Jesus allows such behavior, condemning the woman’s behavior and Jesus for allowing it. Yet, the real scandal is that God’s forgiveness is poured out so freely and abundantly on anyone and everyone. Like Javert, Simon cannot let go of the past and cannot believe that God has done so, either.
I seem to recall from a Literature class many years ago that the American novel is unique in that it tends to be open-ended rather than being complete stories. We are often left hanging, wondering what happens after the final page. Though there is some aspect of Les Miserables that is left open, we do know how the French Revolution unfolds and we are given a wonderful vision of the future at the end. Of course, regarding the biblical story, we do know what happens to Jesus, and that even the darkest powers that stand against him and us will not prevail. Plus, we are also given a wonderful vision of the future. But, what about Simon; does he finally “get it” at some point? We know that there were Pharisees who came to believe in Jesus and the good news of God’s love and mercy for all. Was Simon one of them? And what about the Unnamed Woman, is her life really transformed in some meaningful way? We are not told about either.
Great stories like Les Miserables and today’s reading from Luke are not only great because they have a good story and characters, but because they touch something deep within us. Yet, they are also great because they draw us into their worlds and open us up to hear important truths in ways we might not otherwise. We are invited today to think about what our own futures might be like lived out through the amazing abundance and blessing of God’s love and forgiveness that sets us free. Forgiveness is constantly needed because we are an imperfect people in an imperfect world; we are a people on the way. If there is nothing else that we can offer each other and our world it is this, hope through God’s abundant grace and mercy. Go in peace, loving greatly; you have been forgiven. Amen.