Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Both Sides Now


For over ten years, I unlocked this door to go to work. Not always the first person in the building, but usually. Not always the last person in the building, but usually. I unlocked this door to run in and grab my communion kit, a Bible, or an address. I unlocked the door to get ready for a funeral, for a wedding, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost. I unlocked the door to come into God's House and I locked it behind me to go out into God's World. 

I accepted a call to serve a new congregation, which meant leaving my keys for the maroon and glass door behind. From what I learned on both sides of that door, I have come to a new place to serve new people, but the same God. For the first time the other day, I unlocked a new door. Eventually, I will unlock it for all the same reasons and then some new ones. 

Mostly, I think about how God remains the same. I do believe that God's character is immutable, but I also believe that God's actions, throughout history, happen in spite of and despite the actions of people. I think that the Divine Three in One has, on occasion, had to change course due to the reality of human self-centeredness, stubbornness, and desire for control. Even in the course change, God's own heart remains merciful, loving, and compassionate- even in correction. 

So, there are new doors, new faces, and new lessons. And I still love what we've left behind. 

But life is made in the little motions of daily living. The habits. The paths. The words. The keys, the doors, what we unlocked and hold open. What we lock and hold closed. 

And, in all of this, God remains on both sides of all doors. 


Sunday, October 28, 2018

What Needs to Be Said

How do we measure the impact of 65,000 words?

A novel is considered a piece of writing that is a least 40,000. So 65K is a book, for certain.

Now, imagine 65,000 words in 1543.

Those words have to be written out with ink and a quill. They must be scratched onto expensive paper. Then to print and distribute your work of 65,000 words, each page must be set out carefully in the moveable type of the time, inked, and printed. Then the pages must be collated and then tightly handsewn together.

If a book had an illustration, it was likely a block print- carved out of wood, pressed in ink, and the image transferred onto the paper.

All of this sounds tedious, and it was, but it was so much faster than the hand-copying of the previous centuries, prior to Gutenberg and his glorious printing press.

What was carefully written up and printed in 1543? What ideas were worth carefully laying out the moveable type, carving a block print, and distributing far and wide? What topic could inspire 65,000 words?

This is the year in which Martin Luther published "On the Jews and Their Lies". In his earlier years, Luther believed that Jews had been unable to be drawn to the truth of the gospel due to misinterpretation by the Church. Now, in the midst of reinterpretation, he has assumed that Jews and Turks (the name he called Muslims) would be drawn to Christianity. As that turned out not to be the case, and then his prince and benefactor- John Frederick, Elector of Saxony- began to persecute Jews with his (the Elector's) realm.

Slowly, as Luther aged, he became embittered against Jews and then wrote his treatise, "On the Jews and their lies". Sixty-five thousand words railing against Jewish people and calling for their schools and synagogues to be burned, their rabbis and teachers to be prevented from doing their work, for Jews to be ghettoized- unable to live among Christians, for physical protection to be withdrawn from them, and for them to be enslaved or have their property taken away until they truly converted.

Luther never renounced these views.

Neither, in full, did the Protestant Church at the time or the Roman Catholic Church. A full rejection of anti-Jewish sentiment in the church did not happen until well into the lifetimes of some of the youngest people here. 

Great effort was taken to print and disseminate this treatise around Europe, especially among those who could read German. At the same time, there was an enormous (and commendable) effort to have the scripture translated into the vernacular. Thus, people now could read the Bible in their own language, but may or may not have had the skills to reflect openly on what they read.

This means that the subject of "On the Jews and their lies" was in conversation and at the same time that people could, for the first time, read about Jesus' encounters with his own people, their conversations, and their responses to one another. If one had not been adequately taught that Jesus was Jewish, that God always keeps God's covenants, and that Christianity was grafted into Israel's tree of life, then what does do with the idea that Jews are terrible people, living in one's own cities and towns?

Like a contaminated stream flowing into a river, "On the Jews and their lies" polluted the waters of Christian consciousness. To be clear, this particular river already had anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic detritus floating in from historical persecution against Jews, which has a very long history. This poison stream, fed for thousands of years, continued to contaminate the river of Christian consciousness beyond the Reformation on through the Renaissance, the foundations of American history, in 19th century Russia, into the European and American eugenics movements, through the horrors of the Third Reich and Holocaust, continued on in various forms in the Soviet Union, was present in the KKK and neo-Nazi movements of the United States, and committed its most recent horror yesterday in Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvania on the sabbath day of that community.

Now, please take a deep breath.

Why on earth, on my last Sunday here [at Lutheran Church of Hope], when I have so much to tell you and so much love to share with you, would I take my last twenty minutes of sermon time to speak about the pain, the horror, and the sin of anti-Judaism? Why would I bring up this aspect of Luther's life? Is this the time? Is this the place?

Rabbi Hillel, living close in time to Jesus, said, "If not me, who? If not now, when?"

The ultimate question of life is this: Why are we here?

The religious ultimate question is not "Is there a God?" That is a philosophical question.

The ultimate religious question, which already accepts that there is a god of some kind, is: What does God want with me?

If I have accepted, on through hearing the words of faith, that there is a God and I am not that God, then my life is spent coming to understand and further accept that I am not in control of very much. 
If God has done the work of:
- providing me with a pioneer and perfecter of my faith in Jesus
- giving me the gift of the Holy Spirit
- making me righteous
- ensuring my salvation
- cultivating my love [and]
- bringing me at the last to eternal life...

If I control none of those things, then what exactly is my work?

Let us consider, briefly, Psalm 46, verses 8 and 9:


Come, see the Lord’s deeds,
    what devastation he has imposed on the earth—     
bringing wars to an end in every corner of the world,
    breaking the bow and shattering the spear,
        burning chariots with fire.

What is the devastation that the Lord causes, according to the psalmist? It is the ending of war. The bringing of peace brings devastation to the earth. The end of the weapons of war, the conclusion of the rumors of war, the elimination of the terror of violence- this is the work of the hand of God. 

Why is the end of war devastating? 

Because it shatters the lies about control. War is about dominance, about power, about winners and losers. War and its fellow travelers- death, chaos, pain, and uncertainty- are the tools of the forces that oppose God. They are evil. They tell lies. We forcefully reject them. They oppose God's true reformation work- revelation of love, restoration of relationship, and resurrection in the face of death.

If God's devastating work, to be brought to fruition in creation, is the end of war- in all its forms, then the people of God must be at that work. It is not work that saves us. It is the work we are about precisely because we have been saved. It is the joy of our salvation, of trusting that we have been made right with God and not by our own selves, that allows us to take up work in our homes, in our backyards, in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our state, in our country, and in the world. 

And the work we are to be about, then, is God's own work of ending war. 

We are called to end the actual violence of war that comes about through political contests of will. We are called to end the war of sexual violence against women, girls, and all who identify as female. We are called to end the war of racism- in all its forms, including in institutions, within our justice system, and in our own hearts and minds. We are called to end the war of violence, exclusion, and hate against our LGBTQ+ siblings and neighbors. We are called to end the war of people versus the environment, remembering that the careful stewardship of creation is our first vocation as human beings. We are called to end the war that permits the denial of mental illness, lying about its causes, and ignoring treatment and possibilities for healing. 

We are called to end the war of anti-Jewish sentiment, of lies told about Jews, of misinterpretation and misapplication of scripture, of failing to wrestle with, apologize for, and learn from history. 

If God's devastating plan is to end war, then let it begin! And let it begin with me! Now! 

What is the weight of 65,000 words? Those words have the weight of the destroyed houses of pogroms in Russia, of stolen resources through oppression, inquisition, and general theft, of children who were denied resources because of their homes in ghettos, and the accumulated heft of bodies of murdered Jews through time, political dissidents, and others. That's what 65,000 words weigh. 

It is no small thing- to decide to be on the side of God's work to end war. 

It means, truly, to think about what Jesus would do. It means to pray to have a peacemaking heart, beginning in your closest relationships. This isn't a heart of enabling or accepting pain, but a heart that seeks to speak the truth, dismantle systems that create pain, and to work for the healing of the world. 

This is hard work. 

The work of war is easier, to be sure, because it allows the illusion of control and permits the inflicting of pain to those who are in one's way. War seems easier than peace because peace means a willingness to see, to accept, and to respond to the humanity of another person or group of people. Furthermore, peace means accepting that the other person or people are equally beloved by God and have also been justified (or made right with God)in the same manner as one’s self. 

When I was approved for ordination, the two professors from the now-non-existent Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia told me that they perceived in me the gift of patience. It was a kind of stubborn patience, they said, that was kind and firm. I would be best, they said, in congregations where there had been pain and conflict. The gift of patience, they said, would be put to use in helping a congregation to heal. 

You, my friends of Lutheran Church of Hope, don't need my patience anymore. I have been called to a place that needs the end of different kinds of wars and needs my patience to help with that. 

You have your gifts- your own desire to welcome, your gift of teaching and shaping pastors, your willingness to be generous with space, time, and money, every single person here and more. You know the wars that must end in Anchorage and in Alaska. The Holy Spirit is already guiding you. 

Though we will no longer be side by side in the work of caring for others and the world that God made, we will never truly be apart. Those who have been baptized, those who have eaten together, those who have wept, laughed, worked, and rested together- those are made into one in Christ- can never truly be separated. 

This will be hard. And we will be sad. But our work will go on, because God will not let us stop. 

65,000 words have a terrible weight. 

But they can be destroyed with a single word. 

Love. 

God is love. (1 John 4)

God's love intends to destroy war. 

God's love brought us together. 

God's love will carry us forward. 

God's love gives us good work for this world. 

God's love is enough. 

I love you. I am not God. My love for you wouldn't be enough, nor would yours for me. 

God's own love for us is enough- enough for our strength, our hope, and our courage. 

Enough to end the wars. 

Enough to bring eternal peace. 


May it be so.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

When Sad Feels Like Mad

I am in the middle of a big life transition. There are many, many, many feelings associated with any
kind transition. Change is hard. The change- a big move- also affects my children and my spouse (and the dog, though he doesn't know it yet). It also affects many other people- adults and children.

Most people experience a variety of feelings in the midst of change. While a change can have many positive aspects, it is also a kind of death. What was is passing away and what will be is being birthed.

In reflecting on Western, white culture, my experience is that we do not give either much space or much credence to feelings. Since they cannot be seen or proven, they are treated as suspect. Additionally, as our cultural language has tried to make space for people to identify their experiences and associated feelings, we have perpetuated a value system wherein the validity of one's feelings are ranked depending on one's level of cultural power.

While it is possible to prove the exceptions to the rule, it still holds. For example, resources for addiction and for families of addicts are significantly on the rise in the past three years in concert with the growing opioid epidemic. The present crisis is real and horrifying. Nevertheless, it is also true that there have been other addiction crises in the past thirty years. For the most part, however, Americans were happily willing to criminalize addiction when it affected black communities or other people of color. It has only been when the pain (feelings are) is acute and broad in white America that we have chosen to view the problem of addiction as a crisis, not (only) a crime.

Since we tend not have the vocabulary or the willingness to talk about our feelings, we often cannot identify them. In a hyper-individualized society, with very few community spaces, we don't talk openly about grief, about physical pain, about mental health, about familial hurt, and a whole host of other issues. In some circles, the five stages of death from Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross have been made into grief totems- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We rarely note, however, that there is no guaranteed order of the stages, no universal experience, and some of the stages may never come.

All of this is to say that we don't always know or have the skill to express what SAD feels like. Sadness, in its myriad colors and shapes, gets shoved into space we have made for other feelings and emotions. We try to force happiness or a muted acceptance. We reach for ignoring (denial) or go straight to future-tripping, pretending the present messiness does not exist.

Then there is one expression of sadness that I am beginning to realize has a broad cultural shape and effect. Sometimes sad looks and feels like mad. If we are ill-equipped to deal with the griefs of change and the little deaths that happen culturally and communally, we will resist them. The shape of resistance often looks like anger. Anger is activating, assertive, and makes change feel possible. In the midst of mad, we often don't care about who or what we hurt.

In pain, we howl, lash out, seek to reorder the status quo (which likely benefitted us), and deny the feelings of others. Anger expands and takes up space where patience, gentleness, and self-control might live. The wake of anger, additional pain, loss, and sadness are created. Anger, if it is not broken down into its component fellow travelers, self-perpetuates and wounds without end.

We can only come to grips with our feelings when we give them their true identities. We have to have the maturity, the will, and the social vocabulary to say, "I am sad", "This hurts", "I don't like this", "I don't know what to do or think", "I feel uncertain", and "I am tired" (among other realities).

In Western, white America, we are dealing with significant cultural shifting. There is much anger as power dynamics have moved. Societally, because we are ill-equipped for a life of grief, we are not able to understand and process when sad feels like mad. Thus, we see many activated people- moving out of a place of anger and denying what their anger masks.

You cannot tell an angry person, in the midst of their rage, that they are sad or afraid or frustrated. Most of us have seen a person, in the midst of anger, continue to seek ideas and encounters that will feed the rage. The complete exhaustion, and real sadness, that is present when the tide of anger has left is too much to bear for some. Therefore, the furnace of anger must be continually stoked to avoid an internal hearth of spent coals and cool stillness in which everything is clearly outlined and defined.

What we need, societally, in an understanding that grief and sadness are not bad. Furthermore, it is possible to live with pain. It is even more possible to live with pain if we carry it together. A shared grief brings some release to all involved. Most griefs do not go away, but they become less acute and then they are our scars, with flare-ups and reminders.

It would be easy for me to type this out as a way of intellectualizing my own grief at a time of change. I can't. I feel it deeply and it hurts. My spouse has received my two blow-ups of mad that were really about sad. They likely will not be the only two, no matter how I wish otherwise.

That being said, I believe we are at a social moment where we have to really reflect. We will only regress as long as our sad is displayed as mad. Those who choose that path will only continue to act more and more infantile until their tantrums destroy all that we hold dear. And what will happen to those who remain, standing in the middle of a broken society?

I am not totally clear on how we can change this. I only know that I have been using the vocabulary of "sometimes sad feels like mad" with my children and with others around me. Until we move to a large scale understanding of this, I don't know if anything will change.

And that makes me sad.




Friday, October 12, 2018

Asunder (A Sermon on Scripture and Divorce)

Bible passages: Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-16.


Before tackling the passages together, it is worth noting that both the Genesis passage and the one from Mark, listed above, have been used to great injury inside the church and among church people. They have been wielded as weapons, not as tools. They have driven people from the community and caused people to believe they might be outside of God's grace. This is a misuse of the written word and it is terrible when and where it occurs. 

The Genesis passage is actually the older of the two creation stories. It has the shape of a story told around a fire, a just-so story to explain the world all around and to share with younger generations a comprehension of Who is in charge of all things. This story has hints of amusement in that God, wanting a companion for the h'adamah (the dust person), holds a tryout for the position with all kinds of animals. None of the critters prove sufficient as a partner for the dust person. 

Thus, God divides the h'adamah, using part of the body to bring forth another, partnering body. In English, we miss the meaning of what is created in this situation. God seeks to make an ezer for the dust person. Ezer means helper, but not in the sense of a lesser aide or second in the command.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew scripture, when the word ezer is used- it is applied to God. Think of "Come, Thou Fount..." and 1 Samuel- "Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I've come..." Ebenezer means "by God's help". When God makes an ezer for the h'adamah, God is making a partner, in the Divine image, to work alongside the first dust person for the sake of creation. They are given the vocation of partnership in stewardship. 

To repeat, the ezer is not lesser or secondary, but has been drawn from the first h'adamah and created in the image of God- with some of the vocational strengths of God's own self- for help, comfort, and creation care. Use of this story to make women secondary, even in the sense of complementarianism, dilutes the power of the term ezer and the intention of God in the creation of the second dust person. 

Futhermore, the creation of the ezer reveals God's intention and desire for relationship between people. The partnership of marriage, through the term ezer, is meant to be one of help, community, and an economy of respect, honor, and deep care. We are to tread quite carefully if we are daring to attribute other intentions to God's work in this passage. 

This brings us to Jesus' words in Mark. Please note that when Mark is being written, as the earliest among the written gospels, the other written documents that circulated were likely the early letters of Paul. In Galatians, Paul writes, "In Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free." This does not mean that all distinctions between people are to be ignored in a bizarre kind of Stepford-Christianity. It means, rather, that the hierarchies that cause divisions, pain, and inequity in the community of the Way of Christ are to be subsumed under the identity of belonging to and following Jesus. 

Knowing thus, Mark writes out this situation in which the Pharisees are testing Jesus. Their testing is not a function of their particular religion, Judaism, but because they are people. People do not like change. Jesus represents a change to the Pharisees' way of understanding Moses, of enforcing the written Law, and of having authority among the people. Their test is in the hopes of either revealing Jesus to be a betrayer of Moses or one who undermines the authority of Rome and the Roman system of paterfamilias

Jesus notes what Moses said about divorce and why Moses said it. God has made you for relationships, notes Jesus, but because of your hardness of heart, you do not do the work of those relationships. You want to have it your own way all the time. Moses saw, says Jesus, how that could harm your spouses, so he gave you an out, but you are unwise to use it carelessly. 

Additionally, Jesus knows that the system of paterfamilias also creates vulnerability among the people who are lowest in the social hierarchy. The male head of the household owns all the people therein- including his wife, her children, and the enslaved people. If the man chooses to divorce his wife, he is casting her out (possibly with her children) to an extremely uncertain life. She may be left to beg, to sell sex against her will, or to other desperate measures for the sake of her children and herself. 

Jesus, for the third time, draws the attention of the people to whom he is speaking to the children in their midst. Look at the smallest and most vulnerable among you, he says. Do not contribute to the things that will cause them harm. When you harm them, you harm Me. Think of this: when you harm the most vulnerable, you are bringing harm to Christ's own self. A situation that creates vulnerability, especially to one(s) at the margins, must be avoided for Christ's own sake. 

Now a word about divorce: 

I noted that we have been made for relationship and the economy of care inside a family in the building block of our society. That being said, there are three living entities inside a marital or partnership arrangement. There is Person A, Person B, and the relationship itself. When we note that a particular relationship is "until death do us part", the truth is that sometimes the relationship dies while both people are still living. 

If you are outside the relationship, you may think you know what killed it, but you do not. You're not in it. Being married is hard work, hard work that we don't always discuss fully. Sometimes a relationship, for myriad reasons, reaches its Good Friday and the Easter for the people therein is a life in separate directions. Sometimes there is resurrection for the relationship, but not always. 

Divorce is a death and it brings grief, confusion, anger, and all of death's fellow travelers. Death, however, is never God's final word. When people get divorced, we are compelled by Christ to show compassion, patience, and generosity of spirit. We do not know what we do not know. 

What we do know is that there are grief and pain. There is hurt. And there are people who need consolation and the relationship of friendship, neighborliness, or familial care. The use of scripture to further wound does not serve the purpose of facilitating healing or hope. 

It is possible to listen to someone in the midst of marital pain, before a decision for divorce has been decided, and just be still. Neither advising nor consenting, one can simply listen and repeat back what has been heard, offering prayers and support. Your advice can be kept close to your own vest because it is based on what you believe you would do and you are an entirely different person. 

In the book Kindly Welcome, little Amos Anger is sad about his schoolteacher leaving. He doesn't care for the new teacher (Br. William) and is speaking about this to his mentor, Harry. 

He climbed onto Brother Harry’s bed and sat… Looking at the bed by the window, he said, “Is it a sin if I don’t like Brother William?”
 Harry had been idly rocking, but so stark was this question that he stopped realizing his footsteps here must be cautious, less they be misguided. “Perhaps it’s not a sin if Brother William is in thy bad books,” he said. “The question is, how came his name to be written there, and is it thy writing or is it his?”  (Kindly Welcome, 190)

Good questions to ask one's self is this: 

What do I know about this situation? Is what I know in my handwriting or the writing of someone intimately involved? 

What do I know about this person? Are the words in the book of my heart in their writing or mine? 

What do I know about God's desires and character? Is that interpretation written in God's hand or mine? 

We are called to pay attention to what we say and do, in public and in private. Not only do we encounter Jesus through others, but they are encountering Him through us. What I say, how I use God's written word, how I show compassion- I am writing about myself in someone's inner book and, furthermore, as a Christian, I am writing about God. Are the words written through my actions statements that God would own? 

We have not been orphaned, but have been given the gift of the Spirit that we might comfort the grieving, be present to God's power in death, and rebuild what has been torn apart by the forces that oppose God. We can show a kind welcome, and receive one, with the Spirit who goes forth with us to do this truly needed, healing work for Christ's own sake.

Amen. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Not-Exactly Imprecatory Psalm

This prayer was originally posted as the Friday Prayer on 9/28/18 on revgalblogpals.org. Since I am feeling the same sentiment today, I am posting it here. If you share it, I encourage you to click the Friday Prayer link above and share from my original post. 
Look.
I try not to treat You like a divine vending machine- prayer in, need out... 
But in the present situation, that awareness means my prayers are more along the lines:
“FFFFF#$)*#0&&#$(&(*^&(#^&^$()*@&#)(*@&&@!#(*&!!!!!”
That’s me releasing a fraction of my deep feelings into the deep and wide well that is the Holy Repository for Grief and Frustration.
Between You and me, though, that’s not cutting it right now on the human end.
I guess I’m saying I want a little less talk and a lot more action.
(Of course, You’re probably saying the same thing to me.)
Noted.
Maybe Your vastness is the problem. Maybe if You had a hard limit, this would be easier because shifting our rage and impotence and pain and hurt would eventually fill Your repository and then maybe there would be something, somewhere, somehow that would seem like the justice that I believe can only come from You.
I thought about asking for intercessions from Hagar, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Bathsheba, but then the Holy Spirit reminded me that a modern white woman should not be seeking assistance from brown and black women of the past or the present. That equation has been imbalanced for too long.
So, I’m here- seeking the Source of All Things- wondering, in the midst of this fresh (and so very old) hell, when do we receive fresh heaven?
When will there be a sense of heaven coming down to earth?
When will all things be made new?
Because this present reality of nothing new under the sun is crushing us- our spirits, our wills, our hopes.
And when we cry out to You and only hear the echo of our own voices…
It hurts.
The echo mocks us, twisting the sounds of our voices and sounding like laughter from the forces that oppose you. (We renounce them!)
Taking for granted the underlying nature of the Divine Character, I am trusting that there is wholeness and rest for the Levite’s Concubine. That You know her name. That she is still being consoled.
But I bet she’d have liked not to have had such a shitty experience. Period.
Eternal consolation may not be enough for painful, physical humiliation and death- plus any moments of feeling abandoned by You.
Before this floats into the abyss of all prayers, I hope You receive this.
And, mercifully and speedily, answer me.
Amen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Fair to the Flag

Flags outside the sanctuary doors of Lutheran Church of Hope, Anchorage Alaska


More than once recently, I've been asked my opinion regarding flags in the sanctuary. I've written about my respect for the flag here, but I'd like to address the specific question directly.

Regarding flags (national or otherwise) in the sanctuary of a Christian church: I do not believe this is fair to the flag

The United States Code (the US Flag Code) states the following:

  • (175) (k) When used on a speaker's platform, the flag, if displayed flat, should be displayed above and behind the speaker. When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman's or speaker's right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.

It can be inferred from the document that "superior prominence" means to other flags. Where the flag of the United States is present, it is meant to be the unifying symbol for those who behold it. The proper display of the flag is meant not only to stir feelings of patriotism but also a sense of pride and shared community history and goals. That is the job of the flag.

The flag cannot do that job in a Christian sanctuary. The specifically unifying symbol of a Christian sanctuary is the cross of Christ. It is the symbol of his resurrection- thus drawing our hearts and minds to his birth, life, teaching, miracles, ignominious death, and God's power above all. The death of Jesus came at the hands of government officials and the wishes of religious people- all of whom sought control over the power and mercy of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. The cross is the most powerful symbol wherever it is present.

Thus, the flag would be, at best, second to the cross.

In a sanctuary or chapel, however, the cross is rarely the only symbol of Christ's faithfulness and God's demand on the lives of the faithful. The presence of a baptismal font and/or an altar on which Holy Communion is served are also symbols of God's promise, God's presence, and the power of the Holy Spirit. The events of baptism and communion drive us back again and again to the Christ who feeds us and unites us as children of God. We are made into a community with the saints on earth and the saints who have gone before through the font and the altar.

With their presence, the flag slides to fourth.

Then there is the written Word, the Holy Bible, which people died to have translated into the vernacular. Scripture in the language of the common people represents the lives and works of men and women who believed that God speaks directly to everyone through the Spirit. The power of the narrative of Scripture belongs where it can be read, discussed, wept over, wrestled with, and treasured. Martin Luther wrote that we cannot begin to value the Bible enough until we have studied it for 100 years.

Now, the flag is fifth.

Jesus says,  “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Matthew 6:24

I am not arguing that the flag of the United States represents wealth. Jesus isn't discussing flags here, but the first part of the verse remains decidedly true regardless of the topic of discussion. When we are in a Christian sanctuary, we are Christ's first. (That's actually true everywhere.) In the church, we are children of God- not our denomination, not our city, not our country, not even our own family. We belong to God and it is God's demands on our lives that must and do take precedence. 

You can have more than one vocation at a time and the vocation of responsible citizen is one that I value and take quite seriously. All vocations, however, are subsumed into the primary one of being a baptized child of God, which is always our primary identity.

When I examine those vocations in their proper order, I am stirred by the Spirit to be sure that I am treating the flag of my country respectfully. Thus, I do not wish to display it in a place where it is of fourth or fifth prominence. I wish it to be displayed where it can rightfully do its job and that place, in my mind, is not in the sanctuary of a Christian church.




Saturday, September 1, 2018

Generosity

Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.  But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. God who sees what you do in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:1-4

            There are a lot of things happening in this passage. First, financial generosity is equated with religion. So, in some capacity, Jesus expected that the doing of faith would involve the giving of money, in addition to time and talent. 

           Second, one’s own giving should be generous enough that one might be tempted to tell others but instead must keep it secret. If you were ashamed of what you were giving, Jesus wouldn’t need to warn about secrecy since we don’t often shout about our embarrassing bits. 

           Thirdly, financial giving is for the sake of the poor. While Jesus says elsewhere that the “poor will always be with you”, his meaning is that giving to the poor is not a convenient reason to avoid other justice work. One can work to feed people and also work to convey dignity and opportunity on a larger scale. Whether or not people take advantage of that work is not our business. 

            Lastly, Jesus indicates that there is a reward for appropriate generosity. What kind of reward? Who can say, but it will come from God. This is both incentive and reminder. We cannot use our generosity in fiscal stewardship to manipulate God (if I give this, then You do this…). We are managing what has always (and still) belonged to God’s own self. 

            We are given the gift of caring for others and God’s whole creation through our baptism. Our financial stewardship is of a piece with that gift and call. Let us be diligent together, even in private, about our generosity with what God has given us. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Choose This Day (Revised)

Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18, John 6:56-69



If, in the morning, I open my eyes,
My first decision thereupon lies.

Will I continue to lie in the bed,
Allowing my thoughts to run through my head?

Will I get up and go to the shower,
Regardless of both the weather and hour?

What of the children, who may want me to play?
What of the tasks that call me this day?

From the moment of waking, there are choices to make,
What will I give this day? What will I take?

I want to be saintly, say my first thoughts are of God,
But sometimes they’re not and, in that, I’m not odd.

We may rise with the sun or maybe at noon,
And most of us promise to get with God soon.

Yet, that instant, a choice has been made-
The balance of time againstGod has been weighed. 

We can’t do it all. Surely God understands.
Did not God make this world, its chores, its demands?

But in each thing we choose, and it ischoosewe must
We have decided in which god we shall trust.

When we make decisions for work or for pleasure,
With money or time, talents or leisure,

With each small decision we leave or we make,
We all choose a god for each task’s sake.

When Joshua says, “Choose this day whom you’ll serve.
My household and I, from God we’ll not swerve.”

He means the God of justice and freedom,
The God who through the desert did lead them.

This God of providence, of mercy and manna
Compared to all others, She proved top banana.

For the Israelites, Joshua lays out a decision,
Because, in history, they’d treated God with derision.

Sometimes God seemed so far and so distant,
They struggled to find His mercy consistent.

Yet, who gave the manna? Who gave the quail?
Who brought forth the water when the people did wail?  

“People of Israel,” Joshua said,
“Turn all that you’ve known around in your head.

Think of the guidance through both day and night,
Think of God’s grace. Think of God’s might.”

The people responded, “Our choice has been made.
We’ve looked around. It’s the Lord who makes grade.

Only one God says, ‘I am who I am’
The same God who was served by our dad, Abraham.”

Israelites promised to serve God, what may come,
For richer, for poor, when happy, when glum.

The years passed, however, and memories faded.
People forgot this choice and became jaded.

The desert, the manna- they all became history.
What God’s doing now… that became mystery.

It became easier to feel freed by law and instruction,
Only community’s structure prevented destruction.

But that structure left some people wanting,
The gift of the law seemed rather daunting.

Late onto the scene, the rabbi, Jesus, appeared.
Some people rejoiced. Some people jeered.

Then, and again, he talked about bread
About life here right now andlife after we’re dead. 

He healed sick people, he fed many others,
But his teaching confused both sisters and brothers.

What was this about flesh to eat, blood to drink?
A hard teaching to swallow, most people did think.

Said his disciples, “Jesus, this is enough.
What you’re talking about- it’s too much. It’s too tough.

We don’t like it. We don’t understand.
We’d like to quit you, but it doesn’t seem that we can.

We’ve looked around as to where we might go.
The problem is, there’s some truth we doknow. 

Within a world of struggle and strife,
Only You have the words of eternal life.

Only you have offered hope in the future,
Between God and us, you are the suture.

Even though it grows quite hard to stay,
We cannot leave you or your way.”

The disciples decided (or most of them did)
It was with Jesus that they placed their bid.

They decided, as their ancestors had,
To be on God’s side couldn’t be bad.

And so I say to you this day…
“Wait, Pastor Julia, I’ve something to say…”

“What is it, my child, what bothers you so?”
“Well, you’ve confused me. And so I must know

I thought God chose us. I thought it was done. 
I thought the war’s over. The fight has been won.

Didn’t Luther write we’d never say yes…
Without God’s Spirit, we can’t acquiesce!

If you tell me, ‘Today you must choose’
Are you not setting us up… to lose?”

You are right, my dear, in every way.
And yet you made a choice today.

You came to be here, to be in communion
To pray, to eat, to embody reunion.

Each day, we see gods far and near.
We can worship success. We can give over to fear.

We can spend our resources or over-honor our kin,
We can reverence our bodies from our toe to our chin.

We can make work our idol, honored, adored.
We can seek that which gives immediate reward.

But in the end, it all fails. It all becomes dust.
These idols- they’ll fade, they’ll die, they will rust.

In the end, what we need is something that lasts,
Something that goes beyond all other forecasts.

What can bring order to confusion and strife?
Only the hope of eternal life.

Eternal life, both for there and for here.
A growing, a knowing, a ridding of fear.

This is what Jesus offers- in body and blood.
Without that promise, bread and wine are just mud.

Like us, they’re from dust and to dust shall return,
But through eating and drinking, still we can learn

That God has chosen in creation’s favor,
The presence of Christ is what we savor

When we gather at table, both willing and able
To experience Jesus as the Truth and not fable.

To trust, to be open, is the choice we must make,
Each day, in the moment right when we wake.

In every moment, we choose a god to serve
With all that we have, each sinew and nerve.

 Our God is a God on the side of all of creation, 
Who knows and who loves without cessation.

Who gives us each talents, who gives us each gifts,
Who forgives our sins, who mends all our rifts.

Who with body and blood has chosen to feed us.
Who through valleys and o’er mountains, has chosen to lead us.

Lord, where could we go? You made us, you know us.
Now, through the Spirit, continue to grow us.

God has called you by name, so as your fear eases,
Choose your god every day. I recommend… Jesus.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Chew on This (Sermon)

John 6:51-58

         I have an obnoxious habit. (Well, probably more than one, but I’m just going to mention the one right now.) In a situation, when I am with other people whom I know identify as Christians and if we are talking about churchy, religious, or spiritual type things- I pay attention to how many times Jesus is mentioned. In listening to sermons, I think about how long it is until Jesus’ name comes into things. I want to hear about Jesus. 

         More specifically than just a mention of Jesus, I am interested in how we talk about him. Is Jesus easy to talk about- he’s great, good, and groovy? Is Jesus difficult to bring up- mysterious, frustrating, and confusing? Is Jesus close by and a ready comfort or far away and standoffish? 

         How do we interpret Jesus as a revelation of and from the Godhead? What does Jesus teach us about eternity, creation, and mercy?  

         It is possible to have a reductive conversation about Jesus- Jewish man from Roman-occupied Palestine, an itinerant rabbi with a band of unusual followers made up of women, laborers, and people who had worked for Rome. He died an ignoble death and something happened to his body. 

         For many of us, that’s not enough to say about Jesus. However, we are often as simplistic about
By Fritzs [GFDL ]
his divinity as some people are about his humanity. He died for our sins. He came to save us. Jesus loves the little children. 

         We’re talking about a fully human, fully divine being who caused his parents deep grief, who spoke with full knowledge about the prophecies of Isaiah, and yet also called a Canaanite woman a dog (Matthew 15). The very touch of his garment brought healing to a woman who suffered years of bleeding and his very words cursed a fig tree (Mark 5 and 11, respectively). Jesus warned off Peter’s bluster by rebuking him, “Get behind me, Satan” and then, later, washed Peter’s feet with humility and tenderness. 

         Jesus is a complex figure, the pioneer of our own faith and faithfulness, and God in flesh in our world. We cannot simplify who he was, who he is, and who he calls us to be. Today’s reading from John underscores that truth. 

         By the time gospel according to John is written, the Christian sect of Judaism is pretty much on the outside of temple life. It is, in part, through their own doing. Imagine tolerating a small group of people inside your religious group who have their own language, their own daily habits, and their own worship liturgy. As they progressively grow in their separation, it becomes harder and harder to include them in the activities and dynamics of the larger group. While there was animus between Jewish Judeans and Christian Judeans, the separation between the religious groups likely was more organic than the historically anti-Semitic slant of Western church history has led us to believe. 

         When the Fourth Gospel is being written, the complexity of living the Way of Christ has become evident. In the snippet of chapter 6 that we read today, the Greek takes a strange turn. The writer has Jesus initially using the verb phago for “to eat”, which is fairly straightforward. In verses 53 and 54, however, there is a switch. The writer moves from phago to trogoTrogo is a little more graphic, more intense than the simple eat. Trogo, in Greek, conveys gnawing, munching, and crunching. 

         Thus, the writer is deliberating making these words of Jesus almost more offensive. Jesus invites those who believe to eat his flesh and drink his blood and it won’t be a dainty or tidy meal. It’s a gnawing banquet, in which everything is to be savored and stripped- with the bones crunched and munched. 

         The writer of the Fourth Gospel is making it clear that being part of the community will not be for the faint of heart. The very ways that the love of Jesus compels us to be at home and in the world are tough, intense, gnawing acts of grace and mercy. 

         Unfortunately, many Christians today want Jesus to be fast food- cheap, easy to consume, and quick to clean up after. Yet, I find that the world needs the Jesus we gnaw, the Jesus we pick over, the Jesus we make soup from and still find marrow inside the bone that brings nutrition. 

         That 900-page report out of Pennsylvania about 30 years of abuse by priests- the pain of that situation, the hurt people, the damaged trust… that situation needs gnawing, munching, and crunching. It is for trogo, not a quick phago. There is not fast food solution to that in the Roman Catholic Church or to anything similar in any denomination or religion. Jesus urges us to do the work of getting to the bone of the issue. 

         The reality of Anchorage teachers returning to work without signed contracts- guaranteeing their rights for the year ahead- is an issue to gnaw over. It stresses and stretches people who are in this room right now. It affects the children of this city, the present and future of Alaska. The love of Christ compels us to consider the complexity of the issue and gnaw it down together. 

         The growth of wildfires in California, the frequency of 100-year floods in the mid-West, the overturning of regulations meant to sustain the growth and safety of wild and human life… these are issues to gnaw over together. Not things that can be solved simply. Not things that can be ignored. Not things that have nothing to do with our faith, but in fact, these are the very things that we can address because we have faith. 

         The eternal life mentioned in John here and elsewhere is synonymous with the abundant life mentioned in John 10. It is not a life waiting to start after death, but a life that comes with having Jesus with you in the present. It is a clear and present truth for all whom Jesus draws through himself, by the Spirit, to God the Holy Parent. This is the life we have when we feast on Christ- when we gnaw on the truth, munch on the mercy, and crunch on the amazing grace that leads us to where God can use us for the sake of others and the world that God made. 

         When we come to Jesus’ table, we are usually pretty tidy. I know that you want bite-size morsels that you can chew and swallow easily. Little sips of wine or juice wash down the crumbs and we wipe the edge of the cup in a semblance of being sanitary. Yet, we are fed in a mysterious way by a complex Savior who has promised to show up in this meal for the purposes of feeding our faith so that we can live a life that is going to bring us alongside all kinds of people and situations that we would probably not choose for ourselves and, sometimes, would avoid if we could. 

         It was true for the Christians of the first century, receiving the words of the Fourth Gospel, and it is true for those following the Way of Christ in the 21stcentury. We serve a resurrected Savior who is our brother (sibling rivalry), our leader (who is sometimes too far ahead), our teacher (whose lessons can be confusing), our healer (in his own sweet time), and the lover of our souls (what?!?). All of these things gnaw at us and we, on them. 

         Jesus is complicated. Jesus loves us. Jesus challenges us. Jesus wrestles with us. Jesus sends us out into the world, but there’s nowhere we can go that he’s not already there to welcome us. He feeds us. And, since Jesus is God, our whole lives are contained in him- from beginning through eternity. 

Let’s chew on that for a while. 

Amen.