Monday, August 31, 2009

Pentecost 13 - Year B

“ doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” the apostle James tells his parishioners.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Warms the heart of every Christian who wants to see churches living and active. It lights a fire underneath us when we get spiritually lazy.

“ doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

But Martin Luther HATED the letter of James. And there was a reason that Martin Luther HATED it. And when I say, “hate” I mean a viscous, hostile, anger towards this part of holy scripture. Martin Luther called this letter “the epistle of straw, whose only good is to light my fire.”

Tearing pages out of the bible and using them for kindling isn’t exactly what pops into our heads when we think of the great church reformer, the great defender of the bible, the one after whom we name our “Lutheran” church.

But he did say this. And he wasn't joking.

“ doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Luther was worried that folks would hear this passage and become confused. After all, Luther staked his salvation and those under his care on the idea that we are put in a right relationship with God not through any good works, not through obedience to God’s law, not through praying the right prayers or even by going to church.

Luther believed the apostle Paul who said that we are put in a right relationship with God by grace through faith, and not by any doing good works or believing the right things.

Then along comes James seemingly singing a different song, in direct contradiction to Paul:

“Therefore RID yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and WELCOME with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But BE DOERS of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Notice the verbs. It was the verbs that made Luther want to reach for his lighter fluid. “RID yourselves.” “WELCOME with meekness.” “BE DOERS...not merely hearers.”

Luther didn’t like verbs when it came to the Christian life. And probably for good reason. For him Christianity isn’t about “doing” but about “being.” The Christian life isn’t about US and what WE do. Christianity is about GOD and what GOD has done and is doing. And here James seems to have his Christian priorities turned on its head.

James seems to be more worried about how people live than what God has done for them in Jesus. James seems more interested in peeking behind peoples’ closed doors than offering the good news of salvation in Jesus. James seems more concerned with proper moral behaviour than with God's transforming power.

And because James missed the gospel point in a colossal way, Luther worried that people would be burdened down by religious duties and moral obligations rather than liberated from sin and death.

Because of James, people would be checking over their shoulders for the sin-police rather than living in the freedom that God wanted for them and gave them in Jesus. People would be worried about proper behaviour than about loving their neighbours as themselves.

If we listen to James, faith is replaced by duty. Love with morality.

At least that’s the way Luther understood what James was saying. And for good reason. That’s EXACTLY how many people read James.

And it doesn’t matter which side of the theological fence you land on. On the left side of the fence, people point to James’ condemnation of rich folks, exposing economic and corporate sins, demanding a wholesale change to how the economic world is organized if they want to be part of God's saving plan.

On the right side of the fence, folk take aim at peoples’ personal moral foibles and failures, making sure they feel sufficiently guilty about their sins and demand that they clean up their moral act before thinking that they're Christian.

No matter what side you're on, the point is this: stop sinning. If you think you're a Christian and you still have sin in your life, you're wrong! To be a Christian is to NOT sin!

That's when Dr. Phil would chime in and say, “How’s that working for you? This whole not sinning thing? You getting anything out of it?”

Some call this guilt inducing finger wagging, “Sin management theology.” As if WE’RE the ones who are supposed to manage our sins. As if WE’RE the ones to cut sin out of our lives.

But I hear this all the time. Turn on the radio and listen to pretty much any radio preacher, or even from some our Luther pulpits, you'll hear folks who seem to hate sin more than they love grace. They see Christianity as a bunch of do' s and don't rather than Jesus forgiving, renewing, and restoring us.

They want to make sure that this grace thing doesn't get out of hand, making sure that people don't abuse God's love with sinful living.. Making sure that folks don't sully the good name of Jesus by living just like everyone else.

They seem to say that we have to put fences around peoples' behaviour, we have to corral folks together, and lock them in a moral prison. We have to determine the absolute RIGHT and the absolute WRONG, and find ways to make sure that people stay on the correct side of that absolute.

It's as if they're saying that human sin is stronger than God's grace. It's as if they don't trust God to change people. It's as if they don't believe that God has the power to renew the world, starting with us.

It's like they don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

While Luther’s heart and head were in the right place, I don't think he understood what James was saying any more than those who would use James as a hammer to beat people with did.

I think Luther was too caught up in the church fights of his day to really hear what James is saying. “ doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

I think James snuck the good news in when we weren't looking. It's buried in the second half of verse 21, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

It's the “implanted word” that has power, not any of the other verbs. God has implanted that word within us. God has placed God's renewing power and presence within our hearts.

I think James was DESCRIBING how Christians live rather than PRESCRIBING a formula for faithful living. I don’t think he was saying “Prove you are a Christian by not sinning.”

I think James knew that people are sometimes weak. He knew that living a life of faith is a life of both failure and success, that sometimes we come close to God, and other times God doesn't seem to be in our time zone.

James knew that a life of faith sometimes means climbing to the mountain top before tumbling down and landing on our heads. James knew that sometimes a life of faith is a sprint. Other times it's a marathon. Other times it means you stay home in bed.

James knew that life is messy. PEOPLE are messy. People fight. People hurt themselves and each other. People forget who God is.

But God doesn't forget. God remembers that we can be small, sinful, frail human beings. And God remembers that we need God to save us, to heal us, to renew us. That's why God implanted God's word within us.

So, I think we can read this passage in a way that would make good 'ol Martin Luther smile: welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. THEREFORE be doers of the word, and not merely hearers...”

Another way to say this is: God has saved you. God has made you a child of the Almighty. God has washed every sin away and sees you as clean and well-loved. So, go and live your salvation. Go and live in the love that God has for you. Be doers of God's word, because God's word is inside you. God planted it there, and will make it grow.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pentecost 12 - Year B

Today's OT reading is about the climax of Solomon's reign – his crowning achievement. The temple is finished and the ark of the covenant – the ark where the tablets that held the 10 commandments while the people of Israel journeyed through the wilderness - is laid to rest in the temple’s inner sanctuary after a long journey.

It is a treasured moment. And yet, for all that God's people have achieved, for all that God had done for them, mixed emotion probably ran through the crowd.

Yes, FINALLY, they are like other nations. They have a strong king, a thriving capital city (Jerusalem), and a temple in which to worship. They had arrived.

And yet – at what price?

They have a king – but like all other kings, this king kills his enemies a bit too freely. This king lives a lavish lifestyle on the backs of his people.

They have a capital city and strong infrastructure - as well as the headaches that go with that: excessive taxation, centralized governing authorities who protect their own interests rather than the peoples' they are supposed to serve.

They have a temple in the centre of the city. A church. A Cathedral. A house in which to worship their God. But God's house was built with forced labour. Slaves. And adorned with gold while the people went hungry.

It's like the people of Israel had forgotten their past. It's like they'd forgotten who God is and how God wants them to live.

And, although Solomon comes off in this story as a fully devoted servant of the Lord, we know that that's not always the case.

He is wise – yes – but so often he's more like a back room deal maker than a philosopher king. A cynical politico rather than an enlightened sage. A player rather than a guru.

He forges political alliances expanding Israel's borders, growing richer and more powerful while his people struggle under the burdens of his wars and are weighed down by the taxes and the labour he demands to finance his ambitions.

And while that's all good for Solomon, it's not so good for his people – and ultimately, not for Solomon himself.

His alliances with other countries open his eyes to what he doesn't have. He gets greedy. Starts needless wars. He marries women from other countries, adding them to his collection. But he also worships their gods, building temples to those gods, too, insulting the new temple he had built for the Lord, ignoring his oath of faithfulness.

The judgment finally falls on him in chapter 11,

"Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you,” says the Lord, “ I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen."

Solomon's empire was ending before it had barely begun.

And yet not all of this is clear as the people celebrated the dedication of the Temple. No doubt there were rumblings and rumours about what was taking place, questions to Solomon's staff, queries for their king.

But for today, they were in awe over the presence of God in this place, the SHEKINAH, as it is called in Hebrew – the very tangible, presence of the Almighty touching them as they gathered in the Holy Place. The same presence that was a pillar of fire by night that guided them all those years through the wilderness.

Whether they were elated or angry, they had now become a great nation, that awesome presence in the temple was a reminder to them that the God of this great kingdom of Israel was the same God that led a ragtag cluster of slaves out of Egypt and into freedom, the same God that led them through the desert for 40 years, the same God that gave them new laws and fresh insights into how they were to live as God's people. The same God that loved them fiercely, and asked only for their faithfulness in return.

And now they worshiped this God in this temple. This temple built by slaves by a king whose ambitions taxed them into near starvation. And despite all the grandeur of the Temple and the king's politcal successes, this is what Solomon's prayer comes down to: asking God to be faithful to a people who are often unfaithful.

Nothing about gold. Not a word about power or wealth. Absent from this prayer is any request for strength or greatness. Not a sound about enlarging his borders.

What Solomon asks for is a heart of worship, without which even he in all his glory could go on. Solomon asks for a God who listens, a God who forgives, a God who cares for the whole world, even for strangers who don't know who God is.

Solomon asks for a God who loves, those who are unfaithful, who loves those who fail, who loves those get angry with each other and with God.

Solomon asks for a God whose first impulse is to forgive rather than to condemn. To bring justice to an unjust world. Mercy to an unmerciful world. A God who is willing to start the relationship with us all over again when that relationship falls apart.

In the surrounding verses, not read today, Solomon asks God to LISTEN when someone is unjustly accused of a crime, to listen to those defeated in battle, to listen those struggling to calm their swelling bellies and aching hearts; to listen to those being crushed by oppression and trampled by disease; to listen to those vanquished by doubt and ruined by grief.

Solomon prays for you. He prays for us. Today.

We know that all those things still happen, we know that the world still groans in pain, despite Solomon's earnest prayer.

But the hope that lives inside his prayer is that God WILL listen when we cry out. That God DOES listen.

Our churches are signs and symbols calling us to worship, just as the temple was. Our churches, we know, are by no means perfect. Like the temple we may have mixed feelings about church. How we use our money, how we get along with each other, how we struggle to live how God wants us to live, how we sometimes DON'T live how God wants us to live.

Sometimes our churches are signs of excess; sometimes they invoke God's presence; often both.

But our churches are also monuments to God's ears, reminders to all of us that no matter what our circumstances, whether we're like Solomon in the heights of glory and wisdom, or like Solomon in the depths of unfaithfulness and loss, God listens. God hears. God's presence will always remain listening to our cries for help. And God's faithfulness will gather us back to God when we are unfaithful.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Pentecost 9B

Hi Folks, since I'm on an airplane between Denver and Edmonton right now, and because you see the communion elements on the table, and no one with the word “Reverend” in front of their name here at the church, you're probably wondering what's going on.

Well, we're going to try something new. Actually, its very old. We're using pre-consecrated elements for Holy Communion. In other words, the bread and wine were consecrated – blessed – at a previous worship service for use in later eucharistic gatherings.

Before you get all uptight about this (I'm looking at you, Torben), let me say that this was NOT my idea. It was Bishop Ron's idea. So, if you have trouble with this, take it up with Bishop Ron.

I had breakfast with him at last month's National Convention and he mentioned that this was a practice that they used when he was the pastor at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Red Deer.

I've handed out an outline of his reasoning with the bulletin. I draw your attention to number 2:

We are under obligation to provide access to Word and Sacrament for God's people.  We are also required to do everything decently and in order. What would "decently and in order" look like if we pre-consecrated elements for use at a future Eucharist in a congregation?

• Those who will be receiving these elements at a future time need to see them being consecrated; i.e. pre-consecration is done with the knowledge of the people and in their presence as a worshipping body.

The people who will be receiving these elements need to be witness to each of the 4 Eucharistic actions: i.e. taking, blessing, breaking, giving.  I am not aware that there is any specific prohibition of taking and blessing - before the face of the people - and then a week later, breaking and giving - to those same people.  They have been witness to, and partaken of, the Eucharist in its fullness.

Taken literally, only those who were here on July 19 would be allowed to take communion... since, according to Bishop Ron's suggestion that the elements need to be consecrated in the presence of “those same people” who would later receive the pre-consecrated bread and wine. Assuming that I remembered to pre-consecrate the bread and wine. Which I didn't. And the deacons didn't remind me. Shaaaaaammmmme.

But of course, by “people” we could mean “this community” and not necessarily the individuals present two weeks ago, we could just as easily consecrate the elements with “the community” - the people, since Ben Stewardson, a member of our church family, is here filming me. Remember that Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name there I will be in the midst of you.”

Words of Institution. Amen.

We have to remember that those are not magic words. They're called the “Word of Institution” but they are really words of promise. Promise that Jesus will be truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine. Jesus is present, not because of some fancy theological formula or dogmatic reasoning. We know that Jesus is fully present in the bread and the wine because he promised he would be.

But more importantly, Holy Communion is a reminder that we are be joined to God's Great Salvation story in Jesus. The story of liberation and forgiveness, justice and mercy. The story of death and resurrection.

We're connected once again to the story that promises that God is still in the business of saving the world.

Personally, I think that God is moving the church in new – and old! - directions. I think God is asking people to re-claim their biblical mandate to be priests – God's representatives in the world. I think each one of you is ordained to preside at the table. You were ordained when you were baptized, and God named and claimed you as God's child, taking you by the hand and leading you into God's kingdom. I think that God asking you to remember the authority that you've been given in Jesus.

In a time when clergy numbers are shrinking, to say that only clergypeople can preside at the Lord's Supper means that a lot of churches will be going without the sacrament. It means that many faithful Christians will be denied the opportunity to partake in the bread of life and cup of salvation.

It means that YOU will go without the sacrament because I go on vacation. No other clergy was available to serve communion today. We checked. So, it doesn't seem right that YOU are denied God's visible blessing because all other clergy are kicking back at the cottage. I think Jesus wants us to do better than that.

I have to admit, I was a little hesitant to preach about this practice, mainly because it draws your attention to the bread and the wine themselves, and NOT to the story – or person – they incarnate. In other words, in just talking about whether a non-clergy type can pray over the bread and wine, the emphasis is on the elements themselves, and NOT on the salvation story we have in Jesus.

But that's where we find ourselves now. Luther would have a few choice words for us today. When Luther railed against the Roman Catholic practice of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, where Catholic stare at a wafer, believed to be transformed into the true bodily presence of Christ, he did so because he knew from today's gospel reading that Jesus – the Bread of Life – was not to be adored, the Bread of Life was to be eaten. The point of Holy Communion isn't that the bread has been transformed. The point of Holy Communion is that Jesus is our food for Christian living.

Those who remember their catechism may recall the question:

What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?

That is shown us in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins; namely, that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?

It is not the eating and drinking, indeed, that does them, but the words which stand here, namely: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins. Which words are, beside the bodily eating and drinking, as the chief thing in the Sacrament. (Sacrament of the Altar)

The bread and wine, joined with God's Word and God's Promise make Holy Communion. Ultimately, it's Jesus who presides at the table, bring life and forgiveness, salvation and healing, to all who receive.

It's Jesus who bled, died, and rose again so that YOU might have life. It's Jesus' story we celebrate. It's Jesus' story that becomes our story as we join with him in the banquet of new and everlasting life.
May this be so among us. Amen.