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.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed and Called to Action

 Big Four Mountain, Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie National Forrest, WA

The Gospel lesson for today is Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes.  The Blessings.  The Sermon on the Mount.

This is one of those Biblical passages which we hear so frequently that many of us who have grown up in the church or who have been dwelling in the Word for a long time tend to gloss over, to assume we’ve heard it before.  Or maybe we think we understand what’s being said but we’re not really certain.  That happens to me an awful lot.  I think I know what someone is saying, but I’m not quite sure I’ve heard it right or completely or maybe I’ve zoned out for a half second and now I feel lost in the conversation.  I'm sure this has never happened to any of you!

I'm trying a new practice with moderate success, I’ll stop the person who is speaking and ask them to “please, say it again a different way”.  In the context of conversations, this usually works pretty well, and the person to whom I am listening is usually grateful for my demonstration that I am trying pretty hard to hear them.  But what to do when it’s an ancient text?  Well, we read a different translation.  I like to read Eugene Peterson’s The Message.  It is written in modern English, and I often find something new to help me hear the Word speak.

So, we’ll read the Gospel again in a different way in just a moment.

Now, my Goddaddy Pastor Delmer Chilton says, “Well, the Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ Little Instruction Book.  It is, rather, a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  It is a rallying cry aimed at those called by God to become a part of that Kingdom.” [1]

Over the four Sundays, we’ll be exploring the Sermon in its entirety, but today we are just focused on the Beatitudes.  The blessings.

Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary says, “The Beatitudes are identifiers of discipleship; characteristics of the faithful; attributes of believers. They are truth-tellings. They name our blessings but also what is at stake in these blessings. This is why this sermon has to be preached here and now (at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus) to the disciples and not later. They have to know who they are in order to be able hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be….

You are blessed. You have to hear that on the front end. And note that being blessed is not just for the sake of potential joy, but also for the sake of making it through that which will be difficult.”[2]

Let’s read from the Message.  But I want you to listen actively.  Listen for that little bit that pricks up your ears.
Matthew 5:1-12The Message (MSG)
You’re Blessed
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.[3]
What did you notice that was different?  What struck you for the first time?  What had you forgotten but the new translation helped you remember?  Or is this the first time you are hearing this story at all?  Take a couple minutes and share your ah-ha with your neighbor.

How many of you (this is NOT a test!) but how many of you caught that in this telling of the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking to his disciples and NOT to the crowd?  That’s what caught me this go ‘round.  In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus is preaching to a crowd in a field, but here, he’s gone from the crowd and has taken his disciples, or as Peterson calls them, the committed, with him up the mountain and begins to speak once they are alone.

This is significant, I think.  It appears to me, from reading the previous chapter, that Jesus loves the crowd.  He calls them out to him and preaches to, teaches, and heals them.  But when he sees the scope and reach of his words, he takes his little band of believers, those committed to him, he takes them away, and expects them to really learn something about Kingdom values. 

And so I wonder and will keep wondering over these four weeks, are we called to be a part of the crowd?  Or are we called to be disciples, committed to learning from Jesus and putting those teachings into action for the sake of the Kingdom?

As we heard in this space last week, we are living in turbulent times.  And daily, if you aren’t white, cis-gendered, straight, and (preferably) male, not that there is anything wrong with being any of those things (you are who God made you after all), but if you aren’t all of those things the world is getting a more frightening. 

In one week, in one nation, we have witnessed environmental racism as the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines were reauthorized to the detriment of Native communities…we are still willing to sacrifice our promises and brown bodies for money. In one week, in one nation, healthcare has been jeopardized for millions of people.  In one week, in one nation, our voices, both public and private, have been threatened as those who seek to keep us informed are silenced.  In one week, one nation, the rights of people who love differently from the heterosexual “standard” or who are differently gendered have been threatened and our bodies threatened, too, as conversion therapy has once again made it to the forefront of public discourse on LGBTQ issues.

But most shockingly to me, and it appears to the world, in one week, in one nation, millions of people have been endangered, turned away, shut out.  We are witnessing the rejection of the immigrant which is absolutely mind-blowing for people who have studied American history.  And for those of us who believe in the God of Abraham, we know that this kind of action is completely contrary to our faith story.  As far back as the book of Leviticus (19:33-34), we find instruction from our God regarding the immigrant.  “When an alien/immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien/immigrant.  The alien/immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; for you shall love the alien/immigrant as yourself, for you were aliens/immigrants in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.” 

Instead, this week, in this nation, Christians are promised priority regarding entrance to the United States.  And here is where it becomes extremely important for us to remember that Jesus Christ, our God, says over and over and over again, “the first shall be last”.  In other words, if we, Christians, find ourselves in a place of privilege, it is our job to elevate someone else.  It is our commandment given to us by the One who showed us exactly what it looks like to empty oneself for the sake of another.

Now is the time to demand that immigrants be treated with the same care and respect that citizens are.  Now is the time to call the people who have public authority to change national policy on immigration, on healthcare, on equal (not extra) rights, and to tell them what you think…what you believe…what your faith requires you to say.  Now is the time for us to show up and use our voices and your authority (you’ve got it, believe me! And I do, too) to advocate for those whom God adores as much as God loves us.

Oh, it’s not easy.  It’s not even fun most of the time.  In this time in our world, it’s even dangerous.  I’ve been threatened a few times myself.  But it’s our baptismal calling.  When we are doing the work and it feels scary or like we might be risking ourselves or our stuff or our privilege, that’s when we must remember the first sermon Jesus delivers to his disciples in the book of Matthew.  “When things feel scary, and you do the work of elevating someone else, you are closer to me.  And you are blessed.”

Hear the Good News:  baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, you, me, we are freed, forgiven, and beloved.  Go and seek God by serving the Other.  Even when it feels scary.  It’s there we’ll find our blessing.

Jesus says, “And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

Go, disciples, cause good trouble.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reforming Relationships: Jesus, Zacchaeus, and Standing Rock

the gospel according to Luke 19:1-10

     When I was 18, I had plans for college as many young people do.  I was registered for classes at University of Southern Mississippi an hour from home.  I had a dorm room assigned and, to my great delight, my roommate was to be one of my very best friends in the world.  I had a book list and new sheets.  I had a schedule for first week events and a date planned with a friend from a synod wide youth event for that first week of orientation…we were planning Chinese for dinner and an evening of alternative rock in a local bar…this was the 1990’s after all, we were trying our best to bring the feel of the Seattle music scene to small town Mississippi.  I was excited about this new beginning.
     But something was off.  There was a young man in my life, a member of our congregation and its youth group, who was beginning to show signs of mental illness.  We had been very good friends through our high school years, but now he was behaving erratically.  He would show up in unexpected places or call and indicate he knew things he shouldn’t have been able to know like what I was wearing at that moment or who was coming and going from my house.  Little things began to appear in places they shouldn't or disappear from places they should be.  Or he’d call demanding to know my work schedule and what I was doing after and with whom.  His self-entanglement in my personal space was feeling more and more unsafe.  And then dropped out of his university and enrolled at USM.  He asked what classes I was taking, in which dorm I would be living. Worst was how he began to really endear himself to my friends.  I began to feel as though my friends were no longer mine.  That I had no safe place. 
     So, thanks to their rolling admissions policy, the week before classes began, I enrolled at Texas Lutheran College.  I cancelled my courses and dates and roommate and plans in Mississippi and moved 10 hours away. 
I knew no one.  New city, new people, new culture.  Now the folks at the college in Texas were really nice people.  Lots of folks welcomed me.  The professors were kind.  Class sizes were small.  There was a fair amount of stuff to do even in the tiny town of Seguin thanks to the diligence of the college staff and faculty.  We even had a pastor there…and he was pretty rad. 
But I had no friends.  I had no transportation.  I had no understanding of why mariachi music should be played in the dining hall and parking lots at seemingly random times or country music blaring from dorm rooms.  I felt caught between two places:  the place I had come from and this strange place I had landed.  I felt “out there.”  I felt like I was caught on a hanging bridge.  Swinging between two worlds. I should belong in both places but really I belonged in neither place.  
     I felt alone even though I was surrounded by people.  I felt that no one understood me.  That no one even saw me. I felt lost.
     And then, one afternoon, I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I met Diana.  And this is the part that I do remember:  she looked me in the eye and invited me to dinner in the mariachi band inhabited dining hall.  And for the last 22 years, Diana has called me out of my hiding places and lost places and loneliness and into relationship not only with her but through her into relationship with the rest of the world.  And I thank God for her daily.
Luke tells us a story today about a man named Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was also caught between two worlds. 
     He was a tax collector.  We know that tax collectors were considered sinners in the time of Jesus because they worked for the empire collecting money from the poor in order to fund the lavish lifestyle of the emperor and his cronies. In that peasant culture, if you didn’t make a living by cultivating crops or caring for livestock, you were considered a traitor to your people and a thief.   
     Luke calls Zacchaeus a “chief tax collector and rich”.  This means that he is in middle management, if you will.  He oversees other tax collectors and has the opportunity to charge his people more that the empire demanded and to keep it for himself, and he could do this kind of over-taxing through every single tax collector he supervised.  So Zacchaeus is not just a traitor and a thief.  He’s the worst kind.  He’s the ultimate traitor and thief.  And he lives luxuriously we assume because Luke tells us he’s rich.
     So, Zacchaeus works for the Romans, but he is not a Roman.  He is not welcomed at their tables or invited to their homes.  He does a job for them. 
Zacchaeus is a Jew.  But he is not welcomed at the tables of his people.  He is not invited into their homes.  He is a traitor.
     Zacchaeus is caught between worlds.  Belonging in some ways to both but belonging in fullness to neither.  He is alone even in the vast crowd.  He is lost.
     Now Zacchaeus has heard of Jesus.  He knows that Jesus is a teacher, popular with the crowds, and that he is traveling through.  Zacchaeus goes out to see Jesus.
     The crowd is thick.  The people there are desperate to see their teacher.  And Zacchaeus pushes through the crowd to see, too, but the people won’t let him in.  In his desperation to SEE what the fuss is all about, he climbs a sycamore tree and lodges himself in firmly among the branches.
     But here’s the really cool part:  Jesus walks along, looks up, sees Zacchaeus and calls to him by name.  Jesus sees through the crush of people into the heart of Zacchaeus and says, “come on down.  I need to stay at your house.” 
     Now, of course, the people grumble.  By now in the Gospel according to Luke, we’ve come to expect that we should grumble, too.  This guy is a traitor to his people, and he’s RICH…  In the upside down kingdom of God, the rich are supposed to have a very hard time.  Jesus has been preaching this sort of economic justice for chapters now.  So perhaps his followers feel justified in their anger, in their exclusion of Zacchaeus.  Maybe they think that Jesus has “lost it” a little bit.  And they complain, “why has he gone to be the guest of a sinner?”
     And perhaps because Zacchaeus recognizes that due to Jesus’ interest in him he has a platform on which to speak, or maybe because he wants Jesus to approve or maybe he just wants his name cleared or for Jesus to understand the truth (lots of possibilities here and the text isn’t all that clear), Zacchaeus says, “hey.  I just want you to know half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”  The Greek doesn’t say “will give” but simply “give”.  And this is important because this means that Zacchaeus is already functioning in this unethical, unjust system in a just way.  He is doing his part to bring about the kingdom…living out kingdom values in the midst of the empire.  He’s pretty radical!  And very, very brave.
     But the people of his village did not recognize it. They were so angry at the system and those who participated in it that they could not see that this chief tax collector acted out of kingdom values. They blamed him unjustly for the unjust system he was a part of. As my friend Terry Kyllo says, He wasn't just short, he was short of friends.[1]
     But Jesus sees him.  All throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sees those whom society has abused, marginalized, and cast out.  Jesus doesn’t just stumble upon them, but he seeks them out.  He surrounds himself with them.  He holds them up before others and says, “Look.  Here is my beloved.  Here is my sibling.  Here is the one, here are the ones, whom I love.”
     All throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus shows us that God is exactly not who we were expecting.  And every time we get confident enough to declare just who God says is “in” or is “out”, Jesus reforms our way of thinking about God.
     That’s a large part of our celebration today.  Not so much that we are rejoicing in a split from the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact, when Luther set out to make a difference in that unjust system 499 years ago, he wasn’t trying to begin a new church, he simply wanted the church he loved to be better than it was.  We commemorate the split from our siblings in this vast body of Christ.  But we celebrate that Luther changed the way we see God. 
     Luther recognized that he had been worshipping the wrong God…he had been taught about a God who punishes and despises us on account of our imperfections.  A God who sent his only son to be beaten up, to take the punishments that we deserve because of our wicked humanity.  Instead, through the person of Jesus, Luther began to see a God who delights in our humanity.  Who calls us “good” even when we aren’t particularly good.  A God who know us, who seeks us, who offers salvation, which means healing, through relationship with Godself…through love
     And so we are propelled through that love to build relationship with one another.
     Right now, in North and South Dakota, the people of Standing Rock Tribe are also looking for a bit of reformation.  They are protecting their ancestors’ graves, our water supply, and their sacred sites from Big Oil.  And they are doing it through prayer and passive resistance. But they are being met by police with rubber bullets, noise cannons, dogs, and sticks.  They are threatened with assault rifles and grenade launchers.  They are being arrested, numbers written on their skin, and they are locked in dog kennels.  They are being strip searched and separated from their loved ones.  Forced to sleep on concrete floors.  Sometimes the women and the children are given tarps for cover.  Sometimes they are not. They are rounded up from their places of worship and dragged through the dirt, but yet they remain committed to the protective work that they are doing.  They show up again and again every morning. 
     Because this movement isn’t only about water or oil.  It is also about the ways in which Indigenous peoples in this country have been marginalized and abused since the time of Luther’s Reformation.  It is a people calling for a nation to honor its promises and all of its inhabitants.  It is a tribe, supported by 500 other tribes, begging, no demanding that they been seen, known, and loved not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are. 
     Will we see them?  Will you see them?  See the Water Protectors at Standing Rock as beloved and valuable children of our same Creator?
     We are being called at this moment in time to reform the way this country treats its members.  Black and brown people are every bit as beloved and cherished by God as white ones are…if we read the Gospel with honest eyes and we recognize that the oppressed, the cast out, the abused, are beloved by God and are the ones whom God pulls especially close (the last shall be first and the first shall be last, remember?), we have to be willing to admit that at this point in history God is most assuredly screaming into this nation's seemingly deaf ears that Native Lives Matter and that Black Lives Matter.  And if we are indeed to be one nation under God, we must reform ourselves to God’s way doing things.  Actual justice for all.
If we are called, and I believe we are called, through this reformed church to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world, we have to see our siblings, hear their cries for justice, and put our own bodies in motion for the in-breaking of the kingdom in the unjust system of these United States.
     Diana saw me and brought me from that place of outsider into community and into relationship which continues some 22 years later.  Jesus saw Zacchaeus sought him out and brought him salvation,  which is healing, and, we can assume, back into community.  We, the body of Christ, must see our siblings at Standing Rock and demand that they be welcomed into community and into places of respect not in spite of who they are but because of who they are…beloved by God.
     Hear the Good News:  through the person of Jesus, you are sought out, you are freed, you are forgiven, you are beloved.  And in response to that Good News, let's put our bodies in motion for the reformation of this world.  Through your actions, others just might see God.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

God Is a Woman

The gospel lesson today is Luke 8:1-8

First, I want to acknowledge that this week has been a particularly difficult one to be a woman (or a girl) in this country.  And if you are feeling extra vulnerable or extra-triggery or anxious or angry…you have every right to be.  The words we have heard in public spaces about what is acceptable to do to us or the justification of the upholding of masculine power over us have been extra prevalent this week. 
We have heard recorded conversations which would attempt to justify sexual assault by a man who is running for president of this nation.  We have witnessed the support of and justifications of his words by those who would claim to speak for God…too many pastors who are part of the religious right (religious wrong most of the time, in my opinion) are quick to insist that the words spoken by this man hold no real public consequence.  Or that they are an acceptable price to pay for his potential leadership in the executive office.   
According to the Maine Counsel on Sexual Assault, “one in five women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Nearly 1 in 2 women have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime.”[1] So know that you are not alone. If you need to talk with someone about something that has happened to you, I know Pastor Randy is available to listen, but I am available, too.  If you need my contact information, let me know after worship or contact the church office.  They’ll get it for you.
The truth is, violence against women happens not just in the context of sexual assault.  This week, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan condemned (rightly so) the video in which Mr. Trump bragged about sexual assault in part by saying "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified."  In response, my friend Pastor Terry Kyllo said, “The last word (objectified) is certainly appropriate. Women are not objects but human beings. But really the rest of the sentence is quite horrible. First the sentence structure still implies that women are the passive recipients of the actions of others - "women are to be...." Second, the things that women are to have done to them are to be "revered and championed." I would hope that all human beings, made in the image of God, are to be revered. It is telling that women, instead of being of equal power, worth and human agency need to be "championed." While his (Ryan’s) condemnation of Trump's taped comments from 2005 is a good thing, it reveals that he and many other men, and indeed much of our whole society, live in a world of white male privilege. His wording suggests that women have less power and agency than men and that this is the natural order of things. The only difference is that Speaker Ryan's words suggest that men (should) treat women well while still maintaining power over them.”[2]
And this week, I heard more than one man say something like “as a father to two daughters, I condemn this language” or “it is unacceptable to talk this way about our mothers and our wives”.  Do you hear the possessive pronouns?  Language does matter and to speak like this denies the humanity and dignity of all women.  It should not be that we are concerned with glorification of sexual assault because we have a particular relationship with a particular woman.  We should be concerned with the way women are treated in both public and private spheres because women are made in the image of God.  We, too, bear Christ in our bodies (Galatians 6:17) so that violence against our bodies—made in the image of God—is violence against the One who created us and called us “good” (Genesis 1&2).  Women hold inherent value as created by God and called “good”.  Women are worthy of respect and voice and the total control of our own bodies—not because a particular man has a particular kind of relationship with us—but because God does.  The only one to hold claim over us is God.
Now, the gospel lesson this week is a parable.  Jesus is telling truth by shining light through narrative.  We are a people of story, after all.  And Jesus tells us about a widow and an unjust judge.  The widow comes to the judge over and over asking for justice and eventually the judge consents because he has grown weary of her pleas.
One way, perhaps the most common way, to interpret this parable is to focus on the power of prayer.  And this is valuable because it is true, prayer is powerful…although to paraphrase C.S. Lewis…not because it changes God but because it changes us.  However, the idea that God is an unjust judge or that God will only grant justice if we relentlessly beg for it is repugnant.  Over and over and over again in the gospel accounts we learn that that is precisely not the way God functions.  God is ever present to the marginalized and the poor.  And this widow is certainly both.
Widows in the ancient world were particularly vulnerable.  They are listed time and again in the Bible as those who need special protection along with orphans and immigrants.  In those days, widows were not allowed to hold property.  Her belongings and her wealth—whatever there was of it—was handed to the closest living male relative.  If there was no relative, her property was held in state, but we can be sure that those holding it had little to no regard for a widow. 
Their culture, too, was one of male dominance.  Patriarchy on steroids.  Jesus uses a widow in his parable on purpose…she would have things done to her and for her…but Jesus reveals her determination, her power, her agency.  The judge grants her justice against her opponent because of her persistence, her courage, her determination.
This widow approaches a judge who, by his own admission, neither fears God nor respects people.  Because this phrase is repeated twice in the lesson, we can assume it holds special relevance.  I agree with my beloved professor David Lose that this might just be Luke’s shorthand for the definition of justice.  “The beginning of justice, according to Jesus, is when we show our awe for God by respecting those around us, by granting them a measure of dignity, by being willing to view them as fellow children of God who are worthy of our respect and fair treatment.”[3]
The widow approaches this judge…a self-admittedly unjust person…and begs him for justice.  And by his own admission, the judge’s motivation for settling the woman’s claim is that she is wearing him out.  A fair and kind description of her actions and her qualities might be persistent, assertive, strong.  But the words we would most likely hear to describe her were she to live today, this week especially, are annoying, bossy, bitch.  A more literal translation for the reason behind the judge’s “giving in” to the widow is not that “she is wearing me out” but that the widow “is giving me a black eye”[4]

My professor says, “Like all black eyes, the one the widow's complaints threaten to inflict have a double effect, representing both physical and social distress.”  The judge is concerned that the widow’s persistence causes him physical harm and public embarrassment.  She’s shrill and annoying.  She talks too much.  The judge relents not because he has changed his mind but to rid himself of potential public humiliation.  Who wants a socially weak and outcast woman hanging around demanding things?  She is a danger to his reputation.  She’s an embarrassment.  He relents simply to shut her up.
When we look at the parable this way, it is a tale of encouragement for those of us who are suffering injustice to continue to fight for the in-breaking of the Kingdom here on earth.  To fight for justice for ourselves and for our neighbors.  It is a reminder that sometimes it takes persistence and assertion and strength to effect change in this world.  Sit-ins and boycotts and interstate closures are sometimes necessary to embarrass the powers and principalities that exist in this world in order to bring change.  And we will be called annoying, bossy, uppity …fill in your favorite demeaning-to-a-marginalized-community noun here…bitch, fag, savage, n*****.
For Jesus, prayer is an act of human agency in the midst of injustice.  For Jesus, true prayer is prayer for justice.[5]  So hear the Good News:  God is present in our struggles.  God is present in our hurt and in our suffering.  God meets us there with empathy because God knows intimately what it means to be human, to be outcast, called names, despised, and rejected.  God lives in the margins.  God is queer.  God is Black.  God is Native.  And this week especially, God is a woman.