Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Day

If someone asked you what a Lutheran was, how would you respond? I posed that question to the confirmation class a few weeks ago and they looked as blankly then as you do this morning.

For most of us, that’s a tough question to answer. Lutheranism has such a rich and diverse tradition. But it’s also very specific. How do you sum up a whole faith history in a few words?

Those of us initiated in the deeper workings of the Lutheran theological tradition would throw around weighty words such as “justification” and “sanctification” before lapsing into latin spewing phrases such “sola fide” “sola gracia” “sola scriptura;” high sounding words to explain what is a really tremendously personal faith. “Why,” ask Lutherans, “would you use a 50 cent word when a $100 word will do just as well?

Others, more narratively minded, will tell the story of Martin Luther, from whom we derive our name “Lutheran.”

You’d mention his beginnings as a law student, before being caught in a rain storm, thinking he’s going to die, he cut a deal with St. Anne that if she helps him survive the storm, he’ll devote his life to God and become a monk.

She did. And he did.

You’d mention that in the Monastery Luther beat himself up - literally and figuratively - to punish himself for his sins. He believed that he couldn’t do anything acceptable to God. And so, Luther said he hated God for creating him sinful, then punishing him for those sins.

And then, you tell how Luther, while reading the passage from Romans we heard this morning, finally realized that we sinful human beings as justified by faith alone, and not by works. You’d explain that this is a fancy way of saying that God declares us clean, forgiven, and freed from the power of sin because of Jesus and not because of how much we pray, go to church, live moral lives, give to the poor, or anything else that we think will make us acceptable to God. We ARE acceptable to God because we’ve been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection in holy baptism.

It may sound like the story stops there but you’d keep on going. You’d tell how Luther was sent to study and teach at the University of Wittenberg. Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Leo X wanted to build a big cathedral for himself but didn’t have the cash. So he recruited Johann Tetzel - slimiest, smooth talkingest stickiest-hand-in-the-offering-plate-iest - preacher he could find to scare the hapless German Christians into handing over their hard earned paycheques to Rome to so Leo could pay for his ego enhancement.

Tetzel told them that if they wanted to free Uncle Hans from purgatory all they had to do was hand over a few dollars to the traveling preacher. He would ask, “How could you let Aunt Mary suffer when all you had to do was put some extra cash in the offering plate, and she would be released into heaven?”

With an advertising campaign so slimy that it would make Don Draper blush, Tetzel came up with a slogan: “When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Catchy, eh? This practice was called “selling indulgences.”

You’d emphasize how Luther, who was also a parish priest, caught wind that his parishioners were buying these worthless indulgences, and he went ballistic. And Luther did what every good clergy person would when overheated with anger at the injustice and abuse in the church: he composed 95 debating points (which we call the “95 Theses” with a “th” NOT an “f”) and nailed them to the church’s front door, for discussion and debate. This was the 16th century equivalent of writing a blog post.

Luther nailed his 95 these on October 31, 1517. Which is why we celebrate Reformation Day on October 31. Or usually, on the last Sunday in October. But October 31 is officially Reformation Day.

We remember October 31 because it was when he nailed his 95 these to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that Luther set a match that ignited a fiery change to Europe’s religious landscape - and beyond to the whole world.

Luther was eventually excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church - but he didn’t care. He believed he was doing God’s work. You’d point out that Luther didn’t intend to split the church. He wanted to simply reform it.

He wanted to rid the church of the abuses that were exploiting everyday Christians. He wanted everyone to participate in worship instead of just watching clergy folks litugize. It’s because of Luther that we sing hymns during worship. Before him, worship was a spectator sport for those who didn’t have collars around their necks.

But most importantly, you’d want to say that being a Lutheran is about being saved - put in a right relationship with God not through any outside works or inward prayers. We have a right relationship with God because of Jesus death and resurrection, to which we are joined in Holy Baptism. We call this: grace.

In fancy theological language, grace means “unmerited favour.” In regular speak, grace means receiving God’s love and salvation even though we DIDN’T nor COULD WE do anything to deserve it. When we say that God is gracious, we are saying that God loves us even though we’re not entitled to God’s love. We didn’t earn it. And we couldn’t earn it even if we tried. Grace is living with the hope that God has a hold on us in this life, and faith that God will carry us into eternity.

But I’m guessing that for you, if asked what a Lutheran is, you might simply say that it means salvation in Jesus. And that would be a great answer. But it would also be just the beginning.

Being a Lutheran isn’t just remembering the story that shapes us. It’s looking to the future to see how the story ends.

And not just our small, individual stories, but God’s GREAT story of the salvation of the world, the new birth of the New Creation, where God will make all things new, where tears will be wiped from our eyes, where mourning, crying, and pain will be no more, where the kingdom of heaven and the brokenness of the world unite in God’s healing love, and where every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord.

And so, as Lutherans, we confess it’s by grace alone through faith that we - and the world - is saved.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pentecost 22C

I think I can sum up today’s gospel reading in one short sentence: Jesus says not to be a smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk. So, there it is. Now I can go sit down and enjoy the rest of the service having preached the shortest sermon of my life.

But if I do that I will have fallen into the trap that Jesus set for us. We think we know whose side we’re on in Jesus’ little morality tale. Especially in the way Jesus tells it. And that is dangerous territory. We better watch were we step.

In Jesus’ story we have two people praying. We have the smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk of a religious leader who thanks God that he’s not like the dirty, disgusting sinners and moral midgets that he has to deal with all day. He thanks God that he’s better than them.

And in contrast, we have a hated tax collector, who grew rich off of collaborating with the enemy, collecting taxes for the Roman empire, taking more than he needed to, and pocketing the difference. He was a thief and a collaborator. He helped God’s people under the Roman boot. He was NOT welcome at worship. And now he has the audacity to ask God for mercy.

The story says that the Pharisee held the tax collector with contempt. And I’m sure the feeling was mutual. There are no innocent parties here.

The thing is, the Pharisee isn’t wrong. That’s why this story isn’t as cut and dried as we might think. Remember that Jesus’ audience was Jewish. The Pharisee was modeling what an exemplary Jewish life looks like. He was doing everything right. He was the perfect Jewish leader. He was giving thanks that he was able to bear faithful witness to a world that God wanted.

And Luke’s listeners would have heard this story after the fall of Jerusalem where the temple was destroyed, and so they probably wondered why Luke’s Jesus picked on the Pharisees. Certainly he could have found a more appropriate target.

It was the Pharisees that kept the Jewish faith alive as Jews scattered all over the known world in order to escape annihilation after the Romans decimated Jerusalem, It was the Pharisees, this particular group of rabbis who preserved the faith and taught the tradition so it wouldn’t be lost. They took up the cause of salvaging the Jewish rituals from the temple ruins. If it weren’t for the Pharisees’ heroic faithfulness, Judaism would probably have been destroyed.

And so the Pharisee prays,

“I give you thanks, O God, that I have been able to keep the commandments, that I’ve been faithful in giving what you ask, that I’ve been remembering your peoples’ suffering by fasting. I thank you that temptation has not overcome my desire to live for you.”

If you think about it, it’s a pretty Lutheran prayer. The text says that the Pharisee trusted in himself, but I don’t really see that happening here. The Pharisees’ prayer is one of thankfulness in what God has done in him and for him. He recognizes that he couldn’t be faithful on his own. He thanks God that he can follow the rituals and the traditions that make up the heart of the Jewish faith. He thanks God for doing in him what he could not do himself. If it was all his own doing, this prayer was mere bragging to the Almighty, if his faithfulness was his own hard work, then why was he thanking God for the ability to be so obedient?

Then we have the hated tax collector, who can’t take his eyes off the floor. He whispers his prayer, “Be merciful to me, a sinner.” Simple. Humble. To the point.

But I wonder if both the Pharisee and the tax collector were praying the same prayer, but in different words. A religious leader, thanking God for helping him be faithful in a world where it’s so easy to fall away from the faith. And a tax collector who knows that his actions have put him at odds with God and God’s people, and who asks God to repair him and his broken relationships.

They probably didn’t realize they are really brothers with more in common than they might have liked to admit. They both called out to the same God asking for the same thing: they called out to the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Jacob and Rachel. Those stories were their stories. The same God was at work within both of them. They called out to the God who spoke the whole of creation into being, so that their same God would re-create them.

I don’t like the traditional interpretation of this story because it creates a binary universe. It trades on “us verses them.” It assumes that there are righteous and unrighteous people. Those who are in and those who are out.

And in interpreting the story the way we usually do - that the Pharisee is a smug, arrogant, jerk, and the tax collector is a poor, humble, sinner, then we better watch where we step, because this is where the trap that Jesus lays for us is hidden.

If I asked you where you were in this story, I’m guessing most of you would say that you’re more like the tax collector than the Pharisee. After all, you’re not a smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk. And then you’d look down your humble noses at the smug, arrogant, self-righteous Pharisee, and in doing so, you’d become just as self-righteous as he is.

“I give you thanks O God, that I’m not like this smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk of a Pharisee. I thank you that I’m a poor, humble, sinner, who knows what the faith is REALLY about. I thank you that my eyes are not blinded by pride.”

And how would that prayer be any different from the one we believe the Pharisee prayed?

I think, for us, this story helps us remember that it’s God who does the humbling and God who does the exalting. It’s remembering that we, gathered in this place as God’s people, cry out to God where we are. It’s about trusting that God is at work in us, whether as a Pharisee who gives thanks for the faithfulness he’s been able to see in his life, or the tax collector who calls out to God to restore him to the life he knows God wants for him. In both cases, we are humbled, so that God may be exalted.

And at the end we will all go home justified.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pentecost 21C

On Friday a group of us from Good Shepherd went to the Good Samaritan Society’s Spirituality and Wholeness workshop, and the presenter had us do an interesting exercise.

He first asked us to assume the posture of someone who is happy. So, we all sat up straight in our seats, shoulders back, chin square, and lips smiling.

Then he asked us to assume the posture of someone who is depressed. So we hunched over, slouched our shoulders, put our heads down, fixed our eyes at the floor, or in some cases, closed them.

Then we went back to our natural posture.

Then, he said, “Let us pray...” and we assumed a prayer posture, which soon became obvious to many people in the room that our prayer postures looked a whole lot like the posture of a depressed person.

Interesting, isn’t it? We say that prayer connects us to God, but does our body language say something about that connection?

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard some criticize the way we morph our bodies when we pray. Some say that when we pray we try to make ourselves smaller in a false humility. And prayer is supposed to enlarge us, deepen our relationship with God, and broaden our vision of how God works in our lives and in the world. We don’t have to make ourselves smaller for God to be larger. God already is.

Others say that closing our eyes while praying pulls us inward rather than pushing us outward, creating a mass of self-centred Christians whose eyes are shut to the suffering of others. Closed-eyed prayer becomes all about ME and MY needs rather than about US. Open-eyed prayer helps us see the world that needs more of God.

I don’t know if any of that is true. But I do find it interesting that our default prayer posture mirrors the body language of a depressed person. Especially after reading today’s gospel.

Jesus encourages persistence in prayer. Nagging. Crying until you get your way. A curious way to think about prayer, don’t you think? It’s not what we usually picture when we think of prayer. This is not what a depressed person does. 

Some think of prayer the honest outpouring of the heart, or the ancient poetry of the liturgy, or humble - or maybe even mindlessly rote - prayers before meals. Whining or grumbling at God, irritating the Divine isn’t what how we learned to pray in confirmation.

Jesus says to pray always and not to lose heart. He says to keep at it, keep hammering away at God, keep poking the Almighty until you get the response you’re looking for. That’s how to get God’s attention. That, according to Jesus, is how to pray.

If you think about it, that IS how we pray as a church family. Especially when we use liturgies over and over and over again, praying the same assigned prayers, many of them written thousands of years ago.

When we follow the traditional liturgy, God knows that on Pentecost 21 - Year C, God will hear a specific set of ancient prayers. These same prayers reach God’s ears over and over and over and over and over again. Relentlessly. Which, to God, must sound like nagging.

But, if Jesus is to be believed, we’re just following his instructions. And we’re still waiting for God’s end of the bargain to be upheld.

So, upon Jesus’ directions, we keep praying, and praying, and praying, and praying, until those words begin to do something to US.

We keep praying and we begin to be shaped by the words we pray, praying until those words become part of us, praying until those words take root inside of us, and we are changed.

We keep praying until we become God’s answer to our prayers. We keep praying until we become the Word we’ve been waiting for.

We keep praying until we see the world as God sees it. We keep praying until we start seeing others as beloved creatures of God. We keep praying until forgiveness takes hold of our hearts. We keep praying until justice becomes our daily food. We keep praying until compassion grips our lives.

I think that’s why Jesus says to pray and to not lose heart. Because, it is in the act of praying that God works within us. It is in those words we say over and over and over again that God’s Word takes shape inside us.

Words create a world. It’s not just the words we proclaim that create, but the words of prayer we offer in tears, through clenched teeth, and even through mindless rote repeating, that mold us into who God wants us to be.

We believe in a God who, with a word, created something out of nothing. We believe in a God who shows us that words have tremendous creative power; and who shows us that words that have devastating power to destroy. We believe in a God whose word is written on our hearts. We believe in a God who saves us through the Word that was made flesh.

So prayer isn’t just offering our hope and fears to an invisible God with the hope that this God will do something. But prayer is also God’s way of giving us power. Prayer changes US, not God.
Prayer, in the words we use, transforms us from those who wait for God to act, to those whom God has given power to act.

Prayer isn’t passive. Prayer is God acting in us, so that we become the answer to that for which we pray.

That’s why we’re careful about the words we use in church. I know I am. Although some of you might not think so. But when I craft the liturgies and compose my sermons, I linger over every word. I try to be colloquial and parochial, hitting the balance between common language and sacred speech, between earthy nattering and heavenly declarations. It’s in the connection between those two realms that God lives in Jesus.

I try to link life and faith, connecting to where we say God is and where we haven’t thought about God being. In the words I offer you, and words ask you to pray, I try to shape how you think about God in your life and in the world, because I believe in a God who creates a world with a word.

So, pray, and do not lose heart, because in your praying, God is at work in you. In OUR praying, God is changing US, so that we become the answer to that for which we pray.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


“Do not work for the food that perishes, but work for the food that endures for eternal life...”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds like something we’d expect Jesus to say. Work for the food that endures for eternal has the aroma of holiness, sacred words we come to church to hear because we don’t find them anywhere else.

We know these words are true. They even sound correct. Like something to which we SHOULD aspire. Eternal food verses perishable food. Light verses dark. Sacred verse secular.

But one thing that makes me crazy about John’s Jesus is that he can be abstract to the point of being unhelpful. He speaks in lofty poetry when I need concrete prose. His elevated speech seems unreachable in my life.

John’s Jesus talks and talks and talks and talks - and talks. And when he’s finished I’m sure not sure I know what he wants me to do. I’m inspired by his message, but I don’t know how his words touch my life in a way that I feel.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life...” is one of those passages that snuggle warmly in my ears yet doesn’t crawl down into my hands and feet. I don’t know exactly what response Jesus wants from me with these words. It’s hard to say what this means for US.

Does Jesus want us to stop eating actual food and simply spend our days “feasting” on God’s Word? Does he want us to quit our jobs and focus all our attention on getting to heaven, doing spiritual things, abandoning our earthly cares and human delights? Does he want all our energy devoted to proclaiming the gospel and making our church grow? What does he want?

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but work for the food that endures for eternal life...”

The word “work” also troubles me. It’s so “un-Lutheran.” This isn’t to say that Lutherans are lazy sofa spuds. But Lutherans are naturally suspicious of the word “work” when it’s connected to anything resembling “eternity.”

We say that our work doesn’t get us into a right relationship with God. As Lutherans we believe that our salvation is all GOD’S work in Jesus, dying and rising again, to which we are joined in Holy Baptism, where we become part of God’s family. It’s not what WE do. It’s what God does that connects us to eternity.

And then again, Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but work for the food that endures for eternal life...”

But, I’m guessing that, despite all my initial objections, Jesus knows exactly what he means by the “food that perishes” and the “food that endures for eternal life.” His disciples did too.

And probably, when you look deeply into the secluded safe haven within your souls, you know what Jesus means as well. You know how hard you work for the food that perishes. You have the cuts and the blisters to prove it. Because our appetites for the food that perishes can be insatiable.

I read recently that most North Americans will be grossly overweight in the coming years. Looking at my belt size I know that I stand convicted of over indulging, and putting my health in peril. And my oversized midsection - and those burgeoning North American bellies - are a symbol for a society who has abandoned the search for food that lasts for eternity and has gorged on the food that perishes.

It’s been noted that houses are getting bigger as families are getting smaller. We have fewer friends, and more loose personal connections, but more stuff. They say that we’re no longer defined by what we create or what we produce, but we’re defined by what we consume.

We find our identity less by our family and our faith, than by our jobs and what we put in our shopping cart. My generation is being told that we’re the first ones to have a less affluent lifestyle than that of our parents, which is deemed a tragedy, as if growing affluence is the mark of a good life.

We demand cheap goods without asking who really pays the cost for them. We close our ears to the cries of the hurting. We do what’s easy rather than what’s right. We’re quick to anger and slow to forgive. We let relationships die over the small details of life.

We’re work our fingers raw for the food that perishes.

But Jesus, who is the bread that endures forever, calls us out of that life, and opens our eyes to the broadness of God’s vision, and opens our mouths that so we can feast on eternity.

He puts on our tongue the bread of love, of compassion, of peace, and of forgiveness - he puts on our tongues his very self - so that Jesus, the bread that endures will grow within us, transforming our lives and our world into his likeness.

When your world is filled with love rather than indifference, you touch eternity. When you forgive rather than bear a grudge, that is bread that lasts forever. When your heart and mind is on other people rather than what’s in your garage, the bread of life is within you.

And today, in the waters of baptism, Sara is beginning her journey of transformation. Indeed, she has been transformed as God has taken hold of her life. If you want to see what the bread that endures looks like, just look at Sara today. And she begins her eternal life this morning as God places within her the bread of love, compassion, peace, and forgiveness. God has claimed her as a healing presence, shining divine light through her.

And today we celebrate Thanksgiving, which I think, is about remembering who we are. It’s remembering that we’ve been given gifts that can be used for the healing of the world. Thanksgiving is remembering that God is a God of abundance, who asks that we share the fruits of creation so that all people can participate in what God has done.

Thanksgiving is remembering that we’ve been given bread that endures for eternal life, that we are transformed and are being transformed into who God wants us to be.

So this passage from the gospel isn’t so much about what we are to do, but about who we are, and who we are becoming.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but work for the food that endures for eternal life...”

Indeed, Jesus already has. Because of him, we have become the bread that endures for eternal life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pentecost 19C

“Lord, increase our faith!” the apostles plead.

A reasonable request. Especially when they saw Jesus work many signs and wonders and heard him preach endlessly about the kingdom of God. If they wanted more of God in their lives, and if faith was the entry point in connecting with God, it makes sense that they’d ask for more faith.

And who could blame them? As people of faith, isn’t that what we all want? A larger faith to make us more than we already are? Better at being Christian? Greater confidence about what we believe? A stronger witness to what we see God doing?

My guess is that the apostles’ prayer is your prayer today. That’s why you’re here this morning. “Increase our faith!” we ask, or even demand of Jesus, because we feel that our faith could be stronger. We know our limitations. We’ve reached the boundaries of belief. And we know we can’t find more faith on our own.

So we come to church with our tiny faith tucked neatly in our pocket, out of sight, but hoping that here - among God’s people, through God’s redeeming Word and saving sacrament, our little bundle of faith will grow into maturity. The details may be different but the concern is common to all.

You think that your faith could be larger than it is. You feel like you lack the strength of certainty that Jesus seems to have, and that you often see in others.

You have questions that haunt you, doubts that dog you, and you maybe even have pain that simply won’t go away, a pain which constantly reminds you that you are weak and frail. And you lack the inner-resources to move your life ahead in any meaningful way.

Or you’re searching for something bigger than yourself or even bigger than your world, you’re looking for something that binds everything together so that the mess and chaos of the world will make some kind of sense.

You worry that hope is an illusion, a story we tell ourselves to make an unknown future a little less scary. You’re afraid that you’re forgetting how to love, because you’ve been hurt so badly.

You want to know that the droning of your daily routine matters - somehow - in God’s Grand Design. You want to believe that you haven’t walked the planet in vain, and that your life and your labour will live on after you’re gone.

You want faith that will help you truly know that when you close your eyes in death, you will open them again in the presence of God, and all your sorrows, questions, doubts, and frailties will be traded for confidence, newness, and strength.

And so, in response to all our longings, all our fears, and all our questions, we gather here as one family, lifting up the deepest concerns of our hearts, and together we pray, “Lord, increase our faith!”

Well, forget it. Jesus won’t help you. He didn’t even help the apostles.

He mocks them saying, “Hey folks, if you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this Mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” But look at you! Hello! When was the last time you did THAT? Have you seen any flying bushes lately?

So we say, Wow, Jesus, we KNOW that we can’t do that, we can’t through force of will or mental telepathy or heartfelt prayer defy the laws of gravity and nature. Are you belittling the meagre faith we DO have because we can’t commit an ostentatious display of faith?

I came here for encouragement, not to be insulted. Why is asking for more faith such as bad thing?

Well, it’s not. It all depends on what you mean by the word “if.”

The Greek language has two types of “if” clauses: those which express a condition contrary to the fact (ex: If you had faith [implying which you don’t]) and those which express a condition according to the fact (ex: If you had faith [implying which you do]). Verse six is the second kind of “if” clause.

“IF you had faith the size of a mustard seed [which you do], you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Jesus is saying that you already have all the faith you need to work miracles in your life and in the lives of others.

IF you have the faith of a tiny mustard seed (and you do), you can confront your doubts and fears, putting them to rest and learning to trust God with your life and with your death.

IF you have the faith of the tiniest of all seeds planted within you (and you do), you have the strength to meet the days ahead with confidence, believing that God at work in your life.

IF you have the faith so small you can hardly tell it’s there (and you do), you will know that God is using you for great things in this world.

IF you have faith so small you’re worried you can’t see it, (and you do) you will love because God loves, and God will never let you go.

I think we don’t see our faith because it IS so small. But small doesn’t mean weak or limited. We expect anything of worth to be large, grand-scale.

But Jesus always uses images of smallness to describe God’s kingdom. Yeast. A penny. Treasure buried in a field. A mustard seed.

Small things are easily hidden - or even forgotten. Overshadowed by competing demands. Drowned out by loud voices who insist that we stay in fixed our place, mired in our fears. Securely stunted.

But the mustard seed that God planted in you also makes it grow. Not in a snap of the fingers like the apostles’ demanded, but in our everyday living and dying. The moment by moment encounters of our lives.

Our mustard seed faith reaches beyond our limits and touches the world in ways we may not even see. Our mustard seed faith works WITH us and IN SPITE of us.

And our mustard seed faith works WITHIN us, so that our lives may be slowly and silently transformed into the image of the one who planted it there.

Lord, increase our faith. Indeed, he already has.

May this be so among us. Amen.