Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pentecost 5C

When we're trying to recruit new people into our church, how do we do it? What tactics do we use?

Do we say that we're a friendly, welcoming, bunch? Do we go out of our way to make sure that each new person who comes through our doors shakes at least three hands before making their way to the sanctuary?

Do we make sure that a newcomer finds an easily accessible seat? Do we assemble a bulletin that's easy to follow? Do we see to it that new people are invited downstairs for coffee and fellowship? Do we place in their hands a jar of dried soup mix (do we still do this?)?

Do we emphasize on how caring we are? Do we project ourselves as a place of healing? A family of believers where all are invited to the table? A community of loving Christians dedicated to making people feel valued and included?

I think the answer to all these questions is an unqualified "Yes!"

And you're probably wondering why I brought this up? After all, isn't that what we're supposed to do? Aren't we expected to be friendly, welcoming, and loving, by the very fact that we're Christians?


What would happen if we took Jesus' lead in welcoming new people?

Jesus' behaviour in today's gospel wouldn't win him any hospitality awards.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Imagine a church that had such demanding expectations; who set the bar for faithfulness so high that only a select few would manage to scale it. Imagine if I went around telling newcomers to abandon everything about their old life and put everything they had in Jesus' hands. Imagine if I put a sign out front that said, "Come die with us!" or "We have a cross that fits you perfectly!" Or "Looking for a reason to suffer? Have we got a saviour for you!"

Imagine if I told any of you that who ever leaves this church isn't fit for heaven, isn't worthy of God's love; wasn't really a Christian to begin with.

How long do you think I'd keep my job? I'd be labelled a cult leader, a religious fanatic, a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac. Our church would be looked at with suspicion by others. We'd lose the respect of our neighbours. Our community leaders wouldn't want anything to do with us. There would be letters to the editor, calls to the bishop, the "Black Bloc" might even set cars on fire out front of our church.

And maybe I'd be preaching to an empty church. Or I'd probably be shown the door before we lose all our members. Just for using Jesus' recruitment methods.

So, maybe I need to bring down the hammer, declare recess over, and move our church toward what Jesus' had in mind. Maybe I need raise expectations, decide who gets in and who stays out. Maybe I need to follow Jesus' example much more closely.

Or maybe not.

What I think was happening is that Luke was re-telling the story from 1 Kings where the prophet Elijah called his successor Elisha into ministry. Elisha, ever the dutiful son, asked to kiss his mother good-bye before following Elijah and taking over the job as prophet. Both Elijah and Elisha knew that it was a new beginning for the young apprentice prophet, and it only seemed reasonable that his say a proper good-bye to his mom, who he would never see again.

But Luke was saying that Jesus places higher demands on his disciples. Luke's Jesus won't even let his new recruits attend their father's funeral before following him. Jesus' anti-family attitude is astonishing, especially in a culture that valued family connections above all else, except for God.

Luke seems to be saying that being a follower of Jesus means that we will be in a conflict of loyalties, even perhaps among our families. Following Jesus is a commitment that affects all of our relationships. Even our closest family relations. Following Jesus means dying to an old self and old way of life, and rising to a new one - a self and way of life that lasts into eternity.

We have trouble reading this story this way because we're used to having the culture affirm and support us. Many of our culture's more sacred holidays are Christian Holy Days: Christmas and Easter. I'm old enough to remember when I began the school day with bible reading and the Lord's Prayer. And many Christians yearn for a return to those days when we allowed public schools to do the job of making Christians for us.

But Jesus splashes cold water on our spiritually lethargic faces; calling us to remember that, as Christians, we have a distinct voice, a specific way of living, a holy calling to be light in a dark world.

And such a life takes commitment. It's a sacred mandate for those of us who've been washed clean in the waters of baptism, joined to Jesus' death and resurrection, named and claimed as God's own people.

As Christians, we believe that God was in Jesus Christ, and that God calls us to a distinct life; a life of forgiveness, of mercy, or compassion, of grace. These aren't values most people have. But they're the values God has given us, written on our hearts, pasted on our foreheads, and placed on our lips. We have been recruited into God's resurrection vision for the world, where death is swallowed whole and God's reign of justice, joy, and newness flourishes.

Let the dead bury their own dead, because we're too busy finding life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pentecost 4C

Lutherans LOVE good theology. And by "good theology" I mean a way of talking about God and God's activity in the world that is deeply influenced by the political and social battles of the 16th century. Good theology is what defines Lutherans. It's unique to us.

Anglicans are defined by a certain, prescribed, worship. Lex orandi/lex credendi or "the law of prayer is the law of belief." Anglicans know what they believe when they pray it. It's what binds them together.

The Roman Catholic Church has the pope as a unifying figure, for better or for worse. No matter where you are in the world, no matter what your theological beliefs, no matter what style of worship draws you in, it's the pope - "the vicar of Christ on earth" - who stands at the centre of your faith.

Lutherans don't have it so easy. As Lutherans, we say that it's the doctrine of justification by grace through faith that brings us together. Justification by faith: the notion that we sinful human beings are brought into a right relationship with God not through any actions or inactions on our part, but because we are declared innocent and clean because of Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection to new and everlasting life. We are saved by grace through faith, and not by works of the law. That is Lutheranism's central, defining, idea.

The problem then lies when we try to figure out what that means. How does such a notion help us to understand the bible? No two Lutherans agree on that. How does such an idea help us with faithful daily living? Lutherans are still fighting over all that. How does the doctrine of justification by grace through faith help us to relate to an unbelieving world? Lutherans are still squabbling over that question.

Lutherans fight because Lutherans like to be right. We like to have theology all wrapped up tightly in a box so no air can get out. We don't like our theology to breathe. We don't like it to have life. In fact, when the Lutheran Confessions were written (the Lutheran Confessions being a body of writing that tries to sort out exactly what we believe, it's not a "confession" in the "confessing our sins" sort of what, but a "confession of faith" [we believe, teach, and confess...this to be true]). When the Lutheran Confessions were written, Martin Luther and the other writers when to great pains to demonstrate that they have said "nothing new." That the emerging Lutheran movement was steeped in old, traditional, thinking. That it was their way of telling their enemies that they had plugged all the theological holes so that nothing new could get in, and nothing old could escape.

And so, we equate proper believing with having good theology. For Lutherans, faithfulness seems to begin and end right here - in the brain, in how we think about God. For Lutherans, the tendency is to put more value on the content on one's personal belief, then in seeing God at work in peoples' lives.

And today's gospel reading is a direct challenge to those of us who equate correct theological thinking with faithful Christian practice.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”

You have to look for it, but once you see it, you can't take your eyes off it.

When the demon-possessed man saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”

"What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?"

This is the first time - and the only time - in Luke's gospel, that Jesus had been address by his proper, royal, title, "Son of the Most High God." And he was called this, not by the disciples who'd been learning at his feet. They didn't really have a clue who he was. The disciples argued with each other about who Jesus was. And it certainly wasn't the religious leaders, many of whom were more interested in protecting their power in the society than guiding people in the way of the Lord.

It was the demons possessing this man who knew who Jesus was. It was the forces of those who would thwart God's mission who called Jesus by his correct title and show'd him proper respect. It was the enemies of God's kingdom who had the best theology.

As a Lutheran, I find that a challenge to everything I've been taught. While, on the surface, I'd been taught the doctrine of justification by faith, the notion that we are declared innocent by God's grace and not by any work that I do, underneath, it had been suggested that I'm really saved by my belief in this doctrine. If the demons can believe and confess better theology than I can, where does that leave me? Where does that leave you?

It may not be "good theology" that you hope saves you. You may put your faith in your personal moral code. It may be your life of worship and prayer, or how many bible verses you know. It may be your work ethic. Or financial success. It may be all those hours volunteering.

But we know that there's nothing wrong with any of those things. But we also know there is always someone who is better than us in what we strive for. There is someone who prayers longer and better than we do. There is someone who is richer, works harder, has more integrity, who spends more time giving to others. There is always someone farther ahead in the Christian path. So what happens then? What happens when we know we've fallen short of human standards, much less than God's? What happens when are confronted with the fact that we'll never be as good as we want to be?

So I guess that leaves us where we usually are: as sinners in need of God's grace. As people who's hope is in the one who died and rose again for us. People who have been washed clean in the waters of baptism, who've been liberated of the legions within us that keep us far from God, who've been forgiven and set free. People who've been told by Jesus, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pentecost 3C

Who do you want to keep out of God's kingdom? Everyone has their list of people whose names they'd like crossed out of the Book of LIfe. Even now, I'll bet there's someone in your mind that you hope will be enduring eternal heat blisters while you're enjoying heavenly bliss. We ALL have names of people in our heads who we'd like to see on the outside looking in on God's heavenly banquet. Everyone carries a list.

"You know, pastor, " he said. "There are a lot of PEOPLE in our churches but there aren't very many CHRISTIANS."

"I beg your pardon," I replied.

"There are too many people who go to church but don't live by God's law, they live just like everyone else. They're fake Christians," he said.

"Is that right?" I replied, turning my chair to indicate that this was a conversation I no interest in being a part of. But he didn't take the hint.

"Yeah, too many people think they're Christians but they really aren't. There's no repentance. No outward evidence that they they believe in God. There's too much immorality. Too many concessions to the secular world. They don't believe in the Truth of the bible."


"Really?" I replied, hoping my monosyllabic answers might discourage him. But it seemed to do the opposite. He was just getting started.

"People think that they can sin and still be part of Christ's church. The bible is clear, God HATES sin. God demands obedience from us, not disobedience."

"But didn't Jesus die for our sins?" I asked.

"Jesus may have died for our sins but that doesn't mean we can still go on sinning and expect to go to heaven," he replied.

"So, we can stop sinning if we just put our minds to it?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "God gave us free will so we can choose to sin or not to sin."

"If God has given us the freedom to sin or not to sin then why did Jesus have to die for our sins, why didn't he just tell us to strengthen our wills to live in obedience?"

And from there it was on. He had pushed my last button.

This was a conversation I had with a young man at last week's synod convention. It's a conversation I regularly have with people. People who see more sin than grace in the world. People who want to divide the world into two competing camps: those who deserve to be in God's favour, and those who do not. And they usually know which camp they fall in to. And they're glad to let you know where you spiritually stack up.

I tell you this story not to show off my stellar debating skills, but to show you that Pharisees are alive and well; people who don't really trust that faith can make us well. They don't trust that God is active in the world and in peoples' lives.

Just like we heard in today's gospel.

Jesus is having dinner at a pharisee's house. In the middle of the meal a "woman of the city" (and you know how THEY can be!) comes in, lets down her hair, falls all over Jesus, kissing and caressing his feet, which is all much more that the religious people at the table can tolerate.

"If this man were a real prophet," he said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "he'd know what kind of woman this is. He see that she's a sinner!"

Jesus repondes in an interesting way to this charge. He says, "Do you see this woman?"

The implication is that the host, the self-righteous religious person doesn't really see the woman. He only sees a "sinner." That's all he sees.

But when Jesus looks at her, he sees a "daughter of Abraham." A member of the family, someone who has a claim on God's goodness and mercy. Jesus sees what the pharisees cannot: a precious child of God. The religious leaders only see walking, talking, sin.

If you're listening closely, you'll notice that I might fall into the trap of reverse-phariseeism: passing judgment on the pharisees as if I'm somehow better than them. It's easy to condemn the self-righteous religious folks for the sin of condemning others. But if we're honest with ourselves we'll know that we're not any better. We have a foot in each camp. We're the self-righteous religious leader who makes up lists of who is in and who is out. And we're the sinner in need of forgiveness. Both. At the same time.

The challenge for us today is to see in ourselves both the self-righteous religious person and the sinner. That's not easy. We're too close to ourselves. We can't always see in ourselves what others see in us. We justify our own behaviour while magnifying the flaws we see in others.

Thankfully, we have a God who see us just as we are: children of Abraham and Sarah, sisters and brothers of Jesus. The fellow I was visiting with at convention couldn't see his fellow Christians as fellow followers of Jesus. And I have to admit, I had trouble seeing him as a member of Christ's family. I didn't want him at the same communion table as me. I like to think of myself as better than him, more inclusive, more welcoming, and more accepting. I like to think that my vision of God and the world is bigger than his. And that makes me a more faithful Christian.

I want to keep him and people like him out. That makes me no better than him. I only want people around me who think like me, that way I won't have to be challenged. I only want people who affirm what I already know, so I won't have to be pushed. I only want to be around people who see the world the same way I do, that way I won't have to grow. I am the religious leader in this story. And that makes me the sinner in need of forgiveness.

So I'm glad that I'm not in charge of who gets in and who stays out of God's kingdom. I'm thankful that that's a job for someone much more forgiving than I am. And I'm glad it's not up to you as well. We human beings are better at drawing lines than opening doors. We're better at locking gates than we are at opening borders. Our limited vision makes us barely see beyond our own noses. But God's vision is as expansive as eternity. God's mercy never ends.

So, who do you want to keep our of God's kingdom? Who's on the Top Ten? I want you to hold on to that list of people whose names you'd like erased from the Book of Life. That list is now your prayer card. Those are the people God wants you to pray for. And as you pray for each person on that list, those people might also be praying for you.