Monday, February 8, 2016

Why Don't They "Get It"?

A couple of years ago I was hanging out with pastoral colleagues at a conference.
A newly ordained colleague was talking about her new call.
She was talking about how the congregation needed to change.
How they didn’t “get it”.
How they only thought about themselves and not about the people outside of the church.
This is a familiar story.
I hear many pastors talk this way.
Being a pastor is a weird profession for many reasons but one of them is because our job is all about people.
At the end of the day or a career there isn’t a lot to point to that shows our success in this area.
We don’t build things, create things, we don’t make lots of money.
We bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people.
And at the end of the day often there is nothing tangible to show us that we did that well or we failed.
So we measure our success by how much people, “get it”.
That night I challenged my newly ordained colleague and told her that I think that her congregation will never change, they will never “get it”.
And that it is not our job to change people.
That if she believes that is what she is doing she will end up really disappointed.
Over my 12 years of ministry I have tried to keep this in mind.
It was told to me by a veteran pastor when I was just starting out.
And for the most part I can remember this and not be frustrated.
I can love all of you for who you are, and not who I think you should be.
Every now and then it does get to me.
I get frustrated because I realize that even though I preach every week about opening ourselves up to others it doesn’t seem to get through.
And every now and then I can’t hold back.
I become disheartened and wonder why am I doing this.
What is the point?

What often saves me is realizing my own inability to change.
I would love to be one of those pastors who is always calm cool and collected.
I am sure that is how my grandfather was a pastor.
He always seemed to be graceful knowing the right thing to say and the right way to say it.
But that is not me.
I can’t always hide my displeasure.
I can’t always say the right thing.
So if I can’t change why would I expect you to?
If I fail often in my discipleship why would I expect you to be perfect in yours?

Maybe our Gospel this morning can help all of us.
Because when we read this Gospel about the transfiguration we might want to think about the disciples.
What did it do to them?
How were they changed after seeing Jesus with their religious heroes Moses and Elijah?
How did they change after having heard the voice of God from the cloud?
The answer is they didn’t change at all.
Peter is still impetuous speaking before he thinks.
When they come down off the mountain they are unable to cast out the demon of a young boy, even though Jesus had shown them how to do it before.
After this in Luke there will be other stories of how the disciples are not ready, and don’t get it.
Reading about the disciples always makes me feel better because I see myself in them.
I see the church in them.
Imperfect, fumbling, stubborn, blind.
But you see this is the point.
The story of the transfiguration is not about the disciples at all.
It is about Jesus.
It is not the disciples that are transformed, changed, and transfigured it is Jesus.
Jesus is the one who becomes “dazzling white”.
Jesus is the one who talks with Moses and Elijah.
Jesus is the one that is called “my son, my chosen” by God.
The attention of this story belongs on Jesus.
This is Luke’s way of saying to us that Jesus is the one we should listen to.
Jesus is the one who will die in Jerusalem on the cross to save us.
Jesus is the one who is the savior.
Jesus is the one who changes not us.

And isn’t that the problem.
We have made this all about us.
How we need to change.
How we need to grow in discipleship.
How we need to be different.
How we need to do this or that.
And church is not about any of that.
It is about seeing Jesus in all his glory for what he is our savior.
This is not about us, it is about Jesus.
And that is what gives me hope for our congregation and the Church at large.
As St. Paul says, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Not because we believe that we will change and someday we will magically “get it”.
Not because we believe that we will someday wake up and be ready to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Not because our efforts to being better people are successful, but because we know the wonderful mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ.
That is what saves us.
That is what our ministry is built on.

At Wednesday worship this week when we were talking about this Gospel lesson people didn’t have a lot to say.
Lots of times we have to end the conversation before we run out of things to say about it.
But this week we ended just sitting there staring at our papers.
That is the correct and really only response to this story.
It is a mystical story that defies explanation.
It is outside our experience.
And we have the same reaction that the disciples had who witnessed it first hand, silence.
And that is perhaps the only reaction we should have in the face of the mystery and wonder of God.
Not some treaties on the nature of God.
Not some list of things that we need to work on and get better at.
But simply silence in the face of a God that is dazzling white.
A God, who gave the law, spoke through the prophets, created the world, and sent his son to fulfill it all.
A God who is filled with mercy.

That is the God of this Church.
It is the God who makes this ministry possible, because it is not built on me as your pastor (Thank God), and my agenda.
It is not built on you.
It is not built on you “getting it”.
It is built on the mercy of God who has called us here together.
This ministry is not here so that you can change, it is because we can’t, won’t, and don’t.
It is here because we are all so imperfect, stubborn, sinful, selfish, and lost that we need a savior.
We need a savior to shine light into the dark places of our lives.
We need a savior to bring us good news.
We need a savior to bring us hope.

And today on this transfiguration Sunday God has done that through his son Jesus Christ.
Today may you see Jesus dazzling white connecting us to the source of mercy that gives us hope so we do not lose heart.

Monday, January 11, 2016

God's Proclamations!

In our texts this morning what we have are proclamations from God.
Proclamations about who Jesus is, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
And because we are baptized into Christ Jesus these are proclamations that we share as children of God.
Proclamations about who we are, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
In our baptisms God proclaims to us these Biblical truths.
That we are God’s forever, and no matter what we can’t lose God.
Because we have not chosen God, but God has chosen us.
God has called us by name and redeemed us.

I know that these are concepts that seem far from everyday life.
There would seem to be an easier way to talk about God in our lives.
I have heard people talk about television preachers like Joel Olsteen.
People seem to like these popular preachers because they supposedly give messages about “everyday life”.
On the other hand, I have been told, that lots of mainline protestant pastors get caught up in theological explanation that don’t seem to have a lot to do with life.
I don’t think that is the difference at all.
Joel Olsteen, and other preachers like him, gives a message about self reliance.
He tells people that they can have it all, if they believe enough, if they are good enough, all their dreams can come true.
I think people like that message.
It is a message based on self.

I can’t give you that message this morning, or any Sunday morning really.
I can’t give you that message because it is not a Biblical message.
I also can’t give you that message because it is not totally the truth.
We all don’t make our own way.
We all can’t will ourselves to be better, or do better.
We cannot accomplish all of our dreams.
Some of who we are is defined by where we are born, what social economic class we are born into.
Some it has to do with who are parents are.
Some of it has to do with luck.
I offer as proof the amount of people who bought a lottery ticket this weekend in hopes of winning the $900 million dollar jackpot.
Why buy a lottery ticket if we can will our way to be anything we want?
If that was true wouldn’t all those who bought a ticket simply will their way to being a millionaire?
One of the ad campaigns for the lottery, it actually says, “Luck Happens.”
People bought tickets in the hopes of getting lucky.
They bought it in hopes of paying off bills, helping their families lives improve, giving some to charities they believe in.
They bought a ticket because life wasn’t all they wanted it to be, all they thought it should be.
The life they have actually worked really hard for isn’t good enough, so they need luck.

What we often hear.
What the world proclaims to us.
What we hear over and over again in subtle ways, and sometimes in overt ways, “You are not good enough.”
“Your life is not good enough.”
The things that you have actually worked really hard for don’t matter enough.
There needs to be more.
You should be in better shape.
You should have more money.
You should have smarter kids.
You should want more than this ordinary life.

I got a letter from Portico, this is the ELCA group that handles pastors retirement and health care, a while back.
It was a letter about my retirement.
And basically the message was, “You haven’t done enough for retirement. You will be broke and old someday.”
The message was I was failing at retirement and I haven’t even got there yet.
And this was from Portico which is supposed to be a ministry of the Church!
You see there are all sorts of proclamations like this in our lives.
They tell us we should be better.
They tell us we are not good enough.

And then the world tells us we don’t have what we want because we have not worked hard enough for it.
And then some religious person tells us that we don’t have because we don’t believe enough.
And we make ourselves crazy, depressed, and anxious because we don’t have the life that we think we need, or even believe we want.
Or we work harder and harder trying to get that life only to find out that is not very fulfilling either.
Some people win the lottery and their life gets worse.

Life is so much more complicated than simply get rich and life will be fine.
Even rich people have problems.
And those can’t be solved by money, fame, or buying more things.
And I can’t tell you that life will get better if you only believe more because it simply isn’t true.

What I offer you instead of a life trying always to be better, to do more, is the everyday wonder and magic of God’s grace.
I offer you the life of a baptized member of God’s family.
What that gets you is a proclamation from the creator of the universe.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Do not fear that you are good enough, have done enough.
Do not fear that you are worthy.
Do not fear that you don’t have enough.
Do not fear that you haven’t saved enough for retirement.
Do not fear that you are a failure.
You are mine.
You are loved.
You are good enough.

I wonder if we go through our days thinking about that fact?
Do we live our lives under that truth?
Because that is what grace is about.
It is about knowing that what we do will never be enough.
We can never do enough to make life better.
But what we cannot do, God has already done.
I really do believe in the core of myself that if we could really live under that grace our lives would be truly better.
Not superficially better, but really better.
We would love more and judge less.
We would give more and horde less.
We would try more and worry less.

Because you see often times we don’t try because we worry about failing.
But failing at something is not the problem.
It is the idea that we would never do it because we might look foolish.
My daughter this week tried out for the spelling bee in her class.
Truth is she is like her father and not very good at spelling.
But I was proud of her, not because she won, but because she was not afraid to fail, and tried anyway.
That is what our Baptisms can do for all of us.
It can help us to know that even in failing we are worthy, and loved.
That is true to life.
It is the real experience that we have.
Not that if we just try real hard, and believe we will succeed.
But that sometimes even when we try and believe we will fail, and that is ok because at the center of our lives, at the center of the universe is a God that has proclaimed us loved, redeemed.
A God who has called us by name, and we know we belong to God.

I hope you all go out this week and fail.
And that in the failure you remember that your worth is not determined by what the world proclaims about you, but about what God has proclaimed about you.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Story

Our choir sang the song, “There has never been a night like this!”
It is true that this night is wonderful, beautiful, magical, because there has never been a story like the one we share tonight.
That talks of God’s glory, majesty, and love.
What is it about this story?
What is it that makes it so important to us?
Why do we write songs about it?
Why do we make up plays about it?
What draws us here tonight to hear it again?
We should admit from the start that this is a story in opposition to other stories.
Because even at the time of it’s telling there are other stories competing for attention.
Consider that nowhere is there any Roman historian who wrote about Jesus birth.
If I could put it in modern terms there were no news cameras there, no mention of it on Facebook or twitter.
It would seem on the surface of all things to be insignificant.
A baby is born, is generally not news, unless it is a baby from some famous person or royalty.
This baby is born in a unassuming way in a manger, in a little town of no real significance.
Jesus birth really does not mean anything.
But it does.
It means everything.
The story has gone on for two thousand years.
It is here tonight for us to marvel over and receive grace and hope from.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was born in the middle of another story where an empire ruled the known world.
Jesus was born among a story of military might, and lots of petty despots.
Jesus story is counter to the popular narrative.
Jesus story tells us of poor shepherds, of angel singing “peace on earth”.
Jesus story tells us of good news for all people!
The Roman story told us there was peace because of military might.
The Roman story told us that it was good news if you were a Roman citizen.
The song that Phil sang at the start of worship tells us that Jesus was born among a troubled time.
That Jesus was born in a weary land, filled with people that wanted to kill him, filled with a counter story.
And we too live in a weary land.
I don’t know about you but I often feel weary with all the things going on in the world.
I feel weary because the story we often hear is about how horrible things are.
The story we hear is of exploitation of people and of the earth.
We hear a story of violence, hatred, and greed.

And perhaps that is why we love this story.
It is counter programming for us.
In our world that is torn apart by political dissension.
In our world where we are told that a strong military makes us safe, but we don’t feel any safer.
In world where there are nightly news reports of bad news.
We still need a story that tells us of good news and true peace.
 We need to know that in small places that no one is paying attention to, mystical, spiritual things are happening.

We need this story, and that is what keeps us going.
That is why we come to hear it.
Why we sing it.
Why we put on plays with cute kids.

I must say that I have been one for keeping the story straight.
That Luke’s telling of the story is different than Matthew’s for theological reasons.
But I am also aware that the story that most of us know is not only from Luke or Matthew it is from both.
Growing up before we could open our gifts we had to read the Christmas story.
And the story we read was a mash up of Luke and Matthew’s Gospel.
It had both shepherds and Wise men.
It had the stable and the manger.
It had angel’s appearing and the star.
I have come to see that as part of our need for this story.
It is not enough to know Luke or Matthew’s we want to understand this story from all the angels.
It is why we make up songs that are not 100% Biblically accurate, but that get at what the story is trying to tell us about our lives and what God was doing through the birth of Jesus.

Because what the birth of Jesus means is mind blowing, and quite frankly impossible to fully understand.
To think that the Lord of heaven and earth would become human is an amazing thought.
To think it would happen in this way is even more amazing.
If God was going to come to rule, why not come as a emperor?
In fact, that was the story of Rome that the Emperor was god on earth.
That people should worship the Emperor because he had conquered foreign lands.
The story we love does not make sense.
It is why many disparage it as a fairy tale.
In fact, one atheist group put up a billboard that read, “Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church. I am too old for Fairy Tales.”
Many people they can’t understand why God would come to earth in such a way.
If God were to come to earth it would be bigger, grandeur, better known.

But all of that misses the point.
The fact that it happened in this way is the point.
God is not interested in the same story as the Roman Empire.
God is interested in the story of a savior coming to show us another kingdom of heaven filled with love and peace.
God is interested in using people like the shepherds who are not very interesting.
God is interested in using stories of the ordinary becoming extraordinary.

This is the story of the union of heaven and earth through the love act of God.
It is the story that we love and we can’t get enough.
It is the story we keep telling.
It is the story we keep re-inventing through plays, books, and song to help us understand it better.

Tonight we hear that story again.
We remember God’s extraordinary, amazing love through shepherds, two poor people, a baby born in lowly circumstances.
And we remember that the story we often hear in the media, in political speeches, on television does not have to be the only story.
There is one greater, and with deeper meaning to us.
It is the story of God’s good news for all people.
It is the story of God coming down to earth to reside with God’s people.
 Let us leave here tonight as the Shepherds did after hearing this amazing unbelievable story, “glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, as it has been told to us.”