Sermon for October 28, 2012

Jeremiah 31:7-9, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

Sierra, Elisabet, and Brittney, today is the day of your confirmation. On behalf of the gathered friends, family and the congregation, let me express our best wishes to you on this special day. We have witnessed your growing in faith for many years, and we are happy to celebrate this day with you. Brittney, we especially wish you comfort in these days of sorrow as you recall your grandmother who died this week and whom we lay to rest tomorrow. May you know the consolation of a loving God walking with you in the valley of the shadow of death and the joy of life to come.

Sierra, Elisabet, and Brittney we’ve done many projects together: power point presentations, skits, plays, a host of art projects on biblical stories, and some writing along the way as your faith has grown. You’ve done things on food and faith, women and justice, the story of Jonah, the story of Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed.  All three of you have contributed a great deal to our community life. Brittney, it was your suggestion that brought together the retreat at Bethel Horizons this past November. Sierra, and Elisabet, you have been involved in our worship in a variety of ways. All of you have exhibited care for those in need. And we celebrate all of that on this day. Congratulations.

You are confirmed on a Reformation Sunday, that time when Lutherans recall the beginnings of our church when Martin Luther in the 1530’s in Germany led a renewal movement. That movement eventually resulted in a split with the Roman tradition. On All Saints Eve, or Hallowed’s Eve (from which we get Halloween) Luther nailed the principles of reform to the front church door and the movement began. Those principles of reform were an emphasis on God’s grace, love, and acceptance of all, using the Bible and our own conscience to shape lives that assist God in building communities of justice and compassion.

That we confirm on a day when we recall reform and renewal is an important thing. It is a reminder to the three of you that you will still be formed in faith, still grow in faith, still be renewed in faith as you grow in years and spirit. You will not always believe all the things you believe now. And you will reform and revise your views regarding God and others as your life unfolds. Sometimes something you felt was important about God will be changed or be dropped as you envision a new way to relate to God.

Such is the Lutheran way. Ours is not a static faith, but a reforming faith, a renewing faith, a revising faith, a faith that shapes and then reshapes itself as we are called to walk more deeply in the ways of God over the course of a lifetime.

We wish for you that continued growth in faith in the years to come. We not only wish it for you, but we wish it for others including your families and friends. For we are all being formed and then reformed by God.

If you have come to church today, and it has been awhile since you have worked on the faith in your heart, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on where God is taking us, what God wants for our lives and world, and how we all might get there. The principles of faith, the foundation of faith: loving grace, compassion, justice, responsibility, conscience shaped by scripture, and freedom do not change. But these new times in which we are living require new ways of being Christian together. In the presence of the growing faith of these young women, in the presence of the reforming nature of our Lutheran heritage, it is time for all of us to become something better, for each one of us to become that something more to which we are called by God.

These lessons before us help us with the construction or renovation of faith. Hebrews, the second lesson, talks about intercession. Intercession is a special kind of prayer. It is a prayer for others. As God re-forms our faith, God places in our lives people for whom we should pray. Think about your week. Who are some of the people, especially people on the edges of your awareness, for whom you should pray. As we intercede, as we pray for people, our own faith grows. And if your prayers lately have been mostly about yourself, well, it’s time to change that.

Jeremiah, the first poet this morning, reminds us of two things regarding a growing faith. First, faith involves singing and music. All three of you are musicians. In music we draw closer to God and as your music matures so does your faith grow. But there is something else in Jeremiah: a gathering, a coming together for a joyous celebration, a party. Fellowship and friendship are an important part of a growing faith. Alone it is hard to renew our faith. But when we come to the party, when we gather with others, when we eat a little bread and drink a little wine together, we have the strength we need to continue the spiritual journey with our friends.

And as our faith grows and matures, we see in Mark, the last lesson, something else about renewing faith. It involves opening our eyes to new things, to seeing some things for the first time, to being opened to the miracle of healing, to become aware that our faith, our trust, our hope makes us real and whole. As our faith renews, our eyes are miraculously opened to God’s new possibilities for us and others.

Prayer for others, music in one’s heart, gathering for the celebration, and opening our eyes to the miracles around us, these are the construction materials for a maturing, reforming, renewing faith. And this is the reformation faith for all of us in this room and especially for these three young women who witness this day to the baptismal promise of God’s presence through each chapter of life.

Sermon for October 21, 2012

Grace and Peace. Many times in the gospel of Mark the disciples just don’t seem to get it. In Mark the disciples are not these great paragons of wisdom and virtue. Over and over again they misunderstand Jesus and the movement. This time they are arguing about who will receive the positions of honor in God’s kingdom, about who is the greatest, about who will sit on the right hand and left hand of Jesus in a time a great glory.

Jesus get’s to the point. In the ways of God, it’s not about the glory, the highlight reel, and the pinnacles of life. According to the Jesus, you meet God not in the great moments, but in the darker valleys, in the places of suffering, in the times of want and fear, in the alleys of despair, at that point at which one is ready to give up and throw in the towel. It’s in the valleys of the shadows of death where we meet God.

And the disciples just don’t get it. Preoccupied with their desire for success and conditioned to think that a bigger, grander, greater, more successful, and more powerful way are the obvious objectives for living, they miss the point of this rabbi from broken down Nazareth. God dwells in the darkest corners of our souls rather than the brightest moments of our lives. Those who lead the way to God are those who suffer. Those who matter in God’s way are those who serve and sustain those who have been wearied by this life.

This vision of the way of Jesus is not unique to Mark or to Jesus. Look at the suffering servant poem of the great Jewish prophet Isaiah. Here the poet sees suffering, even and especially undeserved suffering, struggle, hardship, failure, and emptiness as the sign that these people are engaging God and doing the will of God, witnessing to God’s ironic way. In suffering, we meet all who suffer and through them we come into the sacred presence of the divine. This is not the high road. It’s the low road.

Hebrews reminds us that those who offer sacrifices in the temple system are not greater, more special or pure than ordinary people. No, leaders in the Jewish Christian tradition are not greater than anybody else. Leaders are ordinary and have their own vulnerabilities, sin, shortcomings fears, and failures. And it is in the weakness of the leader, the brokenness of the leader, that the leader discovers the nature of suffering, becomes compassionate, and senses what can be done to change the course of human life.

Last month, at the close of summer, we held our annual outdoor worship and picnic at Burrows Park. It was a lovely day, and we all had a good time. The lessons for that day focused on our fears. And so as part of our worship activity all of us wrote on sheets of paper some of the fears we had. We collected those fears and offered them to God.

We were afraid of a wide variety of things: disease, the basement, pain, letting others down, snakes, poverty, large animals, the way things are for young people these days, losing faith in our democracy, fire, losing my health, thunderstorms, losing my family, my violin bow breaking again, illness, heights, not making a difference, stress, war, mosquitoes, retirement, the dark, spiders, lies, crocodiles, the future, homelessness, disabilities, bugs, a child dying without faith, lightening, and being bullied.

We live in fearful times. Some of our fears come out of our own shortcomings, or the failures of society, or the deep fears embedded in the human heart, or mistakes we’ve made, or holding the wrong idea, or clinging to the right idea too long, or the brokenness we have experienced in life. Fears come from all sorts of places and we often live lives marked with deep anxiety.

But the point of these lessons is that it is precisely here in our brokenness, struggle, pain, sorrow, sin, fear, dying, hopelessness, in all the yuckiness of life that we meet the living God, the one who suffers for the sake of others, the God who is crucified, died, and is buried. It is here we discover that we have a friend in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. It is here we see the faces of others who have walked through this human valley of darkness, all moving now toward the light of knowing we will make it through this into the loving arms or a waiting God.

And that is the saving way in this Jesus thing. All puffed up with our desires to be good, to be right, to be successful, to accomplish things, we lose sight of this truth: Jesus walks with us through these lonesome valleys, and in the face of Jesus we learn our own purpose for being here. Others, many others, are walking along this same suffering path and we are called to hold their hands through the difficult days into a new light, a new balm, a new Gilead.


Sermon for October 14, 2012

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

The three horsemen of corruption, repression, and oppression have ridden roughshod through the pages of human history. In every time, in every place, these three evils leave in their wake sorrow and pain that only breeds the desire for more and more violence. Facing these three horsemen of corruption, repression, and oppression is one of the greatest challenges for human society. So much can be accomplished by humans when we live in harmony and at peace. So much is destroyed when these three are let loose to trample the garden that is God’s creation.

Our first lesson is from the prophet Amos. These three horsemen have just ridden through his countryside. Amos says that corruption, repression, and oppression lead to depression. Amos was a herdsman and vinedresser by profession: a farmer, who left his farm and flock to head south to proclaim the voice of God calling for reform, to advocate for the rights of those trampled by the corruption, repression and oppression, and to declare to those in power that their policies were destroying the nation.

During a time of great prosperity in Israel, Amos addresses a nation that has become cruel and unjust.  The economy was doing well.  Harvests were plentiful. But the politics were unbearable.  Verses seven and eighteen are about corruption. Verses ten and nineteen are about repression. The entire passage and especially verse eleven speaks of oppression, especially those in power taking a large portion of the crops from those who produce them in the form of levies or taxes.  As a farmer and herdsman, Amos now comes to the king’s court and chapel to proclaim this injustice as the three horseman rampage through the country side, sewing violence, peasant resentment, anger, and rage.

Amos argues that corruption, repression, and oppression lead to depression. He says that these three horsemen will bring consequences: that God will not bless an unjust people, that oppression leads to the depression of the society and the economy, and that days of ignoring the needs of some will lead to the downfall of all. To Amos, the wake of these horsemen is deep and wide, and into the depression they leave can fall an entire nation and its economy.  Corruption, repression, and oppression lead to depression.

There are social and economic depressions. Some of us in this congregation grew up in the Great Depression, and know that struggle from childhood. All of us have experienced the collapse of 2007-2009 and are still finding our way into recovery. One might also say that the excesses of greed contributed to if not caused our more recent collapses, that those who may have been most responsible have paid the least, that we are suffering still because we lift up the rights of the one over the well being of the many. Oh, the horsemen fueled by greed wear different clothes and ride different steeds, but they ride through the centuries nevertheless, fueled by the eternal nature of human greed.

But not all depressions are social or economic. Sometimes they are psychological. We can be personally depressed. And this is the depression in the gospel of Mark, the depression of the rich young man in the story, the depression described as shock and grief in verse twenty-two.  We can be personally depressed when we sense the presence of those ancient horsemen riding through our own souls, when we realize that we are part of the problem both victim and perpetrator, when we become overwhelmed by our possessions and unable to let go of all the things that bind us, when the castle we build for ourselves turns out to be a prison, when we sense how our own appetites affect the world, people and creatures around us, and when all of the things of this world fall short of their promise of a happily ever after.

In Mark, a rich person is anyone who has their health, a dwelling, a few possessions and enough to eat. It is not the size of his fortune that dooms him this young man. It is the presence of the three horsemen of Amos riding through his heart as he senses for the first time that it is not enough to just behave. He must discover how his behaviors impact others and his own soul. He encounters his own corruption, his own inner repressions, and his own subtle oppression of those having less than he. And so he grieves, aware that he has been a good boy but has a long way to go to become a good man. His depression will only be lifted when he gives away that which binds him, when he lives his life to a different tune not quite yet heard, when he lets go of that which ties him down, when he surrenders himself to God. Only then he will know what it means to live richly and fully.

That path to wholeness again, for him and for all of us, whether we are talking about societies, economies, or the deepest recesses of the human spirit, will always involve two things.

The first is restitution. In Amos restitution may bring economic recovery. That restitution involves lifting the burdens imposed by those in power on the peasants and farmers of the land. In Mark this restitution involves giving things away. The giving away and the restoring of balance to economic life still act as an important step for a recovering society and soul.

But as important as this is, it is not enough. For the society broken by injustice can in the end only be healed by love and forgiveness.  We cannot simple give the poor food. We are called by God to eat with one another. And the soul tormented by its failure to grasp what matters will need not only acts of charity.  As Hebrews says today, the grieving soul can only be soothed by a God who is sympathetic to our weaknesses, failures, vulnerabilities and struggles, and a God who leads us down a gentle path of forgiveness. Once those horsemen have ridden through your life, it takes not only restitution but also the healing balm of Jesus to put things right. Regardless of where our world is or where we are in it, let us hold fast to that grace.

Sermon for October 7, 2012

Genesis 2:18-24, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16 

What does it mean to be human? What is it about us that is important? What matters about human existence? What does it mean to be human?

It may seem like a funny question, but it is one that always lies there in the back of our minds, sometimes coming to the surface as we think about our lives, what is important to us, and what kind of world we live in, as we take stock of ourselves and our situation.

Sometimes the question comes to the surface when we think about the lives of others, the lives of those who have lived before us, or the lives of human beings across the face of this planet. Sometimes we get this sense how so much seems to fly in the face of what humanity stands for. But what does it mean to be human?

I think these lessons, all of which have a creation theme to them, raise to the surface some of the things that are important for being human, being the human creatures we are. Certainly they do not provide an ultimate nor systematic answer to this question. There is nothing in these lessons about tools, symbols, and art. Nor is there much in these passages about foundational values like truth, justice compassion, or freedom: values we would lift us as an important part of who we are. Those sorts of things are found in other parts of the Bible. But embedded in these words are several basic principles for our lives as human creatures.

First, the human mind, spirit and experience all involve solitude and also relationship and community. Being alone is part of our experience. Solitude is valuable. And yet we need relationships, close relationships and community in order to thrive. In its ancient poetry, the Genesis lesson reminds us that we need not only relationships; we need close relationships in order to be who we are; flesh of our flesh, bones of our bones.

Second, these ancient words say that the spirit, mind, and experience of humanity may involve special relationships that are deep enough to sustain not only individuals but human societies. Households, families, and kin are the foundation of the society we hold dear as humans and make human life possible.

Third, being human involves relating to the planet and all other creatures. Genesis, Hebrews, and Mark were written at times when naming and dominion shaped this relationship between humans and creatures. But in our time, we find ourselves naming a different reality as we face the challenges of sustaining our natural blessings. Today, in a different way, all creation is passing before us. The necessity for preservation now is more important than dominion or domination.

Fourth, The human way is shaped by a concern for women and children. In Mark, the question of divorce is a question of what happens to women. Can they just be abandoned? And what about children? Do they matter in this Roman Empire in which the imperial ethic says that an unwanted child can be discarded? No, women and children matter in the human experience. We know that in all villages, humans thrive when women and children are valued and cared for.

Fifth, as we live as humans, we learn that the human spirit is sometimes broken. It is marked by failure, struggle, shortcomings, and something we might call sin. There is brokenness in our relationships, households, families, villages, communities, and polis. The brokenness leads to pain that must be taken seriously. In Mark, things like divorce really hurt all those involved.  Our world is always filled with Pharisees asking testing questions. Hebrews indicates that suffering is a part of the human experience; and since Jesus is human, he undergoes suffering.

Sixth, sometimes being human feels like being caught between heaven and hell, betwixt and between, somewhere between angels and the rest of creation. This sense is caught in the poem from Hebrews. We can be so good. And we can be so bad. And most of the time we are somewhere in between. Often it feels like we are God’s middle management on earth. At other times it feels like our better nature and our worst passions are all mixed together for outcomes we do not fully understand. Sometimes we are plagued with deep inner struggles with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.

Finally, part of the human experience is recovery and renewal. We do make it through our brokenness. We are redeemed, restored, know salvation, are renewed, and experience recovery. In Hebrews this is the gift of Jesus, the great restorer.

Today’s lessons speak of the human experience: (1) solitude, relationship and community, (2) strong relationships upon which society can be constructed, (3) renewing our relationship with creation and all creatures, (4) lifting up the concern for women and children in human life, (5) facing brokenness and suffering, (6) finding ourselves caught in the middle of things, and yet (7) feeling the forces of renewal and recovery as we discover a God who regards us highly. All this is what it means to be human.

What does it mean to be human? Or as Hebrews says: What are human beings that God is mindful of them? What are mortals that God cares for them?  This care of God is manifest in solitude, relationships, community, close ties that bind, creation, women and children, brokenness and suffering, recovery and renewal. That is who we are.