Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Reformation Is Alive!

It started with a hammer, a tool that is used to build things.
This time it built a movement, a reforming movement.
That shook the church, and the world.
500 years ago.
The banging of a hammer on a door started in motion a movement.
It built something.

What did it build?
What do we celebrate today?

All this fall I have been preaching on the themes of the Reformation.
The ideas that Luther, and other reformers, brought to bear on the world.
They are the foundation of our faith.
They are important ideas.

But I am afraid that 500 years later we have forgotten about the hammer.
We have fallen in love with the things that we have built.
The institutional church, the lovely church buildings built to encapsulate that institution.
This week at Bishop’s convocation the keynote speaker told us that there is a difference between a movement and monument.
A monument is a dead thing.
It has no life.
It only exists to show us something that happened a long time ago.
A movement is alive.
It breathes it moves, it matters now.
The reformation was a movement.
It was alive.
It was changing all the time.

And today as we celebrate and remember that important moment in time what I am hoping for us is that we continue the movement.
My father in law told me a couple of weeks ago that nobody cares about all this Reformation stuff.
I would agree with him if all we are talking about is what happened 500 years ago.
If all we wanted to do is build a monument to sometime long ago.
But I don’t agree with him because I think it is important to keep alive the reformation.
That the Church and us individually needs to continue to reform.
It is only important if this is a movement and not a monument.
That the Church continues to live, breath, move, and matter.
That we are continuing what the reformers started.

Let me tell you what I think that looks like and doesn’t.
I have been trying for a year to come up with some new thing to say on this day.
To say something that will save the Church and make it relevant for today.
The truth is that I am not that creative a person.
Instead what I think we need is to return to the essence of our faith.
That is what the Reformation did.
The Reformers would say, “Back to the source”.
We need to go back to the source.

It is always centered on Jesus Christ.
The heart of the reformation was a return to Jesus as the center of the church, life, and theology.
That the church whatever it does has to be centered on Jesus Christ.
That is all that matters.
I don’t care how we bow as we approach the altar.
I don’t care what color the candles are.
I don’t care what music we sing.
I don’t care what flowers are on the altar.
I don’t care the clothes people wear to worship.
I don’t care if the kids talk.
I don’t care about the petty things that people protecting a monument care about.
I care that we as a community of Jesus people worship Jesus!
I care that we know the grace and mercy of God.
That we love each other, we forgive each other.
That we live out a passion for caring for the poor and lost.
That we want in our lives to have a deep and important relationship with Jesus Christ.
We want to know what it means to follow him.

We have to admit that we, the Church, have done some harm to people.
I don’t think it was intentional.
But we did harm because we stopped caring about what Jesus said.
We care more about what a politician says, or a movie star tells us.
We stopped listening because we thought we knew everything.
We have to go back and listen to what Jesus is telling us.
We need Jesus more than ever, the world needs Jesus more than ever.
We need to be reminded of Jesus love for us.
We need to be reminded of Jesus love for our neighbors.

Jesus tells us this morning what is at the heart of his message.
Know that God loves you.
And love one another.
We have to continually live into that truth.
Jesus was reminding the religious leaders of his day what they had forgotten.
That at the heart of God is love.

We can never stop reforming!
If we are going to be part of movement that we have to get out our hammers and continue to build.
We are not yet the people that God wants us to be.
We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves.
We don’t love God with our whole heart.
The reformation is not a onetime event.
It is an ongoing challenge as we face new realities of life.
The issues we face are not the same that Jesus faced, or that Luther faced.
What is the same is that Jesus still calls us to know God’s love and proclaim it to others.

When my wife and I were in Germany this summer she kept on saying to me, “I didn’t realize that the Reformation was so many years.”
She thought that Martin Luther nailed the 95 thesis to the door and that was it.
But the truth is that 500 years later it is not over.
It is not over because we will continually face things in the world that we have not ever thought of today.
Think of all the movements that have happened in these 500 years the church women’s ordination, LGBTQ rights, ecumenical understanding, interfaith dialogue, peace and justice movements, multi-cultural understanding, these are things that Luther and reformers never thought of.
They were things that our Church struggled with, fought over, lived and died through.
And that is one of the wonderful things about re forming something.
You take it from the form that it is, and through blood sweat and tears, through hammering it into something else you reform it.
I hope as heirs of the reformation we never lose that spirit.
That we never become complicit about what and who we are, even though it is hard, even though not all of us are going to agree, that we continue to challenge each other.
You know that the 95 thesis was meant to be debate points.
They were not meant to be lasting truths, but points of debate about one topic the sale of indulgences.
That is what our heritage tells us that when we see something wrong, an injustice built on the premise of bad theology and bad Biblical interpretation we need to debate it.
We need to hammer it out.

In the source book we bought to help us plan our 500 reformation celebration.
There was an article saying the worse thing you could do was to dress up as Luther with a hammer.
(I can be a but contrarian sometimes.) 
I understand the caution.
We don’t want to simply re-enact what happened 500 years ago.
We don’t want to go back and fight all those fights, and be anti-Roman Catholic.
Not only that, but there is significant debate among historians if Luther even nailed the 95 Thesis to the door.
But this is the story we share with each other.
And I believe it has power.

Hopefully it is power to move us not to create a monument, but to continue to reform ourselves, our church, our country, our world.
It is the power to continue to live into the truth of God’s love for all of us, and for the entire world.
It creates a movement that seeks everyday to love more deeply, and understand more fully God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ.

Let me end by encouraging us every day to reform our lives.
To wake up every day and think who is God calling me to love today?
Where in my life do I find hatred, dislike, prejudice, and judgment?
How can I reform myself so that our church, community, and world are better?
Where is God’s grace working on me to reform me?

In other words, pick up your hammer and get to work on the reforming, because the Reformation is alive.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

God Has Two Hands

Last winter the Youth Group went to Pats Peak to go skiing for the day.
I was on the lift with one of our youth.
I asked what he wanted to talk about as we had some time on our way to the top of the mountain.
“I would like to know what our faith has to do with politics?”
I was surprised.
Of all the questions that we could have talked about this was the one on his mind.
It occurred to me that it is probably not just a question on this young man’s mind, but on all of our minds.
In a day when religion gets drawn into the political debate so quickly.
When our politicians use religiosity to prove their points, when pastors, priests, and ministers use pulpits to raise all sorts of political agendas abortion, anti-LGBYQ, immigration, tax policy, what is the correct relationship between these two things?

Martin Luther lived in a very different time than we do.
Luther lived over 200 years before the American Revolution.
He lived at a time when church officials where politicians, and politicians where religious figures.
The pope was selected not because of his religious fervor, or theological acumen.
He was chosen because he was a good politician, a good administrator.
In Luther’s time over half the land was owned by the church.
This made it very powerful, and very political.

Luther’s solution was to say that God has two hands.
On the left hand God rules with laws that govern people’s lives.
Rules that keep the peace, avoid chaos, and protect the good from the evil.
The government’s main job is to bring peace and stability to the subjects of the land.

With the right hand God rules with grace, mercy, and love.
God forgives sinners.
God makes people righteous through the death and resurrection of God’s son.
Another way to talk about this is that there are two kingdoms.
The kingdom of the world is ruled by government and law, and the kingdom of heaven ruled by God’s grace and mercy.
(I want to caution us as seeing this as equal to a separation of Church and State. Luther had no concept of that idea.)

Luther was only a man.
Because he is only a man, we have to always ask if his ideas are correct.
So was Luther right?

I see great wisdom in what Luther said.
There is a great danger in mixing up the two kingdoms of God.
The Church has a very specific role to play in the world.
It is to bring people to see Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
It is to bring peace to our troubled hearts.
To show people’s God’s love and grace as a gift given by God.

Governments’ job is to pass laws that are fair and just.
It is to make sure that all of the citizens that live within it’s borders are taken care of.
That everyone has the equal footing to pursue their vocations, and provide for their families.
Government’s job is to protect its citizens from death and destruction.

And when we too closely align these things trouble is often in the works.
I really dislike when politicians pretend to be theologians.
I don’t like it when the quote the Bible, or use pious words to explain their points.
I also don’t like it when pastors pretend to be politicians.
When they say that God would want less taxes, or more taxes, or when they use God to make their point.

Jesus this morning seems to side with Luther.
“Give to Emperor’s the things that are Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”
I want to leave alone for a second the things that are Emperor’s.
What are the things that belong to God?
Everything belongs to God.
All that we are, or ever hope to be is God’s.
I owe God everything that I am.
Don’t you?

The emperor gets none of me.
So maybe Luther was wrong.
As a Christian shouldn’t we give all to God, and forget about the emperor?
Should we not care what emperor says or does?

Here in lies the problem that I face.
It is the question that our youth really wanted to know on that ski lift.
What if Cesar does something that is anathema to our belief as a Christian?
What if Cesar does something that hurts my neighbor?
Shouldn’t we love our neighbors?
Shouldn’t we care for the least, forgotten, and lost?
And doesn’t that have to do with Cesar and the laws that are passed.

The line between the kingdom of the left and right are not as black and white as we think.
It is not as easy to say, “Well today I am going to go and do this God thing, and tomorrow I will do a secular thing.”
Because for me it is all God things, I am always in with God.
So when I stand up at a city council meeting and advocate for more money for our homeless in Concord I do it because Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.”
When I stand out in front of the ICE building in Manchester I do it because Jesus says, “when I was a stranger you welcomed me.”
When I advocate that our prison should hire a full time chaplain I do it because Jesus said, “when I was in prison you visited me.”
You see the problem.
It is not always as cut and dry as we want to make it.
As much as I admire what Luther said about the two kingdoms, as much as I think it is a good doctrine to keep in mind because a pastor should remember what he/she is called to do, I don’t think it is always that easy.

I want to end with one final thought.
Luther said that what a Christian owes the government is their best minds and ideas.
Luther said that Christians should participate in temporal government because in doing so we love our neighbor.
 “Since a true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself alone but for his neighbor, he does by the very nature of his spirit even what he himself has no need of, but is needful and useful for his neighbor.”
I love this quote.
Because so much of our political discourse is about what is best for me.
Why low taxes helps me.
Why having no refugees helps me.
Why I want this or that policy…
What we really owe Cesar, the temporal government, is to advocate policies that don’t help us at all, but really only help our neighbor.
That is a Jesus idea.
We as Christians have everything we need, because we have what the world (even Cesar) can never take away God.
In God we have a peace that surpasses understanding.
In God we have love, faith, and hope.
So we can give everything else to serving and loving our neighbors.
We can stop being selfish and greedy.
Instead we can advocate policies that don’t help us at all.
And in doing so we live out one of Jesus great teachings that this life is not about us at all, it is about what we do for others.

Give to God the things that are God’s.
All the best things are God’s, and God has given them all to us.
Now we can give everything else for our neighbor.
We can use what is best about our faith, and use it in the political world to advocate for the people that Jesus loves and asks us to love.

And that is what I said to the youth on the ski lift.
(OK what I actually said was a lot shorter, but basically that.)
I hope it helps you to navigate that very tricky problem of how our faith and politics come together.
It is not always easy, but it is worth thinking about because using our faith in the political realm must always be done carefully and most importantly with love.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Don't Waste It!

One of my former parishioners would tell me the story of how he would always have a Bible in his desk at work.
His boss knowing that he was a Christian and that he was good at hearing people’s problems would often send other co-workers to him if they had a problem.
Knowing this parishioner as I did I am sure he would listen and do a great job of making the person feel better.
That is the kind of power everyone here this morning has.
When Vicki and I were dating she was still in college in Maine.
She lived in this great house on the ocean.
She was going to have a party at her house for her family.
It was supposed to rain that day.
I was trying to impress her parents so I told them, “It is not going to rain.”
Sure enough it didn’t.
I want to assure all of you this morning I have no power over the weather.
But if I did, we would all share that same power.

These two stories are about what it means to be a person of God.
What are the limitations?
What are the expectations?
When you tell a co-worker that you are person of faith what does that mean?

In Luther’s day only professional clergy had access to God.
If you wanted your sins forgiven you had to go see the priest and confess.
If you wanted a prayer said so that it wouldn’t rain at your BBQ you had to go to a priest.
If you wanted to know what God thought you went to the priest.

Of all the changes that the Reformation brought perhaps the biggest was to wrest away the power of God from the professional clergy and put it in the hands of the common person.

It meant that people could go directly to God and ask forgiveness.
It meant that a co-worker could be just as much a comfort to you as your priest.
It meant that you could pray for sunshine on your own.
This is a good thing.
But it also brings with it responsibility.
You all are in positions of helping others see God.
You all are expected to show others God’s love.
In your work, play, and everyday life you are expected to act like a priest, monk, prophet, and preacher.

Let me say it another way.
The future of the Gospel is dependent upon you.
One question that we have to ask in our time is will there be a Church in 500 years from now?
I am not so sure.
Organized religion is losing more and more people.
One thing I know that its success is dependent upon all of you.

Our parable for this morning is a complicated one.
It is one of those parables that I wish Jesus never told.
Martin Luther called it a “terrible gospel” that he did not like to preach.
I agree with him on that.
But the idea that “many are called but few are chosen” has been ringing in my ears these days.
It just seems true.
Many people confess that they love Jesus.
Many people call themselves “Christians”.
But it seems that we are reluctant to live that out.
We are reluctant to be Jesus’ people.
Our own insecurity, our own lives often get in our way.

I was reading an article about people of my generation, people born between 1965 and 1984.
My generation is often called Generation X, and we are entering our 40’s.
And according to this article we are not enjoying adulthood.
We are tired, burnt, out and disillusioned.
We find ourselves in more debt, and less successful at this point in our lives than our parents from the baby boom generation.
We were the generation who thought we could have it all.
We could have a family, a successful career that we loved, and money in the bank.
We have found out that all of that is really not possible.
As Dr. Deborah Luepnitz said, “In midlife, what I see in my Gen X patients is total exhaustion. That’s what brings them to treatment. They feel guilty for complaining because it’s wonderful to have, but choices don’t make life easier. Possibilities create pressure.”

I was thinking about this and how we have lost important spiritual tools.
One tool is the ability to be grateful for what we have.
In the article it talked about people that were unhappy because they choose to have kids later in life.
And people that were unhappy because their having kids stopped them from doing what they really wanted.
No one is happy, perhaps because no one is grateful for the life they have.
Second, is the ability to see life not as limited possibility, but to see life as giving us limited choices based on our gifts and passions.
What Luther did when he gave us the power to see ourselves as Priests was say that what we did in everyday life was a calling from God.
To be a parent is a calling from God.
To be a banker, shoemaker, car dealer, cab driver, plumber, or whatever is a calling from God.
In those callings we serve God and our neighbor.
My favorite Luther quote about this is, “God is more pleased with the smell of a father changing a dirty diaper than all the incense in Rome.”

I am convinced that the Church will only exists where it will help people to live out their calling in a powerful and meaningful way.
It is no longer about getting people to come to Church, but about equipping people to be the priesthood of all believers when they go back into their lives.
The reason we have Bible study, adult forum, Sunday school.
It is the reason why we ask people to serve at the Friendly Kitchen, with Family Promise, in the community.
It is not so we can all think of ourselves as great Christians.
It is to equip us for the responsibility of living as a priest in a very complex world.
It is so when a co-worker comes to us with a problem we can offer some words of comfort and hope.
It is so when we are changing a dirty diaper at 3am we can see in it a holy and precious thing.
It is so we wear the garment of faith at all times.
It is so we see in our work a greater purpose.

The parable is about what happens after we get to the banquet.
What happens when we know that we are invited?
As I said last week we can only choose sin, but what happens when we realize this and we know of God’s love given in Jesus Christ.
What will we do with it?
Will we throw it out?
Will we waste it?
Or will we put on the garments of our salvation.
Will we wear the armor of our faith?

Luther once wrote about Word of God,  “Wherever you hear this word being preached and observe people believing, confessing, and acting according to it, have no doubt the true and holy catholic church must be present and that they are a holy Christian people even though they are very few in number, for God’s word does not remain without effect.”
Every week you come and you hear that word.
Every week you kneel at the banquet and receive God’s love given in Jesus Christ.
And then you are sent to be a priest, to share it with others.
The question that the parable posses to us is what will we do with it?
The Reformation set us free from the institutional tyranny of the Church to love and care for others.
What will we do now?

You have the power.
You have the power to forgive sins, to love others, to say words of comfort and hope.
You have the power to turn to God in prayer.
You have the power to ask God for sunny days.
You are a royal priesthood.
Don’t waste it.