Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Death Is Necessary!



This week I was reading that Sears is going to go out of business.
This is a big deal for me.
My paternal grandfather was a Sears’ man.
In fact he met my grandmother while both of them were working at Sears.
My Dad worked at Sears for most of his career.
He bought a house, and sent three kids to school while working at Sears.
I still will go to Sears to buy things.
Not because I think Sears has awesome products or even great deals.
I do it mostly for nostalgia.
I like to go to Sears because it reminds me of my Dad.
Often times I would drop by Sears to visit him at work.
Being there reminds me of him, and connects me to my past.
I was sad to hear that it was going to die.
It got me thinking of how things die.

So, this morning we are going to talk about death.
It is not a subject that we like to talk about very much.
It is actually something that we try to avoid.
Most of our actions in life are dictated by trying to avoid death as long as possible.
I heard a hospital chaplain once say that everyone believes that they have at least five years left.
That we all know on a some level that we will die, but that we all believe that we have at least five years to live.
This is the reason people are always shocked to hear when they found out they are dying.
We just don’t like to think about it so we move it down the road.
It is unpleasant to think about.
What I want you to leave here today knowing is that death is not only unavoidable but that it is necessary.

Our Gospel this morning is a story about death and resurrection.
What stood out to me this time was that Jesus waited.
Jesus was told that a good friend of his was dying.
Instead of dropping whatever he was doing, and running to be with his friend, Jesus waited.
He waited two whole days.
By the time he arrives in Judea it has been four days.
The reason for this is partly particular for the telling of the story.
It was the Jewish belief that it was after 3 days that the soul leaves the body.
And Jesus wants to make sure that people know that Lazarus is really fully dead the miracle needed those four days.

The great thing about John’s Gospel is that it works on many levels.
And something else is being told to us.
That death is needed for there to be resurrection.
You can’t have one without the other.

I have seen it many times in Churches.
People want new things to happen.
They want people to come.
They want it to be like the old days.
But they are not willing to let things die.
And as long as we hold unto things there is no resurrection.

It happens in our lives too.
We want something new to happen, but we are not willing to let go of what we have been doing.
We are not willing to see things from a different angle or perspective.
So we hold on to things, and then we don’t understand why nothing changes.
It can’t change without death.
Only when something dies can we have resurrection.

I was once helping a couple through a difficult time in their marriage.
The wife had cheated on the husband and they were trying to decide if they were going to stay together.
I told them that they had to let their old marriage die, and let a new one begin.
They should renew their vows, because only when they let what once was die could resurrection happen.

If you have heard me preach before you know that I am against changing.
I don’t believe people change.
However, I do believe in death and resurrection.
It is the center of our faith.
Only through death do we get to resurrection.
The problem with the change model is that we want things to be different without the difficult work of going through death.
We say, “I will be a better person tomorrow”.
What we should be saying is, “what will I let die?”
What needs to die in me, so God can bring about resurrection?
Change is dependent on our ability to do something better.
Resurrection is based on God’s ability to bring something new out of death.

I was thinking about our prayer lives.
I hope in your prayer life that you are bold to ask God for what you need.
But don’t count out the power of a prayer not answered.
That through that unanswered prayer God is trying to let something die, so that there might be resurrection.
This is why prayer is an ongoing conversation because we don’t know the way that God will be working, or what God will work through in our lives.
We don’t know what God is willing to let die to bring about resurrection.

I want to give a note of caution.
I am not saying that death is easy, or that we should ignore it.
What is also wonderful about this story is that Jesus weeps.
Even though he knows what he will do, he still weeps.
Death is not and never will be easy.
I am not suggesting that God doesn’t care.
Of course God does, but maybe God knows something we don’t.
Maybe the present hardship is only to bring about God’s glory.
God will still cry with you as you go through the process.

So I wonder, what are the things you are holding on to?
What are the things that you won’t let die?
What are the prayers that God does not answer because death needs to happen before resurrection?
What are the things that you are praying for that God might not answer because it needs to die so that something can be resurrected in its place?

I was recently praying that I could turn around the New Hampshire Council of Churches.
I have been the board president for about 6 years.
I thought that I could make this thing better.
But for the last 6 years we have less and less participation, money, and Spirit.
I was working really hard to find a way to make it better for 6 years.
It has been the most frustrating thing I have ever done in my 13 years of ministry.
I had threatened a couple of times to stop being the president.
I couldn’t let it go.
Finally I did.
I have to let it die.
Do you have things in your life like that?
Things you are frustrated with, but won’t let die?
I don’t know what God will do next.
I don’t know what will be resurrected in me, or in the NHCC.
That is the thing about death and resurrection is that it is not always obvious to us that it is happening.
We don’t always know the outcome until much later.
We are often Mary and Martha.
“Lord if you had only been here…”
We have trust that God is up to something not always understanding what it is.

Death is really awful.
We want to avoid it.
I wish that Sears could be there forever so I can go and feel that connection to my grandfather and Dad.
I wish that there would always be a NHCC that brought different Christians together to work for good things in the world.
But in order for God to bring resurrection certain things need to die.
So let us not fight it.
Let us see what God is up to as things in our lives die.
Let us wait to see what God will resurrect so that God’s glory is revealed.
Amen






Monday, February 13, 2017

My Neighbor Needs My Good Works



In college I was deeply involved in Religious life.
I went to worship every Sunday.
I went to midweek Wednesday Jazz services.
I helped organized a mainline protestant group of Students.
My work study job was in the Chapel.
Every year with the chaplain I tried to organize an interfaith group of students to get together and talk about our religions.
The first year of that group it was blown up by the evangelical Christian group.
They came to the meeting, but told us they would not come to any other meetings.
The reason was that at the meeting the Muslim student gave the opening prayer.
The Evangelical Christians said they would not pray with any other religion.
I told them they didn’t need to pray just hear the prayer of someone else.
They said no.
Only in the name of Jesus can a Christian pray or I guess be around someone who is praying.

I was undeterred I tried again the next year.
The Chaplain suggested that this time we don’t pray together.
That we simply get together to have fun, and build relationships.
I approached the student leader of the Evangelical Christian group.
I assured her that there would be no praying this time.
We would just get together and do things like play volleyball.
She told me that they had prayed about it, and they could not be around people of other faiths.
They couldn’t even play volleyball with Muslims.

This past Friday I was at the Masjid here in Concord for the noonday prayer of our Muslims neighbors.
I had been there before.
I wasn’t the only one to go.
There were people from the Synagogue, from South Congregational, From Grace Episcopal, St. Paul’s, and other faith groups around Concord.
One of the ways that the Greater Concord Interfaith Council has decided to show support to our Muslims neighbors is to show up at the Mosque.
The Imam (That is their name for the person who is their pastor) gave a sermon on loving your neighbor.
He told us that having the support of interfaith community in Concord was like a hot summer day when you are out working and sweating.
And then you come inside and you feel the cool breeze of air conditioning.
Our presence at the Mosque that day was the cool breeze.

Think about these two stories.
Which one puts Christianity in a good light?
Which one of these makes you proud to be a Christian?

Jesus today tells us to, “let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and glorify our father in heaven.”
For those of us who grew up Lutheran this does not seem like a verse of Jesus’ that we want to follow.
First of all, Lutherans don’t like to show off.
We don’t like to make a spectacle of our faith.
We wouldn’t want people to know that we are doing good things in the name of God.
It is better to keep that to ourselves.
Second, didn’t we just hear a sermon about not having to earn God’s love?
Are we not saved by God’s grace, and not our good works?

I don’t know what to tell you about the first one.
I think we have to start to get over it, because we are doing so many good things, but the world doesn’t know about it.
What the world hears about is all the ways Christians are failing.
We hear about ways that Christians don’t like Muslims, Gays, abortion, and so forth.
Christians are more known for the things they are against then about the good that they do in the world.
We don’t hear about all the simple good things that people do all the time.

If you will allow me this morning a little bit of a detour.
This week at the Greater Concord Interfaith Council, Hubert, who is the Muslim representative from the Masjid, told us a story about his wife.
She always is covered with a Hijab.
She was in a public restroom.
She was washing her hands and a woman approached her.
The woman asked if she could give her a hug.
She said, “There is so much negative in the world. I just need to do something good and kind.”
They hugged, the woman left and she never saw her again.
This simple, beautiful, heartwarming story is what we are called to be and do in the world by Jesus.
When we love others, we show them Jesus love.
We change hearts and minds through that love.
We have to start to tell those stories, so we are known for our love more than anything else.

As for the second point, it is in many ways ironic that during the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation we are reading Matthew’s Gospel.
This might be Luther’s least favorite Gospel.
In Luther’s Preface to the New Testament of 1522, he commented that John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters, and 1 Peter far surpassed Matthew… in their importance for the church’s proclamation.
In the margins of Luther’s Bible there was a part of Matthew’s Gospel when Luther wrote, “Matthew got it wrong here.”
In Matthew’s Gospel we will notice that Jesus demands things from his followers.
This morning it is that, “Your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.”
That merely following the prescribed law is not enough.
We are called to do more, to be more.
We are called not just to believe in Christ but to live it out.
It seems to be in conflict with an all forgiving, all loving God.
Except it is not, because it is about what happens after we know God’s love and grace.
What does that produce in us?
How does that help us to love our neighbor?
Luther once said, “God does not need my good works, but my neighbor does.”

And it is there with our neighbor that we are called to let our light shine.
It is there we are called to care for others, to reach out.
And it is true that we don’t just reach out to people that we like, or people that look like us, we reach out to everyone, even our enemies.

Matthew’s Gospel is challenging for us, because it is easier to fall into complacency.
It is easy to be ambivalent about things that others face.
We don’t have to deal with discrimination because it doesn’t affect us.
To let our light shines is sometimes uncomfortable, because the light might burn our eyes.
It hurts to look at the light.
It is easier to stay away.

However, Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
And since we know of his saving power, we have a responsibility to share that with our neighbors.
Let me ask another question.
Do you think I am going to heaven if I pray with Muslims?
The answer has to be “yes”, because our salvation is not based on our works but what God has done in Jesus Christ.
So I am free to go to the Mosque and pray with our Muslims neighbors.
I am free to show them love and support.
I am free to let my light shine.
And so are all of you.

Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.
That is our call.
Do not be afraid to show love for your neighbors in doing so you will be a light and a cool breeze on a hot day.
Amen

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Where Is the Fruit?



        
Something has been bothering me throughout this election season. I have kept it mostly to myself sharing it with only a few people. I didn’t share it publicly because our politics are so divisive during a presidential campaign I wouldn’t want to add to that. I wouldn’t want to be seen as for one candidate over another. That is not my job as Pastor. Even after Mr. Trump was elected I thought I would wait and see. I really did give it a try. I didn’t say, “This is not my President”. I didn’t try to make a stink about it. I was hoping that the campaign rhetoric was just talk. I was hoping that maybe we would be brought together. I was hoping that maybe the weight of the office of President would change things, or that Trump would realize he couldn’t build a wall, deport people, or close off the border. I hoped the diplomacy through tweeting and intimidation would stop. I hoped the history and importance of what was being done would be enough. It is not. Every day I wake up with a really bad feeling about the world. As a positive person I am having a hard time finding the silver lining.
            I have to speak up. I have to say something. But I want to be clear about what it is that is bothering me. This is not about policy. This is not about whether we should have a tax cut or not. My grandfather and father were both conservatives. They believed in less government, personal responsibility and old fashion values (like holding the door open for women as they enter a store). People of good will can and do disagree on policy. We disagree about how best to make the world a place that is prosperous for everyone. This is not about that.
            It is about evil. It is about a man who is against all the good things of the world, but wants us to believe it is all good. It is about what it really means to follow Jesus Christ. I say it because Donald Trump has told us that he is a Christian. He has told us that the Bible is his favorite book.  He has said that "nothing beats the Bible". And that he has read it a lot, "Nobody reads the Bible more than me," and yet he doesn’t live his life like he ever read any of it.
            Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that God does not love Donald Trump. It doesn’t mean that he isn’t a Christian. If a Christian is someone who is saved by the grace of God given through Jesus Christ then Donald Trump is that. I believe that God loves and cares for him. This is about Donald Trump’s words and actions and how they go against the things that Jesus has told us to be in this world.

Fruits of the Spirit:
Let us start here. Jesus has told us that,You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:20) People will know us as followers of Jesus Christ by what we do. It is the part that comes after knowing that we are saved by grace. It is the overwhelming feeling we get knowing the love and mercy of God and our response to that truth. St. Paul writes about these fruits in his letter to the church in Galatia. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”  (Galatians 5:19-23)
            St. Paul says the fruits of the Spirit are love, kindness, gentleness, patience, generosity, self control… Think about that list. Does Donald Trump exhibit any of these things? I am not asking about his personal life here. I don’t know him as a person. I know him as a public figure, and now as president of the United States. I know him by what he says, and by what he does as a public figure. I know him by his fruits.
Let us look at some of the Fruits of the Spirit:
Patience: Trump has no patience towards others who disagree with him. His first instinct is to lash out, to fight back, and to call names. Having patience means being able to deal with the world and the people who live here. To understand that we are imperfect, and we don’t all agree all the time. But that every person deserves to be treated well even when they don’t treat you well.  “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Patience comes from the understanding that God has patience with us because we are all imperfect sinners. Patience is important as we live in community and try to understand each other.

Kindness: Trump is continually mean. He doesn’t use words to build people up but to take them down. He uses words to conquer other people. As it says in proverbs, “With their mouths the godless would destroy their neighbors, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.” (Proverbs 11:9) or “Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives; those who open wide their lips come to ruin.” (Proverbs 13:3) Kindness also means seeing the best in our enemies to give them the benefit of the doubt and to try to understand where they are coming from.
Just a couple of things that Trump has said about people of his own party. He called former NH Governor John Sunnunu, “”Dummy”. He called former Governor Jeb Bush, “A pathetic figure!”. He called Bill Kristol, Editor of the Weekly Standard, “Dopey”. I could go on and on, but these are not the words of someone who knows and exhibits kindness.


Self-Control: This seems to be Trumps biggest weakness. He has no self-control. Because of this he starts fights with the wrong people. He can’t let go of the smallest insignificant slight. He can’t laugh at himself. And he can’t control himself. This is why he is up at three am tweeting things. Look at all the tweets he has had against people. Just to name a few he has tweeted his dislike for Lincoln Chaffe (Former RI Governor), Juan Willams, Jeff Zeleny, Mort Zuckerman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elizabeth Beck, and Scott Walker just to name a few. These people are “not smart”, “dopey”, “easy for me to beat”, “bad reporter”, “dummies”. Our words matter, and need to be selected so we build each other up. Again we don’t always live up to this so that is why we admit when we are wrong and ask God and our neighbors for forgiveness when we don’t exercise self-control over our speech.

Gentleness: Trump only shows his harsh side. He is always posturing for the camera and the crowd. He uses bravado and machismo to make his point, shout down his detractors, and hurt others.  Gentleness helps us to be open to more than one opinion, to make friends, to show that we don’t always know everything. Trump has said, “When people wrong you, go after those people, because it is a good feeling and because other people will see you doing it. I always get even.”, and “When someone crosses you, my advice is ‘Get even!’ That is not typical advice, but it is real-life advice. If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck! I love getting even.” This is not the talk of a gentle person. This is talk of someone out for revenge. It is also not the way Jesus called us to be in the world, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)

Greed: This is the biggest idol in the Bible. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10)  Jesus talks about money more than anything else. (Mark 10:21) Trump brags about how much money he has, how much he has made. Trump has said, “Part of the beauty ofme is that I’m very rich.”His whole life has been about making money. And related to this is that he has spent his whole life promoting himself. It might be an American ideal to be rich, but it is not a Biblical one.
Trump is about accumulating things. I will let him explain, “I probably visited Mar-a-Lago, my 118-room house in Palm Beach, no more than two dozen times in the years I’ve owned it. As for my yacht, The Trump Princess, it is a dazzling trophy and a terrific business tool, but it never really became part of my personal life. For me, you see, the important thing is the getting ... not the having.” Jesus tells us that it is foolish to having things. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6:19-20) and “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”  (James 5:1-6)

Humility: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:10)
Maybe the thing that is most disturbing about Trump’s claim to be a Christian is that he also says, “Why do I have to repent, why do I have to ask for forgiveness if [I’m] not making mistakes?”, or “I fully think apologizing is a great thing. But you have to be WRONG ... I will absolutely apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I’m ever wrong.” And “Everything I’ve done virtually has been a tremendous success.”  Let us be clear if you never do anything wrong you don’t need Jesus. If you have no sins to confess then you don’t need someone to die for your sins. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Matthew 9:13)

Trump has said, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.” This is not the way people who are humble speak about other people. As Christians we are called to see in others a person of value and worth. We are called to give them more credit than we would give ourselves.

Immigrants
Trump was asked what his favorite Bible verse was (Remember he has read it more than anyone.) Trump said, “Well, I think many. I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. And they laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country. And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible that I can tell you.”
To not even be able to say something like Psalm 23 or John 3:16 is a weird thing for a Christian to say. I have been a pastor for 13 years; I have had people of all kinds of political beliefs as parishioners. I have never had someone say there favorite verse is “an eye for an eye”. (Deuteronomy 19:21) But as long as we are there then let us talk about the Old Testament. It is the same God in the Old Testament that we know in Jesus Christ. It is a God “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Numbers 14:18) It is a God that called a small insignificant people to follow him. (Genesis 17:5)  It is a God concerned about people being treated unfairly. (Exodus 23:2) It is a God who rescues his people from the oppressive Government, (Exodus 3:7) and leads them to the Promised Land. It is a God who reminds them not to forget that they are aliens and foreigners and not to oppress others. (Deuteronomy 16:19, Exodus 23:9)
            It is a God who calls us to responsible living in the Ten Commandments (Do not commit adultery. Do not bear false witness…to name a few.) (Exodus 20) If you love that God then you love Jesus because it is the same God. Jesus calls us to responsible living too. He calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I am wondering how Trump sees himself living these things out, or at the very least failing to live them out, as we all do, and asking for forgiveness.
            This is not about policy. So I am not arguing the merits of our current or future immigration I am talking about tone and the way we talk about it. Is it helpful to call Mexicans rapists and murders, to say that just because you are Muslim and you come from Syria that you are a terrorist? If you want stronger immigration policy find a way to make the argument that doesn’t scare everyone, and that puts your neighbor in the best possible light.  (Deuteronomy 24:17, Leviticus 19:33-34, Galatians 5:14) That would be a faithful Christian way to go about doing what you want to do.
Fear
            Jesus over and over again tells us not to fear. “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 10:31, Mark 6:50, Luke 5:10…to name just a few) I am guessing because he knew once he left his disciples would have to overcome fear to go out into the world to spread the Gospel. Trump only encourages us to fear. He tells us what to fear, and who to fear. “Lock your doors folks, OK? Lock your doors. No, it’s a big problem … . We have our incompetent government people letting ’em in by the thousands, and who knows, who knows, maybe it’s ISIS.”, and “They’re trying to take over our children. ...They’re pouring in and we don’t know what we’re doing.” or “That could be a Mexican plane up there. They’re getting ready to attack,”   This kind of talk is paralyzing in our responsibility to love our neighbor. We can’t love what we fear. We can’t build new and helpful relationships if we are fearful of whom we might meet across the street. If Trump really wanted to build bridges he would tell us not to be afraid.
Campaign
I want to say a few words about some things that happened on the campaign trail. One was when Trump went to Liberty University and said, “two Corinthians”. What he should have said was, “second Corinthians”. Or when he attempted to go to worship at a church and didn’t know the difference between the communion bread and offering plate. Trump says he is a Presbyterian and a member of Marble Collegiate Church, but Marble Collegiate is not a Presbyterian church and has no record of Trump being a active member. None of these things is horrible but it gets at a deeper problem. Trump didn’t go to Church. How can you know Jesus Christ and his saving grace without going to Church? How can you know about the Bible if you didn’t study it with other Christian people?
            I would love to see his taxes to see how much he gave to the Church. Did he give as much as Mitt Romney (Romney gave about 10% to his Mormon Faith). This shows how dedicated we really are to our faith. As the former Lutheran Bishop Reverend Dr. William Lazerth said, “Show me your check book, and I will show you your God.”
            Why does any of this matter? One can be President of the United States without being a Christian. It matters because what Jesus disliked more than anything was religious hypocrisy. He hated it when political leaders like Herod pretended to be religious in order to keep power, or when Religious leaders used religion to gain political power. (Mark 8:15) He called the Pharisees and teachers of the law hypocrites. (Matthew 7:5).
As Pope Francis has said, “The sickness or, you can say the sin, that Jesus condemns most is hypocrisy, which is precisely what is happening when someone claims to be a Christian but does not live according to the teaching of Christ. You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” It is one thing to say, “I am a Christian and that means I fail to live up to what God wants me to do. I make mistakes. I am a sinner. I am not perfect.” It is another thing to say you have, “read the Bible more than anyone.” And exhibit no attributes that make me believe you have. Otherwise you are a hypocrite, and we need to call this what it is.
I know good faithful God loving Christians that voted for Mr. Trump. They had their reasons. Maybe they disliked Hillary Clinton, maybe they were just sick of the whole thing, maybe they liked the way Trump spoke his mind. You can be a Christian and vote for Trump, but it is hard to make the argument that Donald Trump exhibits any fruits that make me believe he has actually read the Bible, or tries in some way to live by it. I hope that no matter who we voted for we are still able to see hypocrisy and know when we are being lied to. I also hope that we will not allow Mr. Trump to use Christianity as an excuse for things he wants to do. Not because the things he wants to do are not Christian, but because I see no evidence that he is one. I am not saying that Mr. Trump is not a Christian, that is between him and God, but if he is I have not seen the fruits of that faith. I continue to pray that will change.