Saturday, February 28, 2009

How much is that Bible in the window?

I've never had as much feedback or commentary on a blog post as I have on my prior post on church shopping. To be clear, in that post, I did mention that I can see and understand, yea verily sympathize with, all kinds of reasons for searching through churches and visiting a variety of congregations. The post was not necessarily to people who have been looking at churches for a while or who have felt the need to see "what else is out there", but to people who chronically experience serial monogamy with churches- staying at a church for a year or two and then moving on, for whatever reason.

There are two issues at hand in "church shopping" (or seeking). One is trying to find a church that fits your needs at a given time. Granted, your family church of three generations may not do that every Sunday of every week of every year of your life. It probably didn't for your grandmother either.

The other issue at hand is does not pertain specifically to the church shopper, but to the pastor and the long-time church members who may disdain the "seeker". Church is not what it was thirty years ago or even fifteen. When I was younger (not that long ago), my family went to church on Wednesday nights, Sunday morning and I had youth group on Sunday night. Every week. Period. Church was what you did. It was the social place, the spiritual place, the community place (even though our church was 10 miles away).

Times have changed. People have far more things to do these days and, seemingly, less time to do them. So what is church now? The place for drive-by spiritual recharges? The entertainment center with stimulating music and speakers? The dwindling family reunion with more funerals to report than weddings?

We are in the midst of redefining what it means to be church. We means everybody. The long-time pew stake-holders (yes, I see you). The two-time visitors. The pastor, still busy and still called to Word and Sacrament, with pastoral care and so much more.

If we don't all contribute to the vision, then the Body of Christ limps along without the occasion or the space or the active members to show the world that what we believe is true and that truth has freed us.

Perhaps instead of deriding or defending church shopping, the question we should all be trying to answer is "What is church for me? And how will I know when I find it?"

Then we roll up our sleeves and start praying- with our hearts, our voices, our hands and our feet.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Lord, to whom shall we go?

Here I sit on a Friday morning, jotting down notes and trying to prepare for Sunday's sermon. The texts are oriented toward baptism, but there is more to consider than just the sacrament. What have people heard recently (from me or others) about baptism? (The Baptism of our Lord was only six weeks ago.) What do potential visitors know about baptism? What can be said about this crucial part of Christian life and practice in a clear, specific way without relying on "code words" or assumptions that everyone knows what I mean? Furthermore, there is the temptation narrative which deserves comment, as well as the beginning of the season of Lent.

One sermon cannot contain everything and woe to the pastor who tries to do that. I wander as I ponder and I came across this article in Slate magazine about church shopping. The article posits that the phenomenon of wandering from congregation to congregation after a few months or a year or so or of rotating between a few congregations is not bad.

One in seven adults changes churches each year, and another one in six attends a handful of churches on a rotating basis, according to the Barna Group, a marketing research firm that serves churches. Church shopping isn't a matter of merely changing congregations: A survey by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life last year indicated that 44 percent of American adults have left their first religious affiliation for another. "Constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace," a survey summary said.

Even if the American mania for shopping extends to our spiritual lives, church shopping still doesn't get much respect. But while it may be frequently derided as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, shopping around can be one of the good things about the way religion is practiced in America.

I wouldn't say the practice is necessarily bad, but I wouldn't characterize it as a good habit either. Certainly one congregation may not meet all your spiritual needs. Why isn't it? Are the services not to your liking? Could you help start an alternate weekly service in a preferred traditional style or with some jazz hymns? Is it the people? Maybe you could teach a class or a special workshop on being welcoming or on conflict-resolution? Is it the theology? If it differs greatly from the denomination's self-understanding, you may well have a valid complaint. If it differs from your own theological understanding, you may also as well.

In some of these cases, moving to a new church may really be your best option.

Church hopping creates some issues as well. Participation in a church is part of the expectation of the life of faith. We cannot be Christians on our own. The Bible calls to us again and again as participants and members of the body of Christ. The fruits of the Spirit that our God-given faith produces are for the benefit of those around us, outside of church and in the pew next to us.

In baptism, for example, in the Lutheran tradition, the parents and godparents of a child make promises toward raising the child in the faith. The whole congregation witnesses these promises and the means by which God pours grace into our lives and also promises to help in the upbringing of another member of the faith.

The article argues that one of the reasons church shopping is good (or effective) is because it removes some of the power from the pulpit to the pews. However, that also happened (or was supposed to have) in the Protestant Reformation. You have the power, through baptism and the Spirit, to transform a congregation, but congregational transformation happens best through people working together in a cooperative and open spirit. This means knowing one another, sharing joys and sorrows, appreciating the history that a congregation has- perhaps existing before any of the current members joined.

Church shopping in a new area is understandable. Church shopping after a few years can happen. However, chronic movement from church to church can undermine the true strength of what a congregation has to offer to one's life of faith. And it's not that you are being deprived of that. You are depriving others of what you have to offer as well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Indulgences

I've sat on this story for a couple weeks, though I haven't totally refrained from comment. By clicking the link, you'll be directed to a New York Times article about the re-introduction of the practice of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. This practice hadn't completely disappeared, but the RCC is encouraging the practice once more, as part of a concerted effort to reinvigorate people's interest in and practice of Confession.

The article states:

According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day. [...]

Dioceses in the United States have responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This year’s offer has been energetically promoted in places like Washington, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., and Tulsa, Okla. It appeared prominently on the Web site of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which announced that any Catholic could receive an indulgence at any of six churches on any day, or at dozens more on specific days, by fulfilling the basic requirements: going to confession, receiving holy communion, saying a prayer for the pope and achieving “complete detachment from any inclination to sin.”

I must admit that, as a Lutheran, I get a bit twitchy at the idea of indulgences and even more so at the idea of "achieving 'complete detachment from any inclination to sin'." Due to my own denominational bias, I may be unable to see or appreciate the spiritual benefits of the practice of indulgences, but since I don't believe in Purgatory or in our ability to save ourselves- then I don't see that there are any spiritual benefits to indulgences.

They seem, well, indulgent. Doesn't the Bible encourage to good works(visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, giving cups of cool water, etc) for the glory of God and out of thanksgiving for all that God has done for us? At no point do good works save us, improving our standing before God.

Furthermore, we are incapable of "complete detachment from any inclination to sin". The root of God's judgment and our need for God's grace is that chronic sin is synonymous with being human. We are to try to avoid it, but sometimes our crafty avoidance finds us backing into a waist-deep mess of another kind.

Christ's death on the cross erased the eternal punishment for sin for those who believe in him, according to the Bible. The promise of that sacrifice once and for all is visible in the empty tomb and cross, which are God's signs to us that Christ's righteousness covers our unrighteousness.

We are ever striving through the work and help of the Spirit to more completely understand God's work in our lives and in the world. However, we are never striving to be worthy of it because that will not happen.

Indulgences, to me, seem to be the hamster wheel of works-righteousness. Instead of being freed by Christ's power to care for the people around you, you're constantly striving to eliminate some portion of the punishment that you know you're going to receive after you die.

I read this article and I sigh. Then I look at the empty cross and I say, "Thanks be to God." I couldn't have done it any better.

In truth, I could not have done it at all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Drive-by Posting

So I know I've been very delinquent in my blogging lately. It's not been for lack of ideas: Martin Luther's death date, the re-emergence of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church, the texts of Epiphany, 43 more crucial Scripture passages. Trust me, I've written amazing posts about all of those... in my head.

It's hard to get back on the writing horse once you fall off it. I could blame it on the pregnancy. It does make you tired and I didn't want to mention it until I was ready to mention it, but that only covers the first few weeks of January, when I was too tired to think straight.

So, there are no excuses, other than the fact that I have been busy. However, I do consider the maintenance of this blog and the providing of thought-provoking posts of at least semi-substance as a portion of my job.

So, I'm throwing myself back in the saddle and we'll see how it goes. I read something recently that said if you expect to keep something like a blog with any kind of devotion, you need to write six days a week. We'll see about that.

Transfiguration Day Sermon

2 KINGS 2:1-12; 2 CORINTHIANS 4:3-6; MARK 9:2-9


So, am I going to drop a piece of news like [I'm having a baby in August] on you and go right on preaching? In the words of another Alaskan woman who hid a pregnancy for a while, “You betcha.” It’s not because I’m stubborn or because I put the gospel above everything else. Well, both of those things are true, but the gospel message for us on this Sunday (or any Sunday) is too good to ignore.

However, the heart of Transfiguration Sunday is absorbing the truth of the epiphany and carrying it with us beyond this particular mountaintop. The season of Epiphany is about learning more about who this Jesus is, born to us and all people at Christmas. The more we learn about him, the more we know the heart of God, and the more we come to realize what faith in Jesus may require of us. The season of Lent is about wrestling with those requirements.

The mountain of Transfiguration Sunday gives us a peak to see where we’ve been, the birth, the baptism, the healings and new teachings. When we turn and look the other way, we see the even larger mountaintop that defines our lives as Christians, Easter Sunday. But to get there from here, we walk through the valley of the shadow of Lent. We put our alleluias in our pockets. We climb down and we walk with Jesus down the dusty road to the cross. Everything he says and does leads him to such trouble. Everything he says and does lead him to the place that gets us out of trouble.

Before we get there, however, we have to look at where we are today, in the hinge between the season of revelation and the season of shadow. The 2 Kings passage today provides so much guidance for our lives that we cannot fail to examine it. Did you hear it when it was read? Take a look at it in your bulletin. Everyone knows that today is the day that Elijah is going to be taken into the presence of the Lord. Elijah has been the main prophet for the reign of two kings, Ahab and Ahaziah. He’s spoken to Israelites and non-Israelites. He’s performed miracles, he’s prophesied, he’s been the voice of the Lord and he’s about to leave.

The other prophets, probably partially envious of Elijah’s power and envious of Elisha’s position, cannot resist making sure Elisha knows the import of this day. “Do you not know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” Elisha, if this is a direct quote, says so calmly, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Elijah tries to encourage Elisha to return home, that he doesn’t have to be there, but Elisha is determined to go all the way, as far as he can, with the prophet who has trained him and whom he loves.

The big deal of this story is not the whirlwind and the chariots that carry Elijah away. The big deal doesn’t even make it in to the story we have in front of us. The gospel of this passage happens in verses 13 and 14. “Elisha picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.”

Remember that all the other prophets and who knows how many other people were standing on the other side of the Jordan, watching. What they get from seeing this is not that the understanding that Elisha has inherited a double portion of the prophetic spirit. What they get is the knowledge that the Spirit and the power of the Lord did not leave with Elijah. It yet remains among them. God has not and will not leave the nation without a prophet and without his voice.

Though Elisha might be grieving the loss of his mentor and friend, he turns and does what has to be done. He must cross back over and go back to work with the best of his ability. One can almost hear God saying, Don’t just stand there, Elisha, do something.

Peter, James and John get a slightly different message on the mount of Transfiguration. They’ve climbed up this peak with Jesus and they’re treated to a dazzling vision of their Master speaking to Moses and Elijah. Peter is so befuddled, he starts babbling about how they can build places to stay up there. They knew Jesus had power, but this is unbelievable. One can hear God speaking, through a transformation of the baptismal words, “This is my beloved Son. Don’t just do something, listen.”

In the dark days to come for these disciples, and the others, this experience will play over and over in their hearts as they try to understand everything that’s happening around them.

And so it is for us. An unexpected pregnancy. An expected deployment. A sudden death. A long-suffered illness. Financial success. Financial woes. Feast, famine, joy, sorrow, health, sickness. Just as in mountain climbing, you’ve barely begun to enjoy the peak before the work of going back down begins. We are barely able to realize the power of our experience before we turn and see people waiting on the other side of the Jordan for us to come back through the water and manage our daily tasks to the best of our ability.

The cycle of our lives is almost defined by, “Don’t just stand there, do something. Don’t just do something, listen.” We are called into action through our baptisms and through what Christ has done for us. But we don’t act just willy-nilly, doing what is right in our minds, but we seek what is right and true from the heart of God.

The only way, the only way we are able handle the truth of the ups and downs of our lives and our faith is in this way: the same God who said, “Let there be light” has shone in our hearts the light of the knowledge of the saving power of Jesus Christ.

As we climb and descend the peaks and valleys of our lives, it is the view from here of the truth of the resurrection and its promises that help us to do anything that we’re able to do. Sometimes that means a day when getting out of bed and taking a shower is the best example of the hope we hold in our hearts. Sometimes it is bringing another life into the world or sitting and waiting as a life leaves this world.

It’s the view in our hearts and minds of the Easter peak. The empty cross. The empty tomb. The gasping realization that God is stronger than death and nothing, nothing can separate from the love of God. The view of that mountain peak gives us hope.

And it is that hope, and that hope alone, that transfigures us. It keeps our alleluias alive in our hearts, even when they are not on our lips. It keeps our feet moving. It keeps our faith alive. That transfiguring hope will carry us through Lent and Holy Week, right to where the stone has been rolled away.

It is that transfiguring hope that gives me the strength to be with you and help you and you to do the same for me and for one another. We go across the Jordan together, we come down the mountain together, and with the world watching, we continue in the work to which we have been called.

We have the presence of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a double portion if there ever was one. Don’t just stand there, do something. But don’t just do something, listen.

Listen to the truth of God’s word. Listen for the whistle of the wind through the empty tomb. Listen to the alleluias of creation that cannot be silenced, no matter the season.

Listen to this: Christ is risen. (Christ is risen, indeed.) That truth, and that truth, alone transfigures you and me and the whole world, regardless of all other circumstances. And it is that truth that gives us the power to handle any other life-changing experiences that come our way.

Amen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Exorcised Faith (Sermon 2/1)

DEUTERONOMY 18:15-20; 1 CORINTHIANS 8:1-13; MARK 1:21-28

In the texts for today, we have a Lutheran friendly options and a less- friendly option. In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul is building up to his big chapter on love in community. He leads up to it with discussions about food and respecting those around. This is Lutheran-friendly. Be we German, Norwegian, Swede or some other Lutheran extraction, we know those who tout the spiritual dimensions of lutefisk and Jello salad and those who would rather avoid those foods. Lutherans know about food.

In the Deuteronomy text, God speaks through Moses to the Israelites one last time at the end of Moses’ life. God promises to raise up another prophet, an important promise for the Israelites and one that points us to the authority of the One who is to come. Certainly, this is a text that Lutherans can embrace.

But then we come to that Gospel passage and a section that causes some Lutheran nerves to jump. Is this an exorcism? The casting out of demons? That seems like it might involve some movement, some excitement, some touching. I honestly haven’t noticed this congregation as having a problem with any of those things, but until now I haven’t talked about exorcisms.

Let’s think about the context of today’s story. In Mark, Jesus appears suddenly, is baptized, is immediately driven into the wilderness to be tempted and comes out from that experience- calling disciples, healing and teaching all over the place. When he comes to the local synagogue in Capernaum, he goes in and starts teaching.

This wasn’t very unusual. There were many itinerant rabbis at the time who traveled around and who had specialized areas of knowledge. However, this particular rabbi did not sit down and begin speaking about what the Torah or the historical rabbis had to say about dietary laws or sacrifice. He sat down and started talking about what God had to say. About what God’s desires. About God’s expectations.

There wasn’t hemming and hawing. Here was clear authority and understanding of what the Creator expected of the created. Crowds were stunned and you can imagine them murmuring, “Who is this guy? How does he know this? How can he speak this way?”

But in the crowd, there are beings that know exactly why Jesus can speak with this authority. And it scares them. It terrifies them.

Why was the demon-possessed man in the crowd that day? Maybe his family had brought him to pray for healing. Maybe they could not leave him at home because he would hurt himself. Maybe he no longer had a home and wandered the streets of Capernaum, begging and struggling with his affliction. Whatever his circumstances, he appeared in that crowd and the demons within trembled at the name of Jesus.

So, why does the demon cry out and identify Jesus? If enough of a scene can be made, Jesus won’t have the chance to teach. He won’t be able to overcome the crowd’s offense at the idea that he is God. The people are only beginning to adjust to his new teaching style- the whys and wherefores may be beyond what they can grasp.

So Jesus silences the unclean spirit and commands it to release its parasitical hold on the man. Suddenly, in the midst of the crowd is the man they knew previously- their neighbor or brother, their father or their friend. He is recognizable and he recognizes him. They look at him and then they turn and look at Jesus in a new light. Something is a little different here. This rabbi is not the same as the others. And he’s not quite like the other faith healers or magicians. Something here is very, very different. This man’s power comes from somewhere, somewhere else.

What does this story mean for us? In our world today, some people believe demons to be the cause of autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dementia or other illnesses. Each year people die because very well meaning family members and faithful church attendees try to cast the demons out of people with these and other various afflictions. And then there is additional pain because of the death of the child or adult and the possible legal ramifications that follow.

This brings us to some difficult questions. Does exorcism still have a place in Christian life? Are we called to do them? What would Jesus do- he would command the demons to leave? What can we do?

I’m going to put this out to you to consider. In the centuries since this story took place, our understanding of our bodies has increased in leaps and bounds. We know even more now about the miracles of our brains, our nervous system, our circulatory system, our skeletal system. We have come to understand even more that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. And we have come to know, as well, the depth of mystery that remains within us about how some things happen and some things work.

As we have become more sophisticated in our knowledge, the forces that oppose God and try to tempt us from faith have to increase their efforts as well. In our day and time, it is not demons that cause illnesses, but demons that accompany illnesses.

At the edge of our diagnoses are despair, loneliness, fear, doubt, guilt, grief, and a host of other little pulls that steal our joy in life, our hope in Christ and our faith in the truth of the Word of God.

These are precisely the demons that we are called to exorcise. You are. I am. We exorcise them by saying their name and banishing them. Despair is sent to hell through encouragement. Loneliness, through companionship. Fear, through prayer and information. And so it goes. By fervently exercising our faith through caring for our neighbor, we can exorcise their demons and ours.

I haven’t ever seen the Exorcist and I don’t want or need to, but I do know the most famous line from that movie is the priest saying to the demon inside the young woman, “The love of Christ compels you”- a verse from 2 Corinthians.

And so it does. Christ’s love for the man in the crowd compelled the unclean spirit to flee his presence. Christ’s own love for us compels our own demons to leave us. However, it is also Christ’s love for us that compels us to help the people around us deal with the negativity, the pain and the unclean spirits that torment them.

When we take a casserole, when we help someone deal with a disability, we speaks someone’s name and they recognize us through their cloud of confusion… in all these situations and more, we can exorcise the demons that plague their souls.

Embrace your Lutheran heritage- the faith that you have been saved by God’s grace and are free to love all those around you. Embrace that freedom and use it for the good of God’s whole creation. Reach out and touch somebody because daily exorcising is necessary for healthy faith. Christ has given you the authority through your baptism to all these things and more. And besides that, the love of Christ compels you.