Monday, January 20, 2020

Keep Marching!

If you have heard me preach before I hope one thing always comes across.
I am not interested in the theories about God, I am interested in how God is lived out in our everyday life.
How do we as people of faith experience God?
How do we know God?
How do we live out our faith as parents, children, workers, bosses, friends, political participants?
As I was preparing to preach this week I was thinking about how Jesus "takes away the sins of the world."
And I started with lots of theories and then realized that none of them matter.
What matters is how we experience both sin and how we experience Jesus taking it away.

Let us start this morning with sin.
I wonder if you have ever been sworn at while at a prayer vigil?
On the second and fourth Tuesday of every month there is an interfaith prayer vigil in front of the federal Norris Cotton building in Manchester.
This prayer vigil is to support immigrants that are coming to check in at the ICE office.
As part of that prayer vigil we do what is called a Jericho walk.
We walk around the building seven times to pray that the walls that divide us will come down, just as Israel did when they came to the promise land.
Anyway, most of the time this is a fairly uneventful event.
However, there have been a handful of times when we have been sworn at.
Either by someone driving by.
Or in one case by a person looking from their apartment window.
We might disagree about immigration policy, but what comes out of the mouths of people yelling at us is not something I can repeat in church.
It is rude, ugly, cruel, and hateful.
It is one way I experience the sins of the world.
That we have constructed a hateful attitude towards someone because of their immigration status, or because they are not "one of us", is a sin.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached about the importance of seeing our connection to each other.
In his last Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968 from the National Cathedral he said, "We must all learn to live together as brothers (and sisters).
Or we will all perish together as fools.
We are tied together  in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
Our sin is to divide our world up into sections, into us vs. them.
To make it seem as if the person in Iran, Iraq, or brazil is our enemy, instead of our fellow traveler on this third rock from the sun.
This is what leads us to wars, to injustice, to hatred of others.
Is that we don't see in each other our common humanity.
Or that we somehow want to believe that we are better than someone else, because of superficial things like what country we live in, or what our skin color is, or who we love, or how much money we have.

We might disagree about the nature of sin, but there is no doubt that it exists in our world.
It is a powerful source of our suffering.
Not just as individuals, but as a whole people.
This is not a theory.
It is a reality we live with everyday.
Because every day we are confronted with the symptoms of sin.
Death, destruction, hatred, violence, self-righteousness, delusions of grandeur.
Anyone who has been picked on, left out, made to feel inferior knows personally the results of sin.
And we see this on a larger scale in our politics and our dealings with other countries and other people.
All of it can be overwhelming when we think about it.

So what does a person of faith do?
One option that many people take is to try to retreat from the world and its sins.
To make our faith about removing ourselves from the world and the complicated problems that are involved.
In its most extreme we see this in monks and religious mystics who ran off into the dessert to avoid the world.
But even in less extremes I hear it in religious people who want to divorce themselves and just think that it all comes down to God and me.
That I have nothing to do with the messiness of politics, or what is happening to my neighbor.
All I need is to go into my room and pray and all will be well.
I suppose that there might be a time and place for this.
That the world is overwhelming sometimes.
That the sin that is out there becomes too much, and we must retreat.
Surely, there are times when Jesus went off to be alone and pray.
But I can't believe that this is the answer all the time.

I believe that Jesus takes away the sins of the world.
I believe that Jesus does this through love and grace.
That it is the Holy Spirit that calls us through God's word to love the world.
To go out into the world and fight for what is good and right.
And do it knowing that the world is full of sin.

I don't believe that it this will take away the sins of the world.
I believe God takes away the sins of the world.
And my acts of resistance, my acts of participation are acts of faith in that truth.
That this world is worth involving myself in.
That this world is worth my love and care.
That this world is not without hope.
That this world can is redeemed by God.
So I will make little stands of resistance against cynicism, despair, and sin.

I will march around the Norris Cotton building.
Not because I believe it will fall down, but because I believe in God's power to help us see the humanity in someone else.
I will march not because it stops our sin, but because I believe Jesus Christ takes away the sins of the world.
I will preach about love and unity.
Not because it will stop hatred and division, but because I believe that the word of God is more powerful than sin.

I don't know what it was like back in 1960's during the Civil Rights movement.
But I am sure that there were times when it seemed like nothing would change.
That it seemed like sin had won.
But people kept marching.
People kept speaking.
People kept believing.
For Dr. King and others what kept them going was their faith in Jesus Christ.
Today I want to honor that faith.
Not one of theories, but one that is lived in this real world.
The world with all of its ugliness and sin.
And a faith that preserves us and gives us hope in a better tomorrow.

So you can use all the profanity you want.
You can call me any name you want, but I will keep marching.
Because I believe in Jesus Christ who takes away the sins of the world.

This morning I hope you keep marching too.
Keep loving despite people's hatred.
Be kind, even though people can be cruel.
Keep hoping even though everything seems lost.
As Dr. King said about our hymn of the day, "When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our night become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."
That is what keeps me going is that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

It Undermines Humane Standards of Conduct

Something I have learned from doing interfaith work over my life.
All people think their religion is better than others.
I don't care if you are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or whatever.
And the reason is that people's religion is usually the best one for that person.
I am no exception Christianity, and more specifically Lutheran Christianity, I have found is best for me.
It is the religion that makes the most sense to me, and for me.
There should be no problem with this.
It is fine to believe that the religion you practice is the best one for you.
The problem is that we don't always let that be the end of it.
We tend to want other people to also believe that our religion is the best.
I have had to learn this over a long period of time.
I have had to learn this by having discussions with other people about their religions.
I had to learn this through reading books about other religions and about my own.
I learned that Christianity has its own prejudices.

Our prejudice about Christianity shows up in all sorts of ways.
It certainly is shown in how we read and understand the Bible.
We tend to read into the text the idea that the original writers of the New Testament wanted Christians to understand that Christianity was far superior to other religions.
In particular, it was superior to Judaism.
And from this has sprung anti-semitism within the Christian church.
I won't this morning go through our history of the horrible things we have done in the name of Jesus to our Jewish siblings.
All I will say this morning is that there is a lot there.
And it is horrible, and we as the Church need to confess our sin of being part of this prejudice.

This morning I want us to see not just this idea that we messed up and should feel bad for it, but I want us to re-frame the way we understand the Bible and our faith is Jesus Christ.
I want to use as our test case our reading from the Gospel of John.
When we read this passage we read into it the idea that before Jesus came into the world there was something wrong with religion.
What I believed as a kid (I am assuming because I was taught it at some point) was that Christianity was based on grace and Judaism was based on the law.
And through Jesus God has given us grace.
That is what makes Christianity better than Judaism.
And the Gospel from John seems to support that idea.
That "God came to his own people and they did not accept him."
But to "those who believe in him  he gave the power to become children of God."
This is to misunderstand John and to misunderstand Jesus and God.
God's own people are us.
As John tells us God created the world.
Not some of the world but the whole thing.
Through God's word the world with the plants, animals, and humans came into being.
So the people that are God's own is all of us.
And it is not that they didn't accept Jesus it is that they didn't accept what Jesus had to tell them about the nature of God.
God is about love and grace.
And for some that is really hard to understand and even harder to accept.
And let me tell you that I have met in my life people of every faith that is about love and grace.
People that live that out, and people that understand it better than some people who call themselves Christians.

The cosmic scene in John is not meant to tell us that Christianity is better than Judaism, but that God's love was given to the world, and the world couldn't accept it.
The world in John is a code word for anything that is against God.
And hatred, bigotry, meanness, is against God.
Love and grace are God.
And when we love our neighbors with generous grace and service we do the works of Jesus.

There is no doubt that within the Gospel of John there is tension with what John refers to as "the Jews".
This comes from John's own experience within his community of being expelled from the Jewish synagogue.
As my New Testament professor once told me that we see in the New Testament a family fight.
It is a fight between Jewish-Christians and Jews who didn't believe Jesus to be the Messiah.
That tension is played out not just in John but in most of the New Testament.
It is human in those cases to paint your enemy in the most unflattering light.
We can't take what was a human fight over religion and make it into a codified hatred of other people based on God.
I don't care what religion someone is, I care about what it is that they do because of that religion.
If you are a Christian that spews hatred towards Jews then I can't believe that you know the Jesus that is talked about in holy scripture.
It is through love that people know that we are Christian.
It is through service that we show them Jesus Christ.
It is through grace that we live in God.
And that is true of any true religion.

Like I said I learned this through my years of doing interfaith work.
And I have always had a curiosity about my faith, and the faith of others.
But I really didn't get to know people of other faiths until college.
One of the people who meant a lot to me at that time was women named Patti Mittleman.
She was the director of the Hillel house on campus.
This was the Jewish student group.
This made her the Jewish college chaplain.
Over my time in college we did lots of interfaith things together.
And I got to know her pretty well.
She was actually a convert to Judaism.
Patti used to say, "they don't recommend it."
But she converted when she married her husband Alan.
Her husband Alan taught religion at Muhlenberg.
One summer I actually spent some of it at their house, and some of it at the Hillel house.
I kept kosher that summer while staying there.
Using separate plates for meat and dairy.
Learning about why that spiritual discipline was important to them.
The thing about Patti was that she was filled with love and grace.
She was always really kind to me, more than I deserved.
Often when she talked about me I wondered who she might be talking about.
She was one of my cheerleaders, and someone who I looked up to.
She was Jewish, but what did that really matter.
She practiced her love of God in a way that was different from me.
But She showed the world God's love all the time.
She died about a year ago, and I realized that she showed that love to lots and lots of students just like me.
I carry a piece of her all the time in my heart.

I knew this morning that I was going to be preaching about anti-Semitism, because of the stabbings that happened over Hanukkah.
Our Rabbi here in Concord posted on Facebook an article about how afraid and angry our Jewish siblings are right now.
This issue is not about something happening somewhere else.
Our Rabbi here in Concord has had death threats against her.
That is why it is so important for me to speak out about it.
I reached out to Alan (Patty's husband) to ask him what he would like Christians to know about anti-semitism.
He responded, "I think that anti-semitism never stops with the Jews.
It degrades all who endorse it and undermines humane standards of conduct.
It’s not really about the Jews either.
It’s about the hateful fantasies and delusions of people who project their disordered imaginations onto the Jews."
I agree with Dr. Alan Mittlemen.
When we hate someone for their religion, or race, or sexual orientation, or what country they come from it undermines humane standards of conduct.

We Christians know the greatest love "that of a Father's only Son".
How can we not give that to the world?
How can we not love others as we ourselves have been loved.
That is the message of the Gospels, and anything else is simply a projection of our own prejudices.
God loves the world.
God loves us.
We love others.
It is really that simple and also really hard to live out.
In God's grace and love let us today live it out.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

To Be Seen

Every year when I do my Christmas quiz for the open house I come up with a theme.
This year's theme is Women at Christmas.
So I spent time looking for trivia questions about what women have contributed to Christmas.
I thought maybe that women invented the ornament, or Christmas lights, or the candy cane, or something.
What I found was not much.
I went home and told my wife (Vicki) about my struggles to find something about Women at Christmas.
I remarked, "I guess Christmas is a male holiday."
She said, "That is because the women are doing all the work. They are cooking, cleaning, shopping for the gifts."
This would explain why I found lots of articles written for women about how to survive the holidays without going crazy.
It is a sad commentary on our world.
That the contributions of women get pushed to the back and forgotten.

This week as I was making Swedish meatballs for our Open house it brought back lots of memories of my mom making Swedish meatballs for Christmas.
In my memories the snow is falling, we are listening to John Denver's Christmas album.
I also have memories of my mom being really intense this time of year.
I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I can see why.
My dad was like most men of his generation he didn't do much around the house.
He didn't cook, clean, or do much of the caring for us kids.
He went to work, kept the fire going, and watched sports.
Vicki and I have a more equitable system, but I can tell you she still does much more in our house than me.
Our family doesn't run without her.
She keeps so many things in her head.
She knows all the school events, the doctor's appointments, the things that need to get done on a daily and weekly basis.
It is amazing.

I know that my mom and Vicki would tell you that they do it out of love.
Love for their kids, their husbands.
But I wonder today if us men have really done a good job of acknowledging the heavy load that is placed on women?
Have we understood what it is to be put in the background, to get little credit for the little things that make all the difference?
Do we really see the women who make the world work?
Or are they just in the background, doing what we think they should do?

It is important question.
Because what we all desire in this life is to be seen.
That is how we know that we are loved.
When someone else takes time to acknowledge our contributions, to say thank you, to appreciate us.
When someone else sees our struggle, our pain, then we know that they love us.
In our relationships it is important to see the other person.
If it is a friend, a lover, a wife, a child it is doesn't matter.
It is important to see the other person.

Let me tell you why.
Because to really see someone else, to really understand them.
It takes time.
Time to listen to them.
Time to sit and get to know them.
Time to watch the contributions they make.
And time is precious to us.
So if you take the time to see someone you show them that you love them, that they matter to you.

It also takes us giving up what we think is the right thing.
It takes us setting aside our own self to really understand another person's perspective.
That is what real love looks like a giving of one selves idea of right and wrong for someone else.

This is what happens at Christmas in our relationship with God.
God in Jesus Christ comes to "be with us".
God takes time and comes down to earth to listen to us.
To watch the things we do.
God through Jesus takes time to sit and get to know us.
God comes to see the world through our eyes.
God sees how we struggle, and how fearful we are of never being truly seen.
Or worse our fear that we are seen and not loved because of who we really are.
In Jesus Christ, God sees us.
God sees you.

Right now God sees you.
God sees your pain, your hurt, your work, your effort, your love.
God sees your sins, your quirks, the things you hide from others.
God sees all the little things that go unnoticed by others.
God sees us in all of our complexities.
God sees us.

That is what I cling to all the time.
That because God sees me even at my worst, and still loves me, I am loved.
I am seen and known and loved.
You are seen and known and loved.
God is with us!

That is the real Christmas message.
That is the message that angel brings Joseph.
God sees Joseph's struggle.
God sees that he is afraid.
Joseph cannot see the woman in his life correctly.
He sees her through the lens of the culture around him.
That women are meant to be property for men.
Joseph can only see Mary through the patriarchal structure of his day.
This is why his solution to her pregnancy is to do what that structure requires.
(We will give him credit for doing it with mercy.)
But it is still a problem that he can only understand his finance through that lens.
God sees what Joseph cannot, and sends the angel to correct his understanding.
God sees the truth.

I will confess to all of you that as a husband there have been times when I have overlooked my wife's contributions.
There have been times when I didn't see all the things she does for our family.
There have been times when I didn't appreciate her as I should.
She somehow forgives me for it, and we find ways to love one another.
This is the power of God with us.
We learn to see each other through God's eyes.
We learn to set aside cultural expectations and really understand one another.
We learn through our lives how to love more deeply by taking time to be with each other, and really see one another.

If you are in a relationship with someone.
Whether or not that is married or friendship.
Let us not overlook those people in our lives.
Let us take time to really see them.
If you are like me and are a married man, please love your spouse.
Really take time to see her, and understand all the little things that she does out of love for your family.
Let us not forget that without women there would be no Christmas.
Without Mary's willingness to give birth to God's son there would be no Christmas.
Without women in our lives who do all the behind the scenes work we wouldn't have celebrations with friends and families.
Maybe men invented Christmas lights, and ornaments, and candy canes, but women made it all possible.
This Christmas let us see as God sees.
Because when we do we love as God loves.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Joy Came Down!

The day that my family spread my father's ashes was a really sad day.
We scattered them at the memorial chapel that is about 1/3 of the way up what is called Jackman's ridge at Camp Calumet.
We had just spread his ashes in the form of a cross.
We began walking down back to our cars.
We were all crying.
My younger sister Bethany turned around and with tears in her eyes said, "Was it me or did Dad's ashes look like cat litter."
We all started laughing.

I tell this story this morning as a way for our us to see the difference between joy and happiness.
I was not happy that day.
I was the saddest I had ever been.
But I was joyful.
In my heart, in my soul, I was joyful to have had a Dad who always showed up for me.
I was joyful to have two sisters who keep me grounded.
I was joyful to have a mother who is strong in faith.
I was joyful for the love of all the people that came to my Dad's funeral.

Happiness is determined by outside factors.
Happiness is a mode we are in based on what is happening around us.
Joy is not.
Joy is something that that comes from within in us.
It comes from our hearts and souls.
It is cultivated there.

Happiness is about how we take in the world.
Joy is about our spiritual nature.
We experience and see this at Christmas time.
We might experience the happiness that comes from decorating a tree, a party we go to, sharing a meal with family, a present we get or give.
Joy comes from knowing in our hearts and souls that God has come to dwell among us.

Joy comes from knowing that Jesus is the one we are waiting for.
Joy comes from seeing past our present reality to the coming of the kingdom of God.
To seeing the blind see, the lame walk, good news preached to the poor.
Or the dessert bloom with life.

Because let us be honest some of us might not be "feeling" Christmas this year.
For whatever reason.
We might not feel jolly.
We might not feel merry and bright.
We might not want to listen to another Christmas song that tells us what a wonderful time of year it is.
We might instead feel sad, lost, tired, burnt out.
We might feel like a desert.

Certainly the people of Isaiah's time were feeling that way.
They felt like all had been lost.
That God had punished them for their sins, and left.
But Isaiah tells them that God will restore them.
That in the desert there is still joy, because God is still there.

Can we believe that this season?
Can we find the joy that is in our hearts our souls?
Can we see beyond the lights, the trees, the presents, the songs?

This morning I would like to offer some advice.
It is actually not my advice.
It was advice I saw in a Ted talk byAmanda Gore about finding our joy.
She suggests a couple of things.
One is to stop!
Stop judging.
Stop judging yourself, stop judging others.
Instead listen.
Listen to your heart.
Listen to other people and what they are going through.
In doing this we learn to be thankful.
To have gratitude for our lives and those around us.
Second, drop into your heart.
Get out of our heads and into our hearts.
There we know truth and it brings us peace.
Because in our hearts we find gratitude, hope, compassion, and forgiveness.
And from these things spring joy.

Her Ted talk was not religious.
But if we think about what she said it mirrors things that we learn from Jesus.
Jesus has told us to stop judging others.
Jesus has told us that the truth sets us free.
Jesus has told us that being thankful is an essential spiritual discipline.
Jesus has given us hope.
Jesus has showed us compassion.
And Jesus has given us forgiveness, and called us to forgive others.
In Jesus we find joy.
Because Jesus taps into our hearts.
Jesus gives us joy.
Jesus  is joy.

This week I was texting with a friend.
He has been having a hard time with his pastor this Advent because his pastor was preaching that Advent is about darkness, hell, death, and heaven.
He was craving a message about joy.
I asked him what I should say to you all today about joy?
He said, "God created us for joy, so enjoy what you were created for."
This is what Isaiah is trying to get the Israel to see.
That in creation there is joy.
That in life there is joy.
This is the message that Jesus brings us too.
We miss it because we are afraid.
We are afraid of what we might lose.
We are afraid of what someone else has.
We are afraid and miss joy.
We might even miss the joy that comes with knowing Jesus.
With knowing that he came so we might know the truth.
The truth is that you are loved beyond your knowing, that you are created for joy, that there is no reason to be afraid, because God's got us.

Do you know that this Christmas?
Do you know how much God loves you?
I hope you do.
Because that always is what blows my mind this time of year.
That God, the most holy god, the ruler and creator of the universe, came to dwell among us.
That God came to be a fragile human baby!
And God did it all for us, so that we would know how loved we are.
That spiritual truth brings us joy!
And nothing can take it away.

That is what made it possible for me to have joy on what was the saddest moment of my life.
And regardless of what is happening this Christmas season I hope that you have joy.
Joy that comes from your heart and soul.
Joy that comes from knowing that our savior has come!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Christmas Stumps

A couple of weeks ago someone on their way into church said to me, "I really miss your tree."
"So do I"
The tree that once stood tall near our driveway was a great tree.
My kids played in it when they were little.
It provided shade in the summer, was beautiful in the fall.
Now it is just a stump.
The day it came down I watched as they pulled it down.
It came down with a mighty thumb and shook the church.
I wish it could still be there today.
I love trees and I am sad when they have to go.
But like all things nothing is forever.
All things have a impermanence.
The longer you live the more you understand that reality.

Christmas is like that.
It changes over time.
And then it repeats.
You go from being a kid and all the magic and wonder that it entails.
You become a young adult and it loses some of the magic.
And then you have your own kids and you recreate that magic for them.
You grow old and celebrate it through grand kids.
Or you celebrate it quietly with only a couple of people close to you.
Things change.
It is why I am obsessed this time of year with keeping traditions.
Because they give me the illusion of permanence.
Maybe you have your own that do the same thing for you.

What the Prophet Isaiah has been telling the people of Israel is that there state will end.
It will end for the same reason that all earthly empires end.
They become too big, too concerned about keeping power.
King Ahaz no longer believes that God will protect Jerusalem.
So he prepares for war.
This is the beginning of the end for Isaiah.
He already knows what is coming.
He knows that war will bring destruction.
He knows that the tree is about to get cut down.
And that at the end all there will be is a stump.

Amazing thing about nature is that it always finds away.
If you cut down a healthy tree it will want to live.
This week at Bible study someone told me this story.
She cut down a tree in her yard.
A little while longer and it started to sprout a shoot.
She cut that off.
And a little while longer it did it again.
Finally her daughter told her, "Mom that tree wants to live."

We planted a tree in front of the church in honor of our former organists June Iffland.
That first winter a piece of ice feel from the roof and cut it in half.
I thought for sure it was dead.
I thought we should buy and plant a new tree.
Someone on council said, "Pastor let's wait and see."
Sure enough it grew.
This summer it actually had something like a pear on it.

And so Isaiah tells the people of Israel that after the destruction all will not be lost.
There will be a shoot from the stump.
Life will go on, the people will go on.
Isn't that the promise of our faith.
Isn't that the promise of Christmas.
That in the middle of the darkest time of year.
When the sun is not shining.
When things seem bleak and lost.
In that moment God shows up.
In a manger.
In peace.
In love.
In hope.

That is what propels us forward this time of year.
That is the hope.
That out of the stump life will find a way.
That things don't seem like they are going well, but God is going to find a way.

We need that don't we.
No matter who you are, or what your station, I guarantee we are all working on something.
We have all had some sense of loss this year.
Maybe we have lost a loved one.
Maybe we lost a job.
Maybe we lost our sense of ourselves.
Maybe we lost a relationship.
Maybe we lost our sense of security.
Maybe we lost what makes the world make sense to us.
Whatever it is we have experienced loss, because that is what it is to be human.
To live all the time with that sense that things are impermanent.
That things will change.
Trees get cut down.
Lives are altered.
And all that is left is stump.
And then God comes along and tells us wait not all is lost.
There will be a shoot.
Something new is growing.

This message is not just about our individual lives.
Isaiah was not talking about individuals but the whole community.
The whole world.
And the same is true for us.
Not only do we individually need salvation and redemption, but we need it as a people.
Our country needs it, because we have lost our way.
Just the other day it was reported that a teenager died of the flu while in a detention center.
The Flu!
That should bother all of us.
It should bother us as if that was our own child and we didn't get them to the hospital on time.
We should want better for our neighbors.
We should want justice for them too.
And so we hope today for the stump to shoot a new tree that will grow.
That the one who comes to rule will be filled with love for the poor.
Will be filled with knowledge and fear of the Lord.
We hope for the day when things will be put right, and where teenagers don't die unnecessarily.
Because my redemption and salvation is tied to yours, and everybody else who shares this impermanent human life.

It is the season of hope.
We wait for the sun to return.
We hope that out of the stump will come a shoot that will grow and bring restoration for our lives.
We hope for Jesus Christ to come so that we might know justice, peace, and real life.

I miss the tree by our house.
I wish it was more than a stump.
But the stump reminds me of the impermanence of the world, and the hope that comes from God.

I hope this season for a new life that comes from knowing Jesus Christ as the one who is the shoot from the stump.