Monday, May 15, 2017

God Is Calling You Home

young people share in communion together at Affirm 2016 in the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA

John 14:1-14

I know that I must have heard this text a dozen times in my life just by following the lectionary.  But I imagine it’s actually more than that because this text is often read at funerals.  And rightly so, it is a source of tremendous comfort to know that our God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has walked this world, endured our sufferings, and according to this and other biblical translations, has gone on before us to “prepare a place”.  

We've even written songs inspired by it.  Think about "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (and I always hear the version popularized by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).  "by and by, Lord, by and by.  There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky."

The danger in relying only on that kind of interpretation, I think, is that it allows us to believe that since God’s grace is free, we don’t need to do anything else in this world.  We don’t have to worry about our actions or feel too bad about the times we hurt others, because, well, grace is free, and we're already saved, and there’s nothing we can do about that. 

On the other hand, we can be tempted to look at others who are suffering and say, “well, poor lamb.  Things will be better when you are living with Jesus.” And then we choose to look away, to leave those folks to their fate, trusting that things will be better for them when they are dead and that that’s okay.  That it’s all part of God’s plan.

We can become lazy Christians.

But being a Christian is about following and emulating Jesus, and if there is anything we know for sure about Jesus, it is that he was certainly not lazy.  If anyone was free from the risk of eternal hellfire and damnation, if anyone was entitled to sit back and watch the world turn around him, it was that guy.  (God made flesh does not need to work for God’s own grace, for forgiveness, for life eternal with God.). 

Yet Jesus showed up time and again to accompany those the world cast out:  the broken, the wounded, the unclean…those living on the margins of society.  and, it turns out, there are lots of margins.  Jesus gave of himself, his time, his food, his energy, his absolute unconditional love, to soften the lives of those whose lives were hard and to open the hearts of those whose hearts were hard.  Jesus who gave and who gives his life that we might be healed…back into relationship with God and with one another.

Wednesday evening, I attended (rather than led…Becca and I let Pastor Steve be in charge this time.  haha!) Bible Study here.  This group meets each Wednesday during the school year at 7pm, and you are all welcome and encouraged to attend…after all, the more voices in the room, the more complete an understanding we have of how the Word continues to live among us and to speak to us.

Anyway, as we studied the gospel lesson for today, we focused on what kind of place Jesus is preparing and the concept of home.  Our group was a pretty small one all things considered, but we had a wide variety of answers to the question “what does home mean to you?”

Some of us named a particular place.  Some of us named particular people.  One of us even named a dog from college days.  (if you’d like to know who that crazy person was, come to my office after worship.  I’ll show you a picture of Elliot and tell you all about him.). Some of us didn't really have words to express home.  Some of us have never really felt "home".

But as I participated in the conversation and listened to the wide variety of experiences in that small group, I reflected on still more experiences being lived by others in my circle.  I have been saying for years that FaceBook is the Prayers of the People.  As I scrolled through my feed this week, I observed the joy and the pain that comes from being human and from the struggle of living in relationship with one another.  I observed brokenness and healing.  I observed building and destruction and restructure.  

Some of us have intact families of origin.  Some of us experienced the divorce (or even plural…divorces) of our parents.  Some of us are desperately in love with our spouses.  Some of us are desperately in love with our children.  Some of us have lost a parent or a child.  Some of us are in the process of ending relationship…with a parent, with a sibling, with a member of our family by choice…with a spouse.  Some of us are queer and struggle with if or how we can have children.  Some of us are not queer and struggle with the same thing.  Some of us really miss our moms this time of year. Some of us don’t yet have the words to talk about what our hearts are feeling.  Many of us are living life on the margins.


Some of us are joyful and dwelling in hope for the future.

Some of us are devastated and grieving the past or the right now.  

Most of us are both.

All of us are searching.

As Maya Angelou said, "the ache for home lives in all of us."


So, I’m wondering, what does home mean to you?  If Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, what does that mean to you given your current understanding of home?

We’re going to get a little vulnerable with one another, my people.  If you feel safe, you may share where you are emotionally.  But you certainly don't have to share more than that with which you feel comfortable.  And, as always, if you’d like to talk with a pastor afterward, I am absolutely available, and I know that Pastor Steve is, too.

Take a minute and turn to your neighbor.  In groups of two or three, talk about what home means to you and what you think Jesus means when he says “I go to prepare a place for you”. 

Did you learn something new about your neighbor?  Did you learn something new about yourself?  Did you learn something new about God?

Here’s what I am thinking about those questions today (show up on Sunday and you may get a whole ‘nother answer…but for today…)  

I think when Jesus says he will prepare a place for us, he doesn't mean some gilded mansion in the clouds or something to happen only when we die.  I think Jesus means that we are and that we will be with him and live in relationship with him and with Creator and with Spirit.  I think this idea of creating a place for us in the Father’s house is about being bound up into the Trinity here and now rather than simply something that will happen to us one day.

I think the idea of “home” is more about relationship…between humans and  between humanity and Creation and also between humans and our God.

And how do we find home?  The disciples ask for directions, but Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  Which is a promise that for we who are disciples, Jesus is all we need to find our way home.  Not that we need to "fix" or covert those who believe differently or that we have the only answer, but that Jesus is all we Christians need to be in relationship with our neighbors and our God. 

Jesus who is in our suffering.  Who is in the lives of our neighbors.  Who loves and beloves each and every one of us.  In this congregation and out in the world. Who gave and who gives his very life that we might live.  Who says, “this is my body and my blood given for you”. 

Hear the Good News.  You are freed, forgiven, and loved beyond measure.  God is calling you home…into relationship with the One who made you.  From that place of home, we invite others, we invite everyone, home, to the Table, and into relationship with God.  A place has been prepared.  We are invited.  Y’all come.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Have You Heard the Good News?

Matthew 28:1-10
A Sermon for the people
Of Abiding Presence
April 16, 2017

In the early 90’s, I was fortunate enough to attend an ELCA Global Mission Event.  Several thousand Lutherans gathered in Atlanta for a few days to hear about the kinds of work our denomination was doing to participate in God’s mission across the globe.  The keynote speaker that year was a woman named Mudzunga Farisani.  She was beautiful.  The kind of woman who could walk into a room and command it with only her presence.  She was from South Africa and had escaped, just barely, with her life.  She and her family had been detained and tortured more than once by the government because of her (and her husband’s) refusal to accept the evil of Apartheid.  As she spoke, we heard the pain and suffering of that time in her life.  It was palpable.  We could see the rooms she described.  We could feel some of the suffering she felt in her body as she hid from the police. She was so good at her descriptions, we could almost hear the voices of those who came for her and for her family with the intent to harm.  We were so wrapped up in her story that some folks were weeping as they imagined the scenes that Mrs. Farisani described.  Others of us were terrified, but all of us were riveted to what she was saying.  We were absorbed in her story.  We were feeling her sorrow.  We were feeling her fear.  And she told us how her absolute belief that God was with her in those rooms kept her from despair.  Kept her from grief.  How her understanding that God would keep God's promise to use evil for good kept her alive.  Kept her from giving up and giving in.

At some point, she stopped abruptly and asked us, “have you heard the Good News?”  The room murmured, most folks nodding in agreement.  So, she asked us again.  “Have you heard the Good News?”  The room answered a little more audibly.  Instead of a murmur, the response was more of a buzzing and more folks began to answer “yes” and to nod their heads a little more vehemently.  At this point, Farisani drew herself up to her full height and shouted in a loud voice, “I said, ‘Have you heard the Good News?’”  By now, the room full of Lutherans got it, and we shouted back “Yes!”  And she said the only thing that I have ever inscribed in my Bible:  “if the Good News of Jesus Christ has reached your heart, please inform your face.”

I think of her often, but I especially remember her on Easter.

Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)

The trouble with hearing a story too often is that it can lose some of its emotional power as we become overly familiar with it.  We already know the rest of the story, but let’s think about it for a minute, the Gospel this morning is a frightening one.  And for those who haven’t heard the rest of the story who are living it out, this whole scene would be terrifying.  Jesus has been crucified, lain in a tomb, and sealed with a stone.  The women, Mary Magdalene and Mary, head to the tomb that first Easter morning Matthew tells us “to see the tomb”.  These were the women who stayed with Jesus as he died.  We don’t know for sure what they were trying to do there (maybe they were simply there to watch and to wait?), but we do know that they were afraid for their lives.  Jesus was dead, and you could be sure that the Romans were planning to round of any of Jesus’s followers who did not get the message from the empire “stop spreading hope.  Stop calling for resistance…or you’ll be next.”  The women were on their way to the tomb and risking their lives to do so, but the men were in hiding.

They arrive at the tomb to find it attended by a squadron of guards there by Pilate’s order.  And as they approach, an earthquake hits as an angel, a messenger of God, rolls away the stone.  The guards “become like dead men” (in a bit of literary irony).  They faint and fall over.  But, really, can we blame them?  I imagine the women to be good and frightened by now, but the angel says to them “Don’t be afraid”.  If you study the Greek, you’ll see that it could perhaps more accurately be translated as “Don’t YOU be afraid.”  As in, come on, gals, don’t be like those scaredy-cat guards.  I’ve got some great news… “I know that you are looking for Jesus the crucified one. He is not here, for he was raised just as he said.”

And as Wartburg professor Judith Jones says, "The resurrection has already happened. The stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in."[1]

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the rest of his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Do not be afraid.  Go and tell the story that death, the last enemy, has been defeated.  God, love, has won. 

Have you heard the Good News? 

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Alleluia!  Amen.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

This Is the Night!

John 20:1-18
A (short) sermon
for the people of APLC
April 15, 2017

This is the night!  This is our Passover with Christ from bondage to freedom, 
from death to life!  Tonight is the heart of our celebration of the Three Days 
and the highpoint of the church year.  Without tonight, Lent, Advent, Epiphany, 
even Christmas…without tonight, none of the rest of it matters. Without 
tonight, our preaching is worthless, and our faith is in vain.

Tonight is the night when we listen to the stories of our ancestors in faith.  Tonight we have heard the main milestones of salvation.  We have heard how God creates life from chaos, how God saves God’s people time and again…and those stories are told in very different ways, but we see through them all that God is at work accomplishing the impossible for those who would believe.  In all of the stories, just when things look most bleak, most dire, most hopeless, God acts.  And God reveals Godself to us again…showing us that God’s true nature is that of liberator and chain-breaker and bondage-shaker and lover and friend.  God does the salvific thing, the healing thing, the liberating thing over and over in our stories of faith because God loves ALL of God’s people, and ALL people are God’s people.

Tonight is the night we arrive at the tomb to mourn the death of our teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth, but we find that he is not here.  He is risen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

God forever bringing life from death.  God forever bringing healing to the world.  God forever making all things new.  God forever creating resurrection stories.  And even the Gospel lesson takes place in a garden…the story of the resurrection where death, the last enemy, is destroyed, takes place in a garden where God is inviting us to imagine an new Creation on the 8th day…and inviting us into the creating, into the resurrection, into healing and hope for a world where all are free, forgiven, loved, and brought from death into life.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!   

with enormous gratitude for the authors of Sundays and Seasons as well as the Sermon Brainwave podcasters and especially for the pastors and bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod who have listened and talked with me during these last three months about healing, death, and resurrection.  these thoughts are a collection from all those places.  thank you. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Communion, Forgiveness, and "Peace of God"

Matthew 26:26-29
A homily for the people
April 5, 2017

In 1984, the movie Places in the Heart was released.  Some of you may recall the movie.  If you don’t or if you haven’t seen it, get yourself a copy.  Seriously.  Or come borrow mine.

The story is set in the year 1935 and in Waxahachie, Texas, a small, segregated town in the midst of the Depression. We begin in church, a place we see the family gather often in community and prayer.  It is evident throughout the film that grace is abundant in the Spalding household.  One evening, Royce Spalding, the local sheriff, leaves the family dinner table to investigate trouble at the rail yards. He arrives on the scene to discover a young black man, Wylie, drunk and loud and waving a gun around.  You can tell that Royce really likes Wylie and that this is not the first encounter they’ve had.  They have a relationship of some sort and there appears to be a genuine affection from each man for the other.  During their conversation, Wylie shoots Royce.  Royce dies immediately and it is clear that Wylie is both shocked and saddened by his actions and the death of the sheriff.  In the era of Jim Crow and lynching, Wylie very likely understood what fate was to befall him. Local white vigilantes tie Wylie to a truck and drag his body through town, for all the community to see, before hanging him from a tree.

The remainder of the movie is the story of the sheriff’s widow as she attempts to keep the family farm with the help of two surprising partners:  a blind white man and a poor Black man.  Natural disaster, the KKK, and crooked bank officials all conspire to keep the motley team from success…and I’ll let you remember or watch on your own the details of that story.

But the scene that always gets me is the closing. 

The story ends, as it began, in church in worship among the community and in prayer.  This time, there is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  The congregation passes the bread and the wine down the pews serving one another, and gathered amidst the living, we witness those who have died in the movie (for a variety of reasons) also receive and give the elements.  The in the very last line of the film, Wylie hands communion to Royce and says, “Peace of God.”

Wylie and Royce are not only crystal clear images of the communion of saints, but they also demonstrate the power of the sacrament as they share the peace and break bread.  Forgiveness.

In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther says that it is the words which Jesus speaks “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me” and “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new covenant…the new promise…in my blood, which is shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins; as often as you drink of this cup, do this for the remembrance of me.” “These words [the words of institution] assure us that in the sacrament we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation…It is not the eating and drinking [of bread and wine] that does this, but the words given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins…And whoever believes these words has exactly what they say, forgiveness of sins.” 

It is the words which are important and the command of Jesus that we do this.  That we take the very body of Christ into our own bodies and that we remember his words of forgiveness. 

“Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
Life abundant.  Salvation, which means healing.  In the world to come, to be sure, but also in the world that is here and now. 

Forgiveness is liberating, life-giving, and healing, both for the wronged and for the wrong-doer.  And Jesus invites us into forgiveness…that we are released from sin and delivered through salvation and healing into life abundant.  And there we will and we do find the “Peace of God”.  Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Unbind Him, and Let Him Go

John 11:1-45
A sermon for the people

Thursday night, Paul Furukawa, Pastor Steve, and I went to a kick-off assembly for the San Antonio Sponsoring Committee (we’re still working on the name).  This is a new and diverse collaborative coalition of leaders from congregations, schools, and non-profits which are building a network with the capacity to act effectively and faithfully by organizing our time, talents, and resources so that we can use our gifts to affect life here in town for the common good.  Our hope is to inspire businesses, the city, clergy, and laity, people of faith, to address issues that affect everyone in the city such as high quality public education, access to health care, living wages, and fair lending among many, many others.

Thursday night, with the permission and blessing of the executive council, Abiding Presence publically announced our commitment to the work of the Sponsoring Committee by making a financial pledge for the year, by promising to attend workshops which will help form the work and intentions of the committee, and by committing to a time of conversation, a “Campaign of Conversations”, if you will, in which we at APLC will sit one-to-one or in small groups to talk honestly with one another about the things we are concerned about, especially those things which affect in our lives here in the San Antonio area.

So I’m wondering, what gets you up in the morning?  What are you passionate about?  What worries you?  What keeps you up at night?  Is it a rise in neighborhood theft?  Is it the cost of healthcare?  Is there are feral cat problem near your workplace?  Does someone you love have difficultly reintegrating into society following incarceration?  Is your child getting what she needs from the school system?  Or are you a teacher struggling to get what you need from the school system?

What has you so worked up that you have trouble resting or trouble focusing on other things?  What has you feeling cut off and alone?  What has you bound?

…In the gospel reading today, Jesus performs his biggest miracle…he raises Lazarus from the dead. 

Jesus is away from Bethany when he hears the news that Lazarus is ill.  And he waits for two more days before going to him.  So, by the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus, the one whom Jesus loved, has been dead for four days.  Now, this is important, because the ancient Jews believed that the soul would inhabit the body for three days, but on the fourth day, the soul was gone.  A little nod to Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride here, after the 4th day, the person was no longer “mostly dead” but really, really dead.  Beyond hope for resuscitation.  Beyond mortal hope for resurrection.   

But Jesus knows better.  Jesus knows where to place hope, and (spoilers, dear ones…it’s not in the grave!).  And so he travels to Bethany and greets Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus.  And he is moved to tears by their grief…which is his grief also.  And he says two things. 

First, he says to Lazarus, “come out!”  And Lazarus, trusting the voice of his beloved teacher and friend, does the impossible, he responds to the invitation and comes out of his tomb…out of the place which has been holding him trapped and cut off from everyone else…he comes out of a place which by its very design supports death.  But holding onto hope and trust, Lazarus moves toward the voice of his Savior.

Second, Jesus addresses the community, “unbind him, and let him go”. 

Unbind him.  Take off the oppressive garb of death and free him to life in the sun among God’s people.

Now, Jesus was most assuredly capable through either human or divine movement of unbinding Lazarus.  He could have pulled off that linen by hand or snapped his fingers and commanded a legion of angels to do it for him, but instead, Jesus instructs the community to “unbind him, and let him go.” 

When we were baptized, we were baptized into community.  We were baptized into the body of Christ.  And, let me just tell you, in the body, there are NO insignificant parts.

Some of you know that about two weeks ago, I broke my little toe.  I had gone back to Alabama to pick up my kids and our belongings.  Someone had left the weights from the grandfather clock in the middle of the walkway, and since my arms were laden with boxes, I couldn’t see them and WHAM!!...a great deal of hopping around and several naughty words later, we determined that my sweet little baby toe, the one which never gives me a reason to think twice about it, was broken.  Let me just tell you, since then, I have had many occasions to think about that baby toe.  You just don’t realize how much you use it until you can’t use it well.  That little toe provides balance and stability and mobility in ways I never even imagined until it was injured.  The part of my body I regarded as insignificant and cute-but-useless is actually terribly important to my daily life.  The last couple of weeks I have really been living into the Corinthians text:  there are NO insignificant parts of the body.

Which is beautiful, because we are baptized into the body of Christ.  We have become part of one body with all of humanity.  And there are NO insignificant parts.  And by our baptism into the body of Christ with ALL OF THE PARTS we are therefore bound up in the very Trinity.  And we are bound up in God’s continual creating, redeeming, and sustaining work in the world for all of God’s people…and God’s people are ALL people.

And we are called to look closely at our neighbors…the ones in our community…and to see where they are bound and to “unbind them, and let them go.”   To unbind them from the things that would keep them tied to worry and resentment and to death…both literal and figurative…and to release those bonds so that they may be free to live life as God intends…safely and creatively and freely and with the joy of being bound not to death but to God in love and in life abundant.

 This new chapter at Abiding Presence of community work through the San Antonio Sponsoring Committee is just that, a new chapter in a long story of community commitment.  At APLC we are no strangers to unbinding others.  No strangers to being a caring community…to caring for our greater community.  We were born out of this very neighborhood…out of community…and we spent our early years caring for those who live in it.  Did you know that this congregation is responsible for the first fire station in the area?  We are!  We organized and did the work to show the city that a fire station was necessary in this part of San Antonio, and eventually our efforts paid off…and our neighbor’s homes were made safer.  Ask Jarrell Pruitt to tell you the story.

And we are really good about caring for folks who come to us.  I’ve seen members of this congregation offer rides, meals, and extra nights in a hotel for all kinds of folks.  I’ve never, ever seen anyone leave this place hungry.

And those are just a couple of ways we’ve organized our resources to unbind our neighbors.  I imagine you can think of several more. 

The challenge is to keep doing the work of unbinding our neighbors from the death shroud.  But it is not ours to do alone.  God has provided us with a community…one which we unbind and one which unbinds us so that we all may be free to be tied up in God’s abundance.  We only need to be open to living into our baptismal call…in which we are claimed by God, called into community, and propelled forth to “unbind him, and let him go”…the whole body of Christ…even, or especially, the baby toes.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Word about Luther's Small Catechism and the Ten Commandments

Exodus 34:1-9, 27-28
A homily for the people of
APLC San Antonio
March 8, 2017

Grace and peace to you from Jesus who is the Christ.  Amen.

As you’ve no doubt heard, this year is the 500th commemoration of the Reformation, that tumultuous period of protest and advocacy as some pastors and other church leaders sought to change and to reform the unjust systems which governed the lives of the common people in Europe at the time…primarily, the church.  (That’s why we are called Protestants.  Our traditions were born out of protest.) As we go through this Lenten season, we will be spending Wednesday nights hearing and thinking about some of the good work which our unwitting founder did…we’ll be talking about Martin Luther’s small catechism, and tonight we talk a little about the Ten Commandments.

Luther was frustrated about the faith formation that was (or more accurately was not) happening in Saxony and Meissen.  He wrote, “Dear God, what misery I beheld!  The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers.  Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments!  As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom.
O you bishops!  How are you going to answer to Christ, now that you have so shamefully neglected the people and have not exercised your office for even a single second...Shame on you forever!”  (Luther was a passionate man.)[1]

But he wasn’t wrong.  For us to call ourselves Christian in any organized meaningful way, we must first proclaim Jesus is lord, but then also have a basic understanding of what exactly that means. So Luther wrote Luther’s Small Catechism and distributed it so that heads of households and pastors might teach everyone in their home or in their parishes what it means to be a follower of Christ.  Lutherans of all stripes use the Small Catechism to teach the basic tenets of Christianity still today.  How many of you had to memorize the whole thing for confirmation?  Or for seminary or college?  Me, too.

In our scripture reading tonight, Moses takes two tablets of stone up the mountain as God has commanded and stands before the Lord.  And the Lord says, “God is a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true…forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.  But not ignoring sin.”

Moses falls to the ground and worships God and says, “God, if you see anything good in me, please go with us.  And although we are stiff-necked, hard-headed and obstinate, forgive us our sins.  Own us and possess us.”

And God says, “Alright, Moses, but write this down.  By these words I’ll make a covenant with you and Israel.”  And Moses wrote down the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”

And Moses wrote them down as a whole bunch of “you better not’s”.  With the exception of the 4th commandment, all of these commandments are written in the negative.

But Luther takes these commandments, the words of the covenant as written down by Moses, and in the tradition of Jesus, he flips them.  Turns them upside down.  Makes them positive and expands them.

“You shall have no other gods” becomes “we are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.”

And then Luther uses the first commandment’s explanation to explain and expand the rest of them.

Each commandment begins, “We are to fear and love God…” so that we call God’s name in times of praise and thanksgiving, so that we regard the Word as holy, so that we respect those in authority (which doesn’t mean blindly agreeing with them; not calling their bad behavior or lies or inaction into accountability is very disrespectful…of them and of those whom they have been called to serve.)  We are to fear and love God so that we help our neighbor in satisfying their physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, sanctuary.)  We are to fear and love God so that spouses respect one another and that our sex lives are healthy and loving, so that we help our neighbor improve their means of making a living, so that we defend our neighbor and think the best and kindest of their actions, so that we help our neighbor keep what is theirs, and so that we help our neighbor keep their relationships in good standing.

It’s a bigger job than those “shall not’s” would have us believe.  Because those Ten Commandments when lived out in the tradition of Jesus are counter-cultural, completely contrary to the systems we encounter in the world.  Even though some of those systems positively insist that they are “Christian”.

If you call out or protest or push against or seek to reform systems that would attempt to control or condemn your neighbor in the world today, you get called all kinds of names that are meant to hurt:  “radical”, “activist”, “bleeding-heart”.  Because somehow, though we are assured through scripture that God cares for the little ones and that God expects us to risk ourselves and our privilege to care for them, too, we are terrified that if we help our neighbor or share what we have…there won’t be enough left for us.

But God’s faithfulness through the ages shows us that God will always care for the little ones.  Even if we become the little ones.  And part of God’s care is nurturing communities where those who have, care for those who don’t have.  

A few weeks ago, the week before my first sermon as your pastor, I was talking with some Texas colleagues at the Tri-Synodical Assembly and this “fear and love God so that…” language came up.  In the course of conversation, we agreed that this must mean, “fear God more than you fear conflict” and “love God more than you like making people happy”.  This means we take risks, dear ones.  We are called and commanded to risk our well-being and our reputations for the sake of the little ones, for the sake of the neighbor, for the sake of the gospel.

We seek God by serving others.

Even if it feels risky or scary, we fulfill our responsibility in God’s covenant by living into the upside down expansion of the law through the tradition of Jesus.  We fear and love God above everything else…and we love our neighbors and the little ones as well and as much as we love ourselves.
And God loves us all.

[1] The Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, 2000, p 347

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Changed, Bone-deep

quilt blocks by the women of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Marysville, WA

A sermon for the people of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas:

This story from our Gospel lesson is bizarre.  Flat out weird.  Theologian Will Willimon says, “This story is kinky and weird.  It’s almost a judgement on the over-rationalization of Christianity….This story kind of blows that [rationalization] to bits.”[1] 

This is a story which will hurt your brain if you think about it too hard.  You almost have to feel this one to make any sense of it at all.

Jesus takes Peter and James and John up (yet another) mountain.  Geography is important to Matthew.  As we read through this gospel account this year, pay attention to the setting of the scene.  Where they are is often as important as what they are doing to the whole of the message.

For example, this week, the mountain is intended to evoke the scene in Exodus when Moses receives the stone tablets of the Law.  Here, we receive Jesus – the fulfillment of the Law.

So, they’ve climbed another mountain.  (I like to think they’ve packed all they’ll need for a camping trip.  A guys’ weekend adventure or something.)  And at the top of the mountain, Matthew tells us, Jesus is transfigured before them.  Now, I’ve paid attention to my professors and my pastors and my parents and Sunday school teachers, but no one yet has been able to tell me exactly what transfigured means.  What does that look like?  Does Jesus get all bright and shiny?  Is it really blinding?  How did Moses and Elijah get there?  What happens afterward?  Where do Moses and Elijah disappear to?  Does Jesus just go back to being regular old Jesus? Or can we sense something different about him from here on out?

I’ve heard “transfigured” explained as “change,” and I’d be tempted to buy into that theory except that the change in this story appears to be a temporary visual change, and the God we find in the scriptures time and again is, in fact, a God of change but of the permanent, bone-deep variety.

So I wonder, if this light show was just a way to get the disciples to pay attention to the rest of the story.  After all, they are so painfully human that they often miss the important stuff because they’ve slept through it or run away or are just seriously blockheaded.  I can totally relate.  I’ve missed the meaningful stuff too many times because I was expecting something bigger or brighter or “more important.”

Now, Peter (I love Peter.  He gives us hope for ourselves.  If God can love and use that guy, there’s a chance for the rest of us.) but Peter is so taken up with the whole light show that he starts to babble…on and on…”hey!  Wow!  Dudes, check it out!  Jesus, it is so AWESOME to be here!!  Let’s stay and make a couple of tiny houses.  It’ll be a great party all the time, I’ll make three houses…one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…” and as he’s babbling on, the very voice of God comes from a cloud.  And God cuts him off mid-thought.  “Hey!  Be quiet for a minute.  This is my Son, marked by my love, the focus of my delight.  He’s my Beloved.  Listen to him.”

Here’s the head-scratching part to me.  Through the whole light show and the return of Moses and Elijah from the dead, the disciples are completely into the scene.  They’re wide-eyed, paying attention, totally engaged, and excited.  But the moment that God declares God’s love for Jesus, the disciples are “overcome by fear”.  They fall to the ground. 

I wonder if it was easier for the disciples to see the sheer awesomeness of God than it was for them to hear a total declaration of love.  I think that the part that changes the story and that ultimately changes us is not simply the voice of God, but the words which God speaks. 

See, a light show is something you can brag to the rest of your friends about later.  But to know that the man with whom you are standing is called Beloved by the One who created you…and that your call is simply to listen to him and that Creator thought it important enough to deliver that message in person, so to speak…well that changes everything.  And it’s a bone-deep kind of change.  Once we hear that message, once we own that message, nothing is ever, ever the same again. 

Because Jesus says a whole lot of things to us.  And we are commanded by God to listen.  And that message is challenging to relay to our friends because it is SO counter-cultural.

The whole message of the life of Jesus of Nazareth can be boiled down to a small number of things.  1) Love God above and before everything else 2)Love your neighbor; don’t be a jerk to your neighbor 3) Your neighbor is everyone but especially that person you’d rather not even think about 4) love and nice are not always the same thing 5) and sometimes the loving thing is really, really hard.

And when you think about how big and important the words and commands of Jesus are, and when you think about how difficult living up to that really is, but you also remember how God says, “Listen to him”.  Well, that responsibility and its magnitude are absolutely terrifying.  I might fall to the ground, too, because a “listen to him” from God implies a command to do the things Jesus says.

But there, on the mountain, God says, “listen to him.” 

Hear the good news:  God says "listen," and then the very first thing Jesus says on that mountain top is “get up and do not be afraid.” 

We have heard the words of God, and we have been changed.  We are freed, forgiven, and we are loved deeply by the One who made us and called us “good”.  And if we can really, truly believe that, then we can get up, without fear.  And we can begin to seek God by sharing our lives with our neighbors.

And then, the whole world will be changed.  Bone-deep.