Sunday, June 18, 2017

18 June 2017

Lament Psalms
Ps. 137
18 June 2017

Today we begin – in earnest – our first worship text and Word series for this summer season – on the Psalms.
Now, I say “in earnest” because, actually, we began last week, reading Psalm 100 … ah, but it got overshadowed by the Day in the Church Year – Holy Trinity Sunday.  As well it should have.  Because whenever we have a festival day, a special day, it always takes precedence over whatever else we’re doing here. 
So we should have an introductory word, here, today, about the Psalms.
The Psalms are Ancient Israel’s poem and song book.  You might even call them the first Hymnbook of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Depending on what English translation of the Psalms you read, you might encounter words such as these at the beginning of each Psalm. 

According to the Gittith.  A maskil.  With stringed instruments.  To the leader:  Do Not Destroy.  According to the Sheminith.  According to Muth-labben.  According to the Deer of the Dawn.

No one is certain as to what most of those terms mean, but we can guess.  You see names at the bottom of hymns in our ELW hymnal … tune names like Jefferson and Aberystwyth.  So these names … Sheminith, Deer of the Dawn … were likely, also, tunes to which each Psalm was sung, in Israel’s worship.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a record of the music anymore.
Ah, but we do have the words.  150 Psalms, covering the range of human emotion and interaction with God.
And in that range there are seven basic literary forms into which the Psalms fit.

Royal Psalms
Lament Psalms
Psalms of Thanksgiving
Wisdom Psalms
Hymn Psalms
Remembrance Psalms
Psalms of Confidence

Last week’s Psalm, 100, is what we call a Royal or Enthronement Psalm.  Listen again to it as I read.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God.  It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.  For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Royal or Enthronement Psalms … and there are several, in the 90-100 range of Psalms … these were written to be read as part of the New Year festival in the fall of the year … what we now call Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year … they were read as God was symbolically re-enthroned each year, probably, as the human king was the re-enactor … David, Solomon, or someone else.
Psalm 100 could also be called a Thanksgiving psalm, because that aspect is certainly there, too … but that line, enter his gates with thanksgiving, it most certainly is also a kind of stage direction, for the earthly ruler to come in, to enter the Temple, followed by the people, and take his place, representing God’s enthronement, God’s presence, among his people.
So we can see that these types – they aren’t always neat delineations – and there can be some blurring of the lines …
Except for the next type, which is before us, in our text today, Psalm 137.
Now here is a type with which we, likely, are not that familiar.
Certainly our hymnody, our song, in the church today, reflects this.
Psalm 100’s words are reflected in many hymns … the first which comes to mind is Rejoice, the Lord is King …
As we have it before us at #430 …

Rejoice, for Christ is King!  Your Lord and king adore;
Rejoice, give thanks and sing, and triumph evermore;
Lift up your heart, lift up your voice;
Rejoice, again, I say, rejoice!

An uplifting, rejoicing, cheerful musical setting.
But Laments … Lament psalms are songs set in a minor key … we might think of them, read, with the back beat of the blues behind them …

Na NA na NA na … Na NA na NA na …

In our ELW hymnal, the section of Lament hymns is short … #s697-704, 8 hymns in total.  That’s not very much.  We will be singing one of these as our Hymn of the Day, one written by the Pacific NW’s own, PLU Campus Pastor and Holden Village pastor Susan Briehl, set to a Latvian folk tune.
But among what is popularly called Contemporary Christian Music … well, laments are virtually nonexistent.  We will sing one … the One, the One, of which we know … as our closing song today, and it is a fine example of lament, reflecting the words of Job, written by one of the biggest names in CCM today, Matt Redman, as he reflected on the events of 9/11.
But other than Blessed Be Your Name … CCM simply doesn’t do Lament – or have much to sing or say about anything bad that happens in people’s lives.  It’s no wonder that it gets the reputation of “happy clappy.”
BUT LAMENT IS REAL.  It is a real, true, human emotion and condition. 
Lament is real because … we suffer.  We have loss in our lives.  We feel pain.  Bad things happen … to us … in the world.  And it’s hard … damn hard … to be happy happy joy joy, praise Jesus all the time.  Especially these days … I know I wake up every morning, go to the news web sites, wondering, in the words of Dorothy Parker, what fresh hell is this???
But we don’t want to go there, do we?  Even my saying that, what I just said, it probably made some of you cringe … maybe a little, maybe more.  Well, I come to church to be uplifted, I don’t want to hear about the bad stuff, I only want to hear about the good stuff.  I just want to praise God and give thanks.
Well, there are churches for that out there, churches, and music, who, which, are steeped in the Theology of Glory, as Luther called it.  Avoiding pain, and suffering, and loss, is, after all, the ever-optimistic American way.
It’s just that, if you want to be a Lutheran Christian, if you want to call yourselves Lutheran Christians, you need to Lament.  A true, right, honorable, Christian faith, is not ever-optimistic, ever Every Day in Every Way we are getting Better and Better … NO!!! we acknowledge that sin makes us Make Ourselves Worse … and suffering, and the greed and lying and other human wretchedness that cause it … are all on the road which lead to Death … the final Lament.
Luther termed this “calling a spade a spade” the Theology of the Cross.  In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 – one of Luther’s first writings – the young Luther took on full-force the Theology of Glory which, he saw, was destroying the church and destroying faith.
The theses or points of the Disputation make this clear:

Thesis 20:  that person deserves to be called a theologian, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through the Cross.

Thesis 21:  The theologian of glory calls evil, good, and good, evil.  The theologian of the Cross calls the thing what it actually is.

The theology of glory, to Luther, was the original “Fake News.”  It dismisses suffering and pain and the realities of human life as we live it, steeped in sin … just deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist. 
Fingers in the ears, nah nah nah nah nah.
God cannot possibly want to have anything to do with anyone going through suffering and pain, so we shouldn’t either … just be happy happy joy joy optimistic all the time.
But that is a total lie.  The Cross tells us the Truth of God … and that truth is, that God is exactly, precisely, spot-on in the midst of our suffering, through the Cross, through Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross.  That’s why we call the day Good Friday, when we mark, observe, rehearse, re-hear, the events of the death of Jesus.  And our complicity in it.  And even, despite, in the midst of us doing to God the worst thing that has ever happened, we give thanks that God is Still With and For Us in Jesus … so much so that he endures suffering, and death, to be with and for us in and through ours.
And so, with that Truth of God for us in mind, let’s look at Psalm 137.
The words are, indeed, squirmy, and uncomfortable ones, for us.  Indeed, so uncomfortable, that even the Lutheran church omitted this Psalm from the collection which was printed in the old Lutheran Book of Worship … the “green” hymnal.
Ah, but ELW brings it back to us, full and square on … the situation, clear and unmistakable.
The Israelites have been invaded and have been taken off into exile, by force, from their own land, to the land of their Babylonian captors.  Jerusalem, the temple, their home and their faith, it lies in ruins. 
And all there is left, right here, right now, for the Israelites, is loss.  Mourning, and pain, and anger.
Singing about smashing Babylonian babies into the rocks.
Who, indeed, can blame them?
Who, indeed, can blame others, of every time and place, including our own, who, in their suffering, in their loss, having had what they had, even, perhaps, in its meagerness, taken away from them … wanting, willing, to lash out, in anger, to exact an equal amount of suffering on those who they perceive have done the same to them?
Who, indeed.
Setting aside the “rightness” of the actions desired behind these words for a moment … we can’t deny that this is real, and raw, human emotion.  To deny it, is to deny our humanity.  And, indeed, to deny the reality that Jesus has come among us, as the Suffering Servant, one who knows this deep, deep pain and suffering and loss, to take it on himself, and give us back, forgiveness and life and salvation.
Lament is a real part of human life.  And so it shows up in the Bible … in the Psalms, we find it as individual lament, such as in Psalm 22 …

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

And corporate lament, as we hear it here in Psalm 137, or in Psalm 90 …

Turn, O Lord, how long?  Have compassion on your servants!

Or, yes, even in Job’s words, which we’ll sing shortly …

The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.

Lament reminds us that our God is a God who desires relationship with us … as we were reminded last week in the words and music of Holy Trinity Sunday, that relationship of Love inside God, inside the very heart of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, that relationship of Love wills and works to spill out into all the world … most especially, into our hearts, each and every one.
So do not be afraid of Lament.  Do not avoid it, and do not deny it.  God is big enough to take it, take our frustration and anger, our doubt and pain, our suffering and loss … take it on … take it on all the way to the Cross … for in Jesus, God most intimately knows what it is like to be human, and wants and works and wills to be in and with and For Us always, in All Ways.
A Lament-less world is a Fake World.  A world of lies, a plasticky phony world, a sham world.  A church which does not speak and sing of Lament is a useless, sham church … and worship without lament in its songs … happy clappy praise Jesus all the time … is useless, sham worship.
No, we are Lutheran Christians and We Will Lament.  We will live in the reality of this world and in the shadow of the Cross, and what it means for us … A God who knows and hears our Lament, and Pain, and Loss … and takes it into himself … and gives us back life … rich, full, and abundant … so we can live in reality and thus, bravely, fully, being present into the pain and loss of others, to bring them Life, too.
We will live, unashamedly, as People of the Cross.
The Cross which makes it all real.  The Cross which makes us truly human. 
Claimed by The Lord of The Cross, who saves us and makes us whole, for the life to come, and the life that is now.
Thanks. Be. To. God.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

11 June 2017

The Holy Trinity
Matthew 28:16-20
11 June 2017

For those of you who have done any study of relationship systems … whether it’s family systems or office systems or school culture systems or even church systems … the word “triangulation” is probably a dirty word.  Or at least, one heavily laden with negative baggage.
Though it shouldn’t be that way.
Because triangles are simply the way we humans operate in relationship with each other.
Here are a few examples of what I mean.
Person A hears that Person C had something good happen in their life … an upcoming birthday, a child being married, a promotion at work … and Person A wants to surprise Person C with a gift.  So they go to Person B … a mutual friend, relative, acquaintance … to find out what would be suitable.

Person C likes Person B.  A lot.  But Person C can’t get up the nerve to let Person B know this … in person … because they’re too shy, uncomfortable, whatever.  So Person C goes to Person A … again, a mutual friend, acquaintance, etc … to find out if Person B even knows Person C exists.  And what Person C can do to strike up a relationship with Person B.

Yes, I know, that last one sounds like the plot to every episode of the “Partridge Family.”
Those are normal, one might even say, healthy, human triangles.
Ah, but those probably aren’t the ones we think about when we hear that word “triangulation.”
These would be more like it.

The supervisor Jim doesn’t like the job that employee Rex is doing.  But instead of going directly to Rex, he sends another employee … Jane … to tell Rex that “I’ve heard the boss is mad at you because he doesn’t like the job you’re doing” … and then Rex says to Jane, “Oh yeah, well you can tell that so-and-so that I don’t think he’s a very good boss either,” etc. etc.

That’s the illustration of “triangulation” with which we associate the negative … passive-aggressive behavior, people unable, unwilling to speak the truth in love directly to one another, but always involving someone else to ‘do their dirty work.’  It is unhealthy behavior, unbecoming of the people of God … not Christ like, to be sure … and yet, and yet, we know it happens … in workplaces, in families, in congregations … all the time
The only way this unhealthy triangulation can end is if the system is protected against those people whose behavior is making the system ‘sick’ … so we ‘inoculate’ the system to make it strong, and healthy … by living strong, healthy, exemplary lives of faith; reading and studying and praying in the Word of Christ; worshipping, confessing our sins, receiving forgiveness, communing together;  ‘speaking the truth in love’ to our neighbor; and not falling into these unhealthy, passive-aggressive triangles.
And today … today we are presented with another example of healthy triangulation … “Holy Triangulation” … if you will … this Holy Trinity Sunday … a day, a festival in the Church … not about an act of Jesus … but instead … a theological concept … the three in one, one in three nature of our God, Father, Son, and Spirit.
For those of you who have worshipped in a Christian congregation much of your life … you’ve likely heard about all the approaches to this Holy Trinity Sunday … and the larger theological … word about God … concept behind it … you’ve likely heard all that there is for preachers to offer you on this day. 

The Holy Trinity … three in one … it’s like …
An apple.  Core, seeds, flesh.  Three separate parts.  One apple.
An egg.  Yolk, white, shell.  Three separate parts.  One egg.
A Boeing 787.  Carbon fibre.  Plastic.  Titanium.  Three separate parts.  One beautiful airplane.

Ah, but don’t you think God gets plenty tired of those cute little explanatory statements … as tired as we get, year after year, subjecting you to them. 
My favorite quote about the Holy Trinity comes from Martin Luther:

To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.

And it’s true … for us to keep trying to break the Trinity down into some scientific formula for God misses the point of this day entirely.
Perfectly understanding the theological concept of Holy Trinity is not the most important thing for our daily lives ... not as important as what the Holy Trinity is and does and means, for us.
Because the Whole Point about Holy Trinity Sunday … and the one in three, three in one notion of our God which lies behind it … Father, Son, Spirit … why, it’s all about Triangulation … Holy Triangulation!
The Holy Trinity … God, Father, Son, Spirit … what this is all about … and all we need to know about it … is that God wants to live in relationship with us so much, that God sets the pace … the example … lives this out, within God.
And the Holy Trinity … holy triangulation’s difference, to and for us, is that, while we humans so often get relationship messed up … through our own selfishness, oversensitivity, SIN … our human triangulation turns us inward, for what we believe is self-protection, self-preservation … but is really self-centeredness …
God’s Holy Triangulation … Father, Son, and Spirit … is all about relationship turned OUTWARD, to and for the sake of the world … the creation … the people God loves … US.
What the Holy Trinity means for us is … God wants to live in relationship ... within God ... and outside of God as well, with all of creation ... and especially with us, we who are created in God’s own image.  That’s why God’s Son came to earth to live as one of us, to die as one of us, but also to be raised again, because he was and is fully God, so that we might have eternal life.  And that’s why the Spirit came on Pentecost, to create the Church, so that the Good News about Jesus might be spread throughout the world, so that all people might come to know this wonderful news that our God wants to live in relationship with us.
And out of this relationship comes a promise … a promise for us who are made members of a body of faith in the triune name … a promise which is part and parcel of the triune name … I am with you always.
I am with you always.  A promise we can trust because it is true, because it is from the Keeper of all Promises.  A promise which stands up even when our human relationships don’t reflect the divine relationship on which they are based.  A promise which stands up even when we feel we’ve done something so bad, so horrible on our end that God would not possibly want to be in relationship with us. 
But again, we hear the promise … I am with you always … and we hear God’s call.  God’s call into this same relationship of love, Father-Son-Spirit.  … a call which rescues us from helplessness and hopelessness and despair, and we feel his outstretched arms save us from death itself … a call which turns us around, to be included once again in the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness … the relationship of love, THE love-ly triangle of Father, Son, Spirit in the Holy Trinity spilling out and encompassing us as well, forgiving and renewing and recreating us and all of creation … so that we can go out again, without fear, to share the love of that relationship in other relationships of love, care, forgiveness, grace and peace … with neighbors near and far. 
We are called by God the Father, gathered through the Word of God that is in, with and through Jesus … his drenching Word of Baptismal promise … his filling Word of the Meal which feeds us and sends us forth … his enfleshed Word, which, who we see and meet in the faces and embraces of each other here … and others out there,   … as we are sent forth in this Holy Triangulation … the love-force that is our God … Father, Son, and Spirit … spinning out this Holy Love so that it touches us, and moves us to keep going, keeps us going out, keeps us going on …
Hear that call, friends in the Holy Trinity.   Hear that call, feel that call, be washed and fed in that call …
… and then, GO … GO FORTH in that call … that call which flows out from the very heart of God … through our hearts and hands … to and through and for others … and draws them into this Holy Triangulation too … which pleases God … Father, Son, and Spirit … which pleases God NO END … the unending love relationship, in, with, to and for the world God loves.  Amen

Sunday, May 28, 2017

28 May 2017

Easter 7
Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29
28 May 2017

Today we conclude our end of the program year mini-series on The First Big Church Fight – the story, as conveyed to us through the words of the books of Acts and Galatians, of Paul’s dealings and conflicts with the Jerusalem church, on how to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to the non-Hebrew, or Gentile, world.
And here, finally, this week, Paul shows his anger and frustration at those Galatian Jesus-followers, for turning their back on the Gospel:

You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?

Well, of course, we know the answer to that question, if, as, we’ve been here the past few weeks, working through these texts.  Who is the Jerusalem church, members of which have come to Paul and said to him and the Gentile Jesus-followers in Galatia, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong … if you want to become Jesus-followers like us, you must become completely like us … you must become Jewish first in order to be really Christian. 
Men, you must be circumcised.  All, you must obey the Hebrew dietary laws, and observe the Hebrew holy days. 
Paul saw the fallacy in those words and went to Jerusalem to work things out with Peter and James and the other leaders there.  And they settled things – no circumcision, no dietary laws or holy day observances – just stay clear of the practices of the cult of the empire … those who worship Caesar as lord; Gentile Christians, don’t follow them; instead, remember and live Jesus is Lord, and it will be well with you.
Until … until Peter came to where Paul was, and while he – Peter- was eating a Bacon Cheeseburger at the Antioch McDonalds, some Jerusalem Christians came to him and gave him the stink eye.  So Peter threw away his Value Meal and ran down the street to Kornblatt’s Deli and got a bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup and a kosher dill.
Well, not really.  But it might as well have been like this. Because the end result of Peter’s actions was the same – hypocrisy – and Paul called him on it.

If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

So here, today, Paul tries to settle the argument once and for all, with a rather complex argument which appeals to both Father Abraham and the two uses of the law.
His first point – about Abraham – sends us all the way back to the 12th and 15th chapters of Genesis.  These are the passages Paul is citing –

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

The story of Abraham’s blessing becoming the source of all nations and families’ being blessed, and then Abraham accepting God’s promise at face value, is that to which Paul points for his argument that faith is the only way we are made right with God; not by works, not by what we do.
And then … and then Paul crafts what might well be his most exquisite argument for the place of law, rules, works … and faith.
In formal terms, this is called Paul’s description of the civil use of the law on the one hand, and the religious use of the law on the other. 
So picture, if you will, one of these yellow legal pads … and then, drawing a line down the middle of it, and labeling one side “law” and the other side “faith.”  (We could use the word “gospel” or even “promise” instead of faith, but since Paul uses “faith” we’ll stick with that.)
We’ll leave the “faith” side alone for a second, and stay on the “law” side.
Now draw a line through the middle of the “law” side, and write “civil” on one side and “religious” on the other.
On the civil side, draw a sheep, surrounded by a fence, with a coyote looking in.
The first use of the law is civil.  It’s like a fence.
The fence protects the sheep from getting killed by the coyote. 
It also protects the coyote, because if the coyote got the sheep, no doubt the rancher would come after the coyote with a shotgun, and that would be the end of the coyote too.
And so we hear the term “good fences make good neighbors” and, in the first use of the law, the civil sense, we can agree with that.  The first use of the law protects and orders human life.
That’s what laws do – from the Ten Commandments right on down to the new no holding your cell phone law that Governor Inslee just signed a week ago.  Laws protect us … not just from “those who would do us harm” … but from each other.
That’s the civil use of the law.  And it’s good that God gives us law to protect us.  Don’t kill.  Don’t steal.  Honor parents and those in authority.  Don’t lie.  This civil use of the law is our “disciplinarian” as Paul calls it.
But there’s another use of the law.  And Paul calls it “imprisonment.”  This is the religious use of the law.
For that, on this side of the column, we’ll draw a mirror. 
And we’ll refer once again to our helper and friend, Martin Luther, and his Small Catechism. 
Luther was originally trained in law; he was going to be an attorney before God’s call took him another direction.  So he knew and appreciated the civil use of the law to keep the world in line, to give order to life.
But he was also a Christian theologian, cast from the same die as Paul.  And so when Luther wrote his Small Catechism, he made sure that we knew both uses of the law.
For example:

You shall not murder.
What is this?
We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

Don’t murder.  There’s the civil use, there’s the fence of protection.
But help and support my neighbor in all of life’s needs?  ALL of life’s needs? 
How can I possibly do that? 
And yet, that’s the demand of the Law.  God demands righteousness, full and complete, and so to be righteous we must keep the law fully; the letter AND the spirit.
And so every waking moment has a demand placed on it.  Not just don’t murder, but help and support our neighbor in all of life’s needs.  Not just don’t be adulterous, but lead pure and decent lives in word and deed.  Not just don’t steal, but help our neighbor to improve and protect their property and income.  Not just don’t lie, but come to the defense of our neighbor, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
But when will it stop?  When can I be done doing enough?
And that’s the point, right there.  Luther points out so well that the Law Always Accuses.  You and I can never be done with the Law on our own because the Law is never done with us.  And so we go from having a disciplinarian to a jailer … we become imprisoned by the law, never being able to fully complete all of its demands … until that day when the law makes its final demand of us, and we give up.  Our last bit of strength, our last breath.
It. Is. Finished.
And so the end result of the religious use of the law is that it drives us to Jesus Christ.  For ransom, for rescue, for resuscitation and revival.
He who came and fulfilled the law’s demands through his death on the cross, now gives us the gift of faith in God’s promises, to make us right with God and give us freedom … freedom from the demands of the law … freedom to now live into the Kingdom way of life which Jesus showed us in his life.
And so Paul paints this idyllic picture of what the life of faith is all about …

But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Indeed, in Jesus Christ, there is no distinction, no need for the walls we put up to separate us one from another, no need for labels anymore.
In Christ Jesus, Just Jesus … not Jesus Plus, not what the Galatian Gentile Christians were being told was “true discipleship” … Jesus Plus Circumcision, Jesus Plus Dietary Laws, Jesus Plus Observing Holy Days, rituals and customs … NO … In Christ Jesus Alone do All Lives Matter.
Which brings us to another question.
So why do we still need to highlight the differences?
That one, has a simple answer.
Because of sin.  Because of sin, we still need the law, our disciplinarian, our guide, if you will, our guide back to Christ, guiding us back to repentance when we sin … which we will, all of us, as Luther points out, we are simultaneously saint and sinner.
The church, as Luther points out, is a hospital for sinners.
And so we need to take our medicine regularly.  That means having those shortcomings, those sins, pointed out to us, and repenting of them.
Last weekend’s NW Washington Synod Assembly was a good example of that.
This year I served as the Chair of the Reference and Counsel committee.  That meant any resolutions for our synod or memorials – wishes, hopes, requests – to the Churchwide Assembly in 2019 – went through us before they got to the assembly floor, where I as chair presented them to the synod assembly.
This year, we had four resolutions, all of which passed nearly unanimously.
The first was on reminding us that God calls us as church to welcome and help refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers, and that when the State’s wishes come into conflict with God’s call, like Peter elsewhere in Acts, we proclaim “We must obey God rather than men.”
The second, third and fourth reminded us that there are groups in this country – in these resolutions and memorials, LGBTQ+ people, in one in particular, transgender people – who often face injustice in society and also in the church.  And so we need to particularly uphold these people in prayer, and in action, to make sure that they receive justice.
Yes, these are “-- lives matter” resolutions.  But the reason we need to say “-- lives matter” is because of sin.  Because of the sins of injustice, and discrimination, and fear.
We need only look to Jesus, who in his ministry, most certainly lived the Kingdom way of “All Lives Matter” but because of sin and the separation we bring on ourselves, preached “Poor Lives Matter,” “Widows’ Lives Matter,” “Outcasts Lives Matter,” “Imprisoned Lives Matter,” “Immigrant, Asylum Seeker, Stranger and Alien Lives Matter” to remind us that justice is the Way of the Kingdom … pointing in particular, and going in particular to these “least of these” brothers and sisters … and more, calling us to repentance from building up walls that divide us from one another … then giving us forgiveness and freedom to go and live lives of freedom in service to God through these neighbors.
The point is, once again and always, that it’s Just Jesus that does all this for us.  Laws, rules, resolutions and memorials are necessary fences, reminding us that we must be about protecting the vulnerable … but they also make good mirrors, showing us how far short we fall from God’s good and gracious will for us. 
And so it’s Just Jesus … his life, his serving, his suffering, his death and his resurrection … Just Jesus … that gives us the gift of faith in the promises of God … promises that come to us freely, freeing us from our imprisonment to the death-bound spiral … freeing us for life.

Just Jesus.  Not Jesus Plus … Anything.  Just Jesus.  Leading us … rescuing us … saving us … from death, for life.
So … no more bewitching.  No more excuses.  Just freedom … to live and serve.  Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

21 May 2017

Easter 6
Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
21 May 2017

So, here, today, we have the sequel to our scripture-story from last week – which, as those of you who heard or read it online, remember, was the Word from Acts about the First Big Church Fight.
This was the encounter between Paul – who was preaching and teaching the Gentiles (non-Jews) that salvation in God comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone, not by works of the law – chiefly, circumcision, and the Hebrew dietary and worshipping customs and rules … this was the encounter between Paul, and the “Jewish Christians,” those believers who came to Paul and said, no, what you are preaching and teaching is not correct; in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus you must also be a faithful Jew … men must be circumcised, dietary rules and regulations must be followed, holy days must be observed.
But there is a difference between last week’s word, and this week’s.  The word from Acts is that the First Big Church Fight ended with the Jerusalem church leaders placing just a few requirements on the Gentile converts to whom Paul was preaching.  And those requirements were:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

And why those requirements?  Because these were behaviors of those who participated in the cult of Rome – by those who worshipped the Emperor.  And, since “Jesus is Lord” was the first creed of the church – that, standing over and against “Caesar is Lord,” which was the demand of the Roman state … well, we can understand why the Jerusalem church leaders said these things.  Because being a Caesar-follower, and being a Jesus-follower, were, in these instances, directly opposed to each other … whether you were a Gentile or a Jew, it didn’t matter, following the One God meant some direct opposition to being Loyal To The State.
And so the Acts version of the story ends with Paul and Barnabas leaving this peaceful scene in Jerusalem, going back to their calling of spreading the Good News to the Gentile world.
But that is NOT what we have before us today.
Paul’s word to us from Galatians comes like fingernails on a blackboard to anyone who is coming at The First Big Church Fight with a wish for a calming “Can We All Just Get Along?” 
So what’s going on here anyway? Are we getting two very different stories here from these two books of the Bible?  Does the Scripture contradict itself?  And if so, should we not trust it?
Let’s dig in.
As we look at our Galatians reading, and compare it with corresponding texts in Acts, we do find some key differences. 
In Acts chapter 9, Paul’s persecution of the church, and then, his conversion to being a Jesus-follower, are told in a story which many of us know quite well.  While Paul was on the way to Damascus to arrest some Jesus-followers, he was met by the risen Jesus, and struck blind for a time, until another Jesus-follower named Ananias came to Paul and he - Paul - was healed.  Then according to Acts, Paul started to proclaim the Word about Jesus in Damascus, and then went to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples there. 
But the story Paul tells in Galatians is different.  After his conversion, Paul says he went to Arabia, and then came back to Damascus.  Later verses in chapter 1 which aren’t before us today say that after three years Paul did go to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, and James the brother of Jesus.  Still later verses in chapter 2 describe how, fourteen years later, Paul took Barnabas to Jerusalem, where Paul’s description of the Jerusalem church council has a similar outcome – the Jerusalem church encouraged Paul to continue his proclamation to the Gentiles, and to not require circumcision or following the Hebrew rules of diet and holy day observance – in other words, Gentile Christians were not required to become Jews first, before they could be part of the Church.
So what do we make of this?  Well, certainly, the stories don’t line up perfectly.  But I don’t believe that is a big deal.  Acts, after all, is a secondary source for these stories about Paul, while Galatians is the Word from Paul directly, in his own writing. 
The story in Acts could have been heard wrong, passed down and changed, or any number of things could have happened along the way from oral tradition to written word.
So this isn’t that important.  The Bible is God’s Word for us, yes, but God’s Word passed down to us humans through some very human means … oral tradition, then hand copied, over hundreds and thousands of years.  The Scriptures we have before us today have come down to us through the centuries with thousands of fingerprints on them.
So instead, let’s take the advice of Martin Luther, and find and hear the for us in these words.
And when we do that, we can hear that God wanted the Word about Jesus to spread to the entire world, not to remain just among the people of Judea and Samaria.  So much so that God would not let anything … rules and regulation of human religion in particular … get in the way of that proclamation.  God through Jesus Christ wants all the world to be gathered into the Way of the Cross, following the Lord of the Cross.
Now that’s good news for the Gentiles of then, and we Gentiles now, isn’t it?
And so let’s go to the second point, which is the Word in Galatians about Peter’s hypocrisy. 
After saying – in both accounts, Acts and Galatians – after saying that the Gentile Christians were not going to be required to become Jews first … “Just Like Us” Jesus-followers, just like the Jewish Christians … after saying that, Peter contradicted himself.
Peter does the exact opposite of what he said to Paul and the other disciples about the Gentiles, in Acts chapter 15:
“In cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."

Yet here in Galatians, according to Paul, he did the opposite.  Peter was exercising his Christian freedom, having a ham and pastrami sandwich smeared with mayo and mustard … until “certain people” came from James … then Peter drew back, threw away his ham and pastrami, and went to the kosher deli and got himself a bowl of matzoh ball soup and a kosher dill pickle. 
Well, maybe not.  But you get my point.
Peter went from “we are justified – made right with God – by faith, not by works of the law, so that no one may boast,” to “Jesus-plus.”  Jesus PLUS works makes you right before God.  Jesus PLUS circumcision.  Jesus PLUS diet.  Jesus PLUS observing traditions and holy days. 
So Paul called him on his hypocrisy.

But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

In other words, Peter, you claimed that Jesus makes us right by faith and not by works, and you enjoyed a ham and pastrami sandwich.  But now – with pastrami breath and mayo still on your lips - you claim to be a holy Jew.  
Peter, you can’t have it both ways.
And that brings us to the main point – what should truly be our focus here.  The third paragraph that’s before us.  And specifically:

We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but by through faith in Jesus Christ … for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

This is Paul’s point … in this letter to the Galatians, in his letter to the Roman church, and in those other letters attributed to him.  On our own, there is such a gap between us, and what are the demands of God’s law; that we can never, ever be made acceptable to God from our side of the equation.  It is only through Jesus Christ, his life, his suffering, his death, his resurrection … that the equation is made equal.  It’s Just Jesus.  Even faith, as Paul says in his other letters, even faith is a gift … not a work from our side of the equation. 
Otherwise, as Paul says here, what is the point of Jesus?  If we can make ourselves right through keeping the law perfectly, then why did Jesus have to come anyway, when we could do it all on our own?
The situation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about righteousness by works.  Paul proclaimed to the infant church in Galatia that there was no need for circumcision, or keeping the Hebrew dietary laws, or observing the Hebrew holy days … for non Hebrews.  Just Jesus … just the gift of faith in Jesus Christ … and the new work that faith does in the heart and mind and through the hands of the believer … Just Jesus is all that is necessary.
But some from the Jerusalem church came to Galatia and said, no.  To be real Christians, you have to be like us.  Men, you must be circumcised.  All, you must observe the dietary rules … “keep kosher” … and keep the holy days.
So here in this third paragraph of our text, Paul points to his own personal experience.  Did you hear all those “I’s” and “me’s?”

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul knew how far short he, the most righteous of Hebrews, fell, under the law … because he didn’t, couldn’t, keep God’s most basic, most central commandment … Love one another.  For in loving one another you love God.
And so Paul points out, it’s only in Jesus … Just Jesus … are we made right with God, and right with one another.  Since, in Jesus, we are new people, no longer enslaved to having to try to keep all the rules … and most especially, that main and central one … love one another, for in loving one another you love God … rules, law, we can never keep on our own … now, since we are made right with God through Just Jesus, we have freedom to go and live and serve each other … neighbor to neighbor … in acts of love and service. 
It should be little wonder, then, that Galatians was one of Martin Luther’s favorite texts, and that the letter to the Galatians was at the heart and soul of the Reformation.
As we heard last week, this is at the heart of what it means to be Lutheran.  In our central confessional and organizational document, the Augsburg Confession, we read in Article 7:
And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.

To be Christian … to follow Jesus … is to be fully In Jesus, fully claimed by Jesus Christ, which is work done only by God through the faith God gives to us in Jesus Christ.  Not by anything we do.  Not in our all-too-human divisions and hierarchies of separation we set up for ourselves. 
The message of the Gospel is that it’s Just Jesus that makes us right with God, and Just Jesus that makes us one people of God, people who walk in the shadow of, following the Cross of, Jesus Christ.  Just Jesus Christ, and the faith that God’s grace alone brings and gives to us, through forgiveness, through Word and Sacrament, through the weekly gathering of the struggling faithful … you and me … Just Jesus.  Period.  In Jesus Alone … as all we need for being God’s New Creation, all we need for being One in that New Creation, is to be one In Jesus Alone … then, only then, as we let go of everything else – all that we grasp to somehow justify ourselves over and against another – as we let go, and cling only to Christ, his Cross, his salvation, then, and only then, do we have it right.
No more “grades of Christian.”  No more “to follow Jesus, you must become fully like me.”  No more, of that, forever.
All are claimed.  All are named.  All are gathered, fed, and sent in the One Name of Jesus the Christ, our One Lord and Savior, who alone through Water and Word, Bread and Wine, Confession and Forgiveness, Spirit-filled worshiping community … in Jesus the Christ, we are in the One who alone makes us right, and one, and holy, and free, for service, for love … for life.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

14 May 2017

Acts 15:1-18
5 Easter
14 May 2017

I don’t know if it crossed your living recently … but the last days of April and the first few days of May marked the 25th anniversary of the LA riots.  For most of us, it was a distant event played out on our TV screens, on the then-still-infant 24 hour cable news channels. 
But for those who lived there in the area, the anniversary brought back many memories.
My cousin Dawn grew up in Playa Del Rey.  She was a teenager in 1992, living not far from South Central LA where everything happened.  Dawn put these words up on her Facebook page this past week:

Wow, 25 years ago. The scariest thing in my life until 9/11. My parents' house was about 15 miles away. I remember my Dad calming me down each night, but he probably didn't sleep. How far we have come ... how far we still have to go.

Dawn’s dad is my relative connection to her – Richard – from the German Russian Richters.  But her mom – Liz – is Hispanic.  So it wasn’t just her physical proximity to everything that was going on, but even in her own family – my family – she, her mom and her brother haven’t ever really been fully accepted. 
But what’s likely most memorable for most of us from that time was Rodney King, the man at the center of it all … now pleading, tearfully, before the whole nation,

I just want to say, can we all get along?  Can we get along?

It was a moment, a moment for all of us … a moment that’s still playing out among us today, in the “lives matter” movements of which we hear and see so much.
So I wonder … I wonder about Rodney King’s words, twenty five years on.  For it is so often as an offense that the “lives matter” word comes to many of us … “black lives matter” … “brown lives matter” … “Native Lives Matter” … “LGBTQ lives matter.”  And as that word comes as offense to us, we may want to apologize for it, soften it up by adding a “too” at the end … as in, “Black Lives Matter, too.”
But as I’ve listened, I’ve heard that word offends “them” – as in, “why should we have to be a ‘too?’
And so there’s our other response, “All Lives Matter,” which we believe to be well-intended – but then, I suppose, it doesn’t mean very much, it is a cheap word indeed, when “they” are objectified … when we say, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” … “I’m not a bigot, I have a gay friend.”
And it’s cheap talk, indeed … when “all” to so many of us means “you can become fully part of my “all,” so long as you become like me.” 
And we say, we “tolerate” the differences.  But how different, how different, is “tolerance” from LOVE?  We say we “tolerate” the differences – but do we LOVE our neighbor in and through them???
Well, we’re not going to solve this mess in fifteen minutes.
So perhaps we should dig into the text.
And when we do that, what we find is that, what we have before us today, is the quintessential “All Lives Matter” text from Scripture, this story from Acts which we call “The Jerusalem Council.” 
For those of you who like church fights, well, here we have The First Big Church Fight. 
Paul, with his companion Barnabas, had been proclaiming the word about Jesus among the Gentile – non-Jewish – people of the area of Asia known as Galatia.  Many Gentiles had become Jesus-followers – and Paul had told them that in no way did they have to submit to following the Hebrew laws – namely, that the men would have to be circumcised, and that all of them would have to follow the Hebrew dietary laws.
But this didn’t go over well with the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem, who had continued to live as faithful Jews while also being part of “The Way,” which was what the infant Church was called.  The men of The Way in Judea were circumcised, they worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem, they all followed the Hebrew dietary laws – what we would call “keeping kosher” – and they also observed and kept the Hebrew Holy Days.
So some of these “Jewish Christians” came to where Paul and Barnabas were preaching to the Gentiles, where the Gentiles were hearing the call to follow Jesus, and they told them

Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.

Paul and Barnabas, the text says, had “no small dissension and debate with them.”  Sounds like church fight annual meeting minutes, doesn’t it … really, people were yelling at each other, insulting each other, hurting each other with words and looks … but we can’t put anything that blatant in the notes, can we? 
Someone in the future might read them.  We might look bad.  No, you better write “they had no small dissension and debate.”
So Paul and Barnabas set off for Jerusalem, to get this worked out.
We can’t minimize the importance of this act.
Paul said that all people would be saved – made right before God – by God’s grace, not by the works of the law.  The Jerusalem church said yes, Gentiles could also be saved – TOO – if they became Jewish, like us, first.
So what was at stake here, was the very future of the church.  Would Christianity – the Way – Jesus-following – remain a movement only for Jews?  Would “Gentile Lives Matter” … would they be loved and accepted as full members of the church, saved by Jesus, not TOO, but JUST AS THEY WERE, and just as the Hebrew Jesus-followers … or would their lives … on earth, for eternity … only matter so long as “they” became like “us” … circumcised, Hebrew Law followers and keepers?
So they head to Jerusalem.  But first Paul and Barnabas passed through the northern areas … note especially Samaria.  This is most certainly mentioned for a reason.  Recall Jesus’ clear words to his followers in that parable in Luke that “Samaritan Lives Matter” … surely an offensive word to the Judean Christians … so those Samaritan Christians, who didn’t worship at the Jerusalem Temple, they knew they were fully saved, fully as Jesus-followers as those Jerusalem Christians. 
Finally, they got to Jerusalem, and met with the “biggies” of the Church.  Remember Paul would have, probably, been looked at as a second-class Christian by some … because he, though also a Jew, started out his public life as a persecutor of the Church.  But then came his conversion on the way to Damascus, where the Spirit of Jesus appeared to him, and everything changed.
Ah, but those “biggies” of the Church … Peter, James, Simeon … they were the disciples Jesus hand selected when he was beginning his earthly ministry.  They had been there from the beginning.  So the onus would definitely have been on Paul, to prove why his way was acceptable, in proclaiming the Word about Jesus to the Gentiles.
The apostles and elders heard Paul and Barnabas out.  They also heard from Peter that he tended to agree with Paul – no doubt because of his vision of which we can read in Acts chapter 10, after which Peter made his speech that

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

And so, in the later verses of chapter 15 – which we don’t have before us today, you can read them on your own – in these later verses we read that they all decided that, indeed, the Gentiles were saved, pretty much as they were.  “God shows no partiality.”  These words were their official pronouncement:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

You will note that they said nothing about Gentiles having to be circumcised, or that they must go to the Temple in Jerusalem, or keep Hebrew dietary laws, or observe the Hebrew High Holy days. 
These few requirements were seen as vital because these were behaviors of those who participated in the cult of Rome – by those who worshipped the Emperor – and since “Jesus is Lord” was the first creed of the church – that, standing over and against “Caesar is Lord,” which was the demand of the Roman state … well, we can understand why they said these things.  Because being a Caesar-follower, and being a Jesus-follower, were, in these instances, directly opposed to each other … whether you were a Gentile or a Jew, it didn’t matter, following the One God meant some direct opposition to being Loyal To The State.
And so ended the First Big Church Fight … well, not really.  Because next week’s text from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians points out how the Jerusalem church … and in particular, Peter, couldn’t live into the Word of God in Jesus which says that faith in Jesus Christ is enough, and that You don’t need to become Exactly Like Us to be One With Us In Christ.
And so throughout history, the First Big Church Fight has continued.  Is faith in Jesus Christ enough for salvation … or does there need to be something more? 
Of course, we know the answer to that question.  We had better, if we claim to live under this banner called Lutheran.  For it was Luther’s Great Discovery in the Scriptures … particularly, Paul’s letters … that we are made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ alone … not by works of the law, so that no one may boast.
Indeed, in the words of our organizing document … the Augsburg Confession … words which I and other pastors promise to preach and teach to the congregations in which we serve … in Article 7, we have these clear and simple words:

And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.

But, oh, how hard it is for us to live into these words!    Because, so much of the time, then, now, still, Christ Alone – Grace Alone – Faith Alone … these are not enough, that’s the word that’s proclaimed, if not in word, then in action.
It’s Jesus PLUS … PLUS works.  PLUS politics.  PLUS sexuality.  PLUS worship style. 
Yes, the word from the “inside” to the “outside,” is once again, “All Lives Matter” …, but, really meaning that, “you can become fully part of my ALL so long, as long, as you become like ME. “
But that is not the message of the Gospel.  It is a sinful, condemning word … and we stand condemned as strongly as Paul condemns Peter in next week’s Word from Galatians, as Peter chooses the path of smoothness and convenience over the oftentimes rocky, difficult, even conflict-laden road of faithfulness. 
The message of the Gospel is that it’s Just Jesus that makes us one.  Just Jesus Christ, and the faith that God’s grace alone brings and gives to us, through forgiveness, through Word and Sacrament, through the weekly gathering of the struggling faithful … you and me … Just Jesus.  Period.  In Jesus Alone … as all we need for unity is to be one In Jesus Alone … then, only then, as we let go of everything else – all that we grasp to somehow justify ourselves over and against another – as we let go, and cling only to Christ, his Cross, his salvation, then, and only then, do All Lives Matter.
I may have mentioned that some of my younger colleagues have begun a movement called “Decolonizing Lutheranism.”  They have some of those internet memes – you know, those words with pictures – and they have pictures of various, what we would call, ethnic dishes … enchiladas, fried rice, sadza (an African dish) … and below it, it says “You might be Lutheran if …”
The point being, that being a Lutheran Christian goes far beyond lutefisk and lefse, and Ole and Lena jokes, and Scandinavian and Germanic hymnody and culture … and that this Word of God’s grace has to be for more than just white folks with an average age of about 60, who have roots in the upper Midwest.
Otherwise, our future, as a congregation, as a church body or denomination, is really and truly at a Dead End.
You know, in the world, soon, if not already, most Lutherans will live in the southern hemisphere – Africa – and that the face of world Lutheranism isn’t white, blonde haired, blue eyed European anymore … but black, kinky haired, brown eyed … African.
And so the question comes back once again.
Can we all get along?
Well, can we?
They will, indeed, know we are Jesus-followers … not by our “tolerance,” but by our love.  And only, by our love.

Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor … therefore love is what fulfills the Law.