Sunday, June 30, 2013

Renunciation

Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

There is a moment in each baptism service when the voices become a little weaker and uncertain. Is it when the parents of the person to be baptized (or the person themselves) are asked the long list of promises? Is it when the congregation promises to offer support and guidance and is expected to follow through on that promise? Is it when we have to affirm our trust and hope in the truth of the words of the Apostles’ Creed? Is it when I pray for an infant to have a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord? 

It is not. 

It is when we come to the space where I say: I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church. 

And then we proceed: 

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? 
Response: I renounce them. 

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? 
Response: I renounce them. 

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? 
Response: I renounce them. 

When we come to that part of the service, our responses are hesitant. It’s not that we are secretly in favor of forces that defy God or rebel against God or that we’re pro-sin. It’s more that we’re not sure what renouncing it looks like. What does it mean for a five-month old baby? What does it mean for a 65-year-old man? What are we really saying? 

If I said to you: I ask you to in the goodness of Jesus Christ, to resist wrongdoing, and to believe that the church exists to bear God’s light and truth into the world with the help of the Spirit… would anyone have trouble with that? It seems clear and it has a little more wiggle room. Resisting wrong-doing sounds easier than “rejecting sin”- though we want to do the latter. Trusting in the goodness of Jesus Christ feels more expansive than “professing faith in Jesus Christ”. And do I need to unpack the difference between hearing “confess the faith of the Church” and “believe that the church exists to bear God’s light and truth into the world with the help of the Spirit”. 

I think we falter in this part of the baptism service because we are unclear on what we are promising. We are not certain what we are renouncing. Some of that hesitation is because of the language we are using and some of it is because we are still worried about what baptism really means. 

In today’s reading, James and John are incensed at how Jesus is rebuffed in a Samaritan village. The behavior of the villagers is not a surprise, since Jews and Samaritans had tense relations going back to when Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. and Assyrians in 722 B.C.E.  So it had been a while since everyone was one big happy family under their ancestor Jacob. 

However, the Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus made the “Sons of Thunder”- John and James- vengeful. What is it they ask Jesus? “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Lord, can we kill them? Please, Jesus, please? While we may resonate with the thought, I hope we’re all relieved that Jesus didn’t say, “Right here. Right now. Let’s go!” Or even “You may and I ask God to help and guide you.” 

He rebuked them. He rejected not only their words, but the spirit behind them. He didn’t say, “Now, boys, ya’ll know they’ll get what’s coming to them.” He didn’t say, “We don’t talk that way.” He didn’t even say, “Strike one.” In my mind, he says, “Have you learned nothing? Nothing? Do you think that sermon on the plain was because I like the sound of my own voice? Did I heal all those Gentiles just because I can’t resist a sad story? Do I feed anyone who comes because I want to fatten them up before the Father smites them? Do I rejoice in peace and in the breaking down of boundaries because I’m too simple-minded to see that people will never get along?” 

James and John missed the essential meaning of what it meant to walk with Jesus. Being pulled, by the Spirit, into the work God was doing in the world did not mean knowing everything. It did not mean being mistake-free. It did not mean special privileges over other people. This is a reminder for us with regard to baptism. We are not suddenly endowed with special knowledge. We will not be without faults. We do not get to hold our baptisms over other people’s heads.  

What we are renouncing in the service of baptism are all the things that try to distract us from what baptism really means and who is really doing the work and the promising. When I say “distract”, we think of a minor distraction, “Oooh, shiny.” What I mean is serious spiritual, physical, emotional, and political powers that do try to stop the on-going work of God’s creative and healing Spirit in the world. 

The devil and all the forces that defy God? Spiritual forces- things beyond our understanding

The powers of this world that rebel against God? Political and governmental groups and individuals that reject the good of others and creation.

The ways of sin that draw you from God? Physical, mental, and emotional powers within ourselves that tell us that we know the mind of God… to lean on our own understanding… that exacerbate our doubts and undermine our trust. 

When we renounce (reject) these things in a baptismal service, we are reminding ourselves and assuring the baptized that these things are real, but they are trumped by God’s power. These things will try to tempt us, but they will never be better than the consolation of grace or more peaceful than the hope of rest in Christ. When we renounce these forces and powers, it is not just saying that we are blowing off some minor distractions. With the promise that is our inheritance as children of God, we are dismissing precisely the things that would cause us to look back as our hand is put to the plow. 

Understanding what we are saying matters because of what it says about God and what it reveals about what God says about us. At Heavenly Sunshine (our service for children), we say: 

Do you say no to things that do not like God?
Response: I say no to them. 

Do you say no to lies that may be told about God?
Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to sin, that is, actions that make you feel far away from God and God’s love?
Response: I say no to them.

Baptism is not magic. It’s work. It’s God work of washing us clean, of giving us a fresh start, of re-framing our self-understanding so that it is not oriented in what we can do, but is instead rooted in… anchored in… growing out of what the One who made us knows and says about us. We are refocused, not on original sin, but on original blessing. Baptism reveals God's own truth is an everlasting welcome- a open washing and an equally open table. Accepting this about ourselves and about others is what it means to follow Jesus. With the acceptance also comes a rejection of what is not true of God… the lesson of saying no to those distractions that derailed James and John and so easily do the same to us. 

What we have all agreed to this morning is to teach these things to Alice: 

Alice, you are a beloved child of God. 

Alice, the church exists- across time and space- to help you understand that truth.

Alice, there are forces that want to distract you from that truth. We firmly renounce them. 

Alice, we will always walk with in discovering and living into God’s grace for all people. 

Alice, you are a beloved child of God. Welcome to the family. 

What is true for Alice is true for all of us. 

Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lord's Prayer: Fifth Petition


Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

            The most frequent conversation I have around this petition is which word people prefer: some like trespasses, some like sins, and some like debts. Let’s think about them for a minute.

            Trespass… a trespass is occupying a space that one does not have the right to be. A person who abuses another person physically or emotionally is clearly trespassing… using and misusing space that is not theirs.

            Sin… a sin is an attempt at power, an effort to control a situation or another person. Sinning might happen through trying to manipulate with words or power or it might be a sneaky way of cutting corners or even gossiping. A shared conversation about a person who is not in the room, which is not positive or uplifting, is about feeling more powerful than them in the moment. That’s an example of sin.

            The language of debts and debtors is clearly about a gap in a relationship. One person owes the other person something or a group owes another group. It might be reparations for past actions, it might be financial, or it might be an effort to make up for a failure to act. A community’s efforts to exclude a certain group of people or a city’s neglect of certain areas or locations might be considered establishing a debt.

            So those are examples of how sins, trespasses, and debts works between people. How do those things work between people and God? What are examples of how we trespass, sin, or are indebted to God?

            Trespass: How do we occupy a space that only God has a right to be? Where to we trample in a space that should belong to God?

            Sin: What are our attempts at power that should belong to God? How do we attempt to usurp authority that should only belong to God?

            Debts: What do we owe God? What debt is there between God and us that we cannot cover?

            When we talk about forgiveness, we tend to either discuss how grateful we are for God’s forgiveness or we talk about how other people need to forgive or what we might not be able to forgive. We rarely talk about how hard it is to actually forgive someone. We rarely talk about the effects of not forgiving. We hardly mention the mental and emotional and physical toll of holding onto how we have been trespassed, sinned against, and the debts that others have incurred.
           
            What can sin do? Sin can affect our self-perception. It can make us feel ashamed and insecure. We feel uncertain. We are assured of God’s love, but our ability to experience it seems dampened and frustrated.

            Sin builds barriers. Even if we are in a safe place, holding on to the sins that have been committed to us keeps us from being able to fully engage with and experience relationships with other people around us. We cannot trust them- because if we do… they might hurt us in the same way.

            Sin makes us feel weak. When we are angry, it’s not actually a powerful feeling. We feel frustrated and powerless. We feel ineffective and hurt. We might like a good rant or vent, but ultimately, as long as we focus on what’s been done to us, we have no power. In fact, we are giving the power to the person or group that has hurt us.

            Forgiveness, on the other hand, centers us in who God is, breaks down barriers, and empowers. When God forgives, it is the essence of who God is. God’s self is revealed to be merciful and loving. When God forgives, barrier- real and perceived, come down. We are reminded that nothing can come between God and God’s love for all creation through Jesus Christ. That love is made real through grace and through the Spirit- gifts and manifestations of forgiveness.

            God is in control and forgiveness is the revelation of that control. God is not momentarily distracted by anger or revenge. God laments, but brings things around to growth and renewal through forgiving sins, trespasses, and debts. Our attempts at control, our efforts to play God, the obligations we cannot cover… God’s forgiveness heals these things.

            When we forgive, healing occurs as well. We can be centered in who God has made us to be. We are able to be in relationship with others. You feel empowered. If I don’t forgive the person who hurts me… they can continue to hurt me. They have the power, even if they are miles away… by not forgiving them… the trespass or sin or debt… I am controlled by an event and a person who is not myself and is not my God. I have no freedom. I am managed by something outside myself… and that spirals out quickly, as most of us know.

            Forgiveness is hard, but if we don’t do it… if we don’t actually do the work of letting go, of mending where possible, of distancing if necessary, of regaining our center in Christ, of being led by the Holy Spirit instead of a spirit of anger or revenge or victimization… if we don’t do the work of forgiveness, how can we truly begin to trust and rejoice in God’s forgiveness of our sins? If we are holding onto to slights and blows, historical sins and anticipated future trespasses… how can we faithfully live in the hope that God can bring good out of all things. If we do not do the work of forgiveness, what is the framework we have for doing anything else that God has called us to do?

            Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, said:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.The skeleton at the feast is you.[1]

            There is a feast to which we are called… not just invited, but called… a feast that is the food of forgiveness of ourselves and others. To taste of that feast is to taste of God… not a foretaste of the feast to come… but of meal that already is… juicy, abundant, sweet, filling, comforting, and nourishing… forgiveness.

Amen.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 2.

Lord's Prayer: Fourth Petition




Give us this day our daily bread.

Hundreds of millions of people pray the Lord’s Prayer today. Tens of millions will pray it tomorrow. We all say it.

We all say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Millions of people say this and yet there are still hungry people. There are people who do not have enough. People who are unable to make ends meet. People who will go to bed tonight with growling stomachs. Children who will go without eating because they depend on the school lunch program for a meal each day and now it’s summer.

Most of us have enough. In fact, most of us have more than enough. And most of us are not hungry right now, unless we happened to skip breakfast today.

And yet we pray, Give us this day our daily bread.

We pray it and we pray in concert with all people around the world. It is not Give me or Give my family. It is Give us. We are praying with people who believe like us, who are living faithfully in God’s promises… we are praying with people who believe like us on behalf of everyone.
To pray for daily bread for all people and to expect the fulfillment of that petition is to take seriously three things.

1.    That you were serious about the 2nd and 3rd petitions (Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven).
2.     That you understand that God has not predestined some people for suffering.
3.    That you believe everything any of us have is a gift from God.
These three things, along with the Holy Spirit, combine to create a different kind of hunger than one for food. In Matthew, Jesus teaches this prayer in the context of the Sermon on the Mount- a long set of lessons about how to live faithfully. Hunger is mentioned more specifically in the Beatitudes- the series of specific instructions for holy living- living into Thy kingdom come…
Here Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.
God does not desire that anyone should be hunger- should have that feeling of hollow emptiness- should want for anything. Therefore, those who have enough, who have more than enough, should be hungering to share, hungering to improve the circumstances of those around them, hungering for justice for all people, hungering that no one should feel separated from God because of essentials they do not have.
Give us this day our daily bread is not an empty prayer. Or it shouldn’t be. With so many people praying it and expecting that Jesus would not have us pray falsely or without hope of answer, we have to seriously ask ourselves what gets in the way of this prayer being answered.
Those of us with enough to eat who will not be hungry for long today, if at all, are called (called!) to specifically hunger and thirst, to crave, something better. And in that craving, we are supposed to be moved to be a part of how God answers that prayer.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Everyone hungers until all are fed.
If we dare to ask for it, we must dare to act on it. Amen.  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Deck Chairs


Yesterday, I rearranged the chairs in the church sanctuary. Since the second Sunday in the Easter season (the 1st Sunday after Easter), we’d been sitting in a circle with the altar inside the circle. Many people loved this arrangement. An smaller number of people hated it and there were a minority with no [expressed] opinion.

In an effort to be more visitor-oriented for the summer (our biggest visitor season), we moved the chairs back into their neat little rows. I did not put out as many rows as we had previously because we just don’t need that many chairs. We have moveable chairs and fixed pews. I arranged five rows of six chairs each on two sides (60 chairs). We also have four pews on each side, which could easily accommodate 5-6 people each. Let’s say 5. Thus, we easily have seating for 40 people in the pews.

Sixty plus forty is one hundred (100). We have available seating this Sunday for 100 people.

Last Sunday, at our regular service, we had 37 people.

 
37.

I thought about each of those 37 people as I arranged the chairs yesterday. The circle put us all closer together and made the space seem full and warm. This Sunday, forty people will be spread across seating for 100. The empty seats will be obvious.

And I arranged the chairs.

So frequently I am drawn into conversations about the shrinking church, about lowered attendance, about why people no longer make church a priority.

These are serious questions.

The answers are not really about the style of music or the kind of preaching or the kind of coffee or whether there is childcare.

All of those things are just a different arrangement of the chairs.

The truth is that the people who do regularly attend church (of whatever kind) have to be convinced that what is offered to them, what matters to them, could and would matter to other people. And then they have to act on that thought.

Our desire to see other people experience what we experience in church (if we experience something worth sharing) must be greater than our fear of rejection and failure.

We have to reject, forcefully- with the help of the Spirit, the forces that seditiously whisper the words “inevitable decline”, “too small to matter”, or “too old-fashioned” to oppose God and God's work. 

We can arrange the chairs in all kinds of ways.

But if we believe that the message of Christ ever mattered, then we must move out in faith BECAUSE THE MESSAGE IS AS IMPORTANT NOW AS IT HAS EVER BEEN.

The message is as important now as it has ever been.

If we do not think it is worth sharing… worth conquering our fear… worth sinning boldly for… then it doesn’t matter. 

And it never did.

In that case, I have some chairs for sale. 

Lord's Prayer: Second and Third Petitions


Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

What is the Kingdom of God?

Jesus gives many descriptions of the kingdom, particularly through his parables. While some of his stories are metaphors beyond our understanding, some are very clear in their explanations. Whether or not we want to accept his message about the expansiveness of the kingdom or its openness is a different story.  In particular, the kingdom is a place of welcome, no tears, no dying, growth in mind and spirit, forgiveness, justice, and inclusion.

What is heaven like? Specifically, how is heaven different from earth?

In the most specific sense, given our knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns, heaven is the place [right now] where God’s kingdom, Christ’s reign, the Spirit’s effects, are all fully realized. It is the place of the healing of the nations, the river of life, where death and sin have no power.

However, since we are not yet there… more correctly, since we are here, we have purpose here. Jesus specifically says, according to Matthew, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. And, according to Luke, the kingdom of heaven is within you. Thus, we are not talking about an abstract place, but a reality that is both here and now. A place apart from sin and death is at hand and within you… at this moment.

If the kingdom of heaven is among us… what would that look like?

I know a couple people who do not like the song we sang earlier and will finish after the homily. They don’t like the line, “I abandon my small boat” because they like their boats. They enjoy the experience of God they feel on their boats- in creation, in harvesting, in solitude, in family time. All of us have things like that… if not specifically a boat. No one wants to sing- I abandon my garden, my hiking boots, my dog’s leash…

The song isn’t about leaving behind pursuits that we love- per se. It’s about discipleship. It is about understanding that when Jesus spoke to the disciples, the fishing disciples, they left what they knew- essentially all that they knew- and followed him. We are called to the same kind of following. To let go of our insistence on perfect knowledge before action, on total agreement before prayer, on hours of study before acceptance... we are called into faithful living as a way of trusting that God’s kingdom is at hand and within us.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come- what are we asking for? Are we prepared to have it come through us?

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes about the second petition: But just as the name of God is in itself holy, and we pray nevertheless that it be holy among us, so also His kingdom comes of itself, without our prayer, yet we pray nevertheless that it may come to us, that is, prevail among us and with us, so that we may be a part of those among whom His name is hallowed and His kingdom prospers.

God’s kingdom will come, possibly despite our efforts and still- more possibly- through us. By trusting in God and the truth and power of the kingdom, we are more open, more ready for the Spirit to use us in the work of defeating death and sin here and now- being a part of the kingdom of heaven at hand. But there is no limit to whom God may use to bring about the kingdom.

In his 5/22/13 homily, Pope Francis said: "The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!"... We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Through Jesus, we trust that God is committed to creation and re-creation, to redemption and to perfecting, to wooing and to receiving, to welcoming and to reassuring. The Holy Spirit does all of that and more, through all kind of people. We who believe… we who are living through faithful action and trust… we are more ready to see how God is at work in all things (or we are supposed to be).


We are bold to pray…

This is why we say we are “bold to pray the way our Savior taught us”. When we say, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven”, we are asking to be part of the work that we trust God is doing in creation, in the world around us right now! It is not a pray that God do what God needs to do and we look forward to the results.

It is a prayer of power. A prayer that God’s will- to see an end to the destruction and separation of death and sin- would take effect in us and all around us and that we would be a part of how that happens. If we are not willing to be active participants in that work, if we do not believe it is possible, if we are not sure that God can do it… then we are not praying boldly. Our prayer is weak tea- at best.

Jesus is the pioneer of our faith (Hebrews). He teaches us to pray in this way because what we are asking for is not only possible, but is a reality within God and God’s work in the world.  The kingdom… a kingdom of life, light, and love… is at hand. It is a kingdom that welcomes all people, including us. And it is a kingdom within us, through Christ, and moving out of us by the Spirit.  Praying to be included in how heaven is experienced on earth is the privilege of our faith. Being included in God’s kingdom work is the freedom we have received through being saved by grace- God’s grace in Jesus the Christ.

Amen.

Lord's Prayer: First Petition (+ Holy Trinity)


I wrote this to be read by our congregational president when I was out sick on Holy Trinity Sunday, which also marked the start of our Lord's Prayer sermon series. 

I am not with you because I am at home, sick. The illness is not a mystery. It is just something that I am waiting to finish. Being sick is a little like a puzzle. With enough information, we can solve the puzzle and, usually, things work out.

Of course, we know situations where people were sick and did not get well in the way we had hoped. Nevertheless, we almost always pursue the solution- the full solution, the answers to all our questions. No stones are left unturned. Questions are answered. Puzzles are solved.

We like solutions. There is hardly anything more aggravating than not being able to fix something or know an answer. In this room, right now, with the human knowledge plus the technological benefit of smart phones- there are many questions that could be answered, many problems that could be solved. Facts and figures and history and science- at our fingertips, in our minds, remembered and recorded.

Yet, there are two mysteries that remain here with us- two things we cannot solve, two puzzles that specifically do not have solutions. We cannot adequately explain the Trinity- the idea of one God with three expressions. And we cannot explain prayer.

Even if I were here in front of you, I could not solve these puzzles for you. And, frankly, Megan would probably rather be sick herself than to have to attempt it. The thing is… these are not problems. They do not need to be solved. The work of faith is learning to live both with God’s expansive nature and with the command to pray.

Oh, we do want to solve these mysteries. There are all kinds of object lessons about the Trinity- a three-note chord, an apple (skin, flesh, and seeds), water (ice, liquid, vapor). Ultimately, though, we cannot explain anything adequately. The faithful thing to do, then, is to stop trying. Stop trying to make sense of the Trinity. Stop trying to adhere to a specific kind of orthodoxy that will make it neat and clean.

Rest in the messiness of a God who is both Parent and Child, both enfleshed and ineffable, both eternal and resurrected, who knows all things and also experiences a thousand years like a day. God is bigger than we can imagine and yet we keep thinking we can solve God- like a Rubic’s cube. If we get all the colors lined up, then God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- will make sense, will be solved!

We do the same thing with prayer- except that we worry about getting it right. So much depends, we think, on being able to do it correctly, on solving the prayer problem, that we hardly notice when we’re praying all the time. We focus on the “how” and we forget the “who”.

            Jesus teaches disciples to pray, in Matthew’s gospel, by beginning, “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.” God’s name is holy because it is the name upon which we can call for all things- for healing, in distress, in joy, for hope, for help. We begin by calling on the name of God because we can ask things of this name (and in this name) that cannot come from anyone or anything else.

            Yet, when people tell me they have a hard time praying, often they are concerned about “getting it wrong”. We want to have all our ducks in a row because, surely, if we pray in the right way, we will receive the thing for which we are asking. And that, right there, is the tough mystery of prayer. The part we want to solve. It is hard accept that a God who has made us, who has lived as one of us, and who sighs with us in prayer is present and at work in all things, even when our experience is bleak and dark.

            If things are not improving (in the way we expect), then God must not be listening (so we think) and if God is not listening (according to us), then we must be doing it wrong (it stands to reason). We are able to do so much, so quickly now and to know so many things… waiting with mystery is hard. What is hard is uncomfortable and what is uncomfortable is to be avoided. No one ever says, “Let’s go to the park with the hard benches! I love how uncomfortable we are there.”

            Part of living in faith, in trusting God, is learning to be consoled by the mystery of God’s relationship to God’s ownself (as Father, Son, and Spirit) and the mystery of God’s relationship to us- as we experience it through prayer- our prayers with words and our prayers with actions. God is bigger than our knowledge, than our imaginations, than our dreams. We cannot solve the mystery of God. That actually is good news. A puzzle has a solution. A riddle has an answer. But God, God is forever- and we live and rest, not through our own doing, in that eternity- even when we do not understand it.

Amen.