Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hiding in Plan Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight. Sunday, December 13, 2009. Luke 3: 7-18

I have been eating crow this week. First, in the sermon on Sunday, December 6th, I stated that the band, U2, was from Scotland, intending to say Ireland. Second, the Pittsburg Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. My sister-in-law, an avid Browns fan, wrote me this poem,
"We celebrate the Cleveland Browns today,
For they took the Steeler's playoff chance away.
The Steelers seemd to have lost their nerve,
And the Browns, for a change, demonstrated their verve.
Last night the tide seemed to turn,
For the time had come for the Steelers to get burned.
The Browns' defense sure did their thing,
And Big Ben found out he was no longer the King.
Because none of his receivers could ever be found,
He spent most of his time lying on the cold ground.
Brady was good and Cribbs was great,
Two facts that are not even up for debate.
So the stairway to Seven has come to an end,
And the next year you'll have no title to defend.
I know that we say this every year,
But next year the Browns might be something to fear."

The term repent is not in common usage on the street. Eating crow is a phrase that is more recognizable. Let us say, John the Baptist is calling us to "eat crow." Admit our errors and ammend our ways that lead us to false hope.

Unlike the Gospel of Mark where John the Baptist challenges the religious leaders, the Gospel of Luke has John the Baptist challenge the entire crowd. He states, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Then, he challenges them, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance." (NRSV) Like poinsonous serpents fleeing from a brush fire, the people are running away from the wrath of God. This running away from the wrath of God is a self-righteous resistance to repentance.

While speaking to the crowds, John's call is also to their leaders. There are times when in parish ministry I make the claim, "Am I running a nursery school?" Then, I must ask myself, "What is it about my leadership that enables that to happen?" The crowds are like sheep without a shepherd. They are devoid of any ethical sincerity. Instead, they are relying on their false illusions of innocence and trusting in their lineage. Confronted, they ask, "What should we do?" John's responses are not difficult, nor are they sufficient for all situations. They do however, indicate that these choices to act come from a change of heart. Only hearts that are affected by the Word of God are open to do what God expects leads to ammendment of life. Ammendment of life comes from the proclamation of the Word of God.

Lutherans have a difficult time with the Gospel of Luke. First, Luke does not have a theology of the cross. Second, there is a call to good works in Luke. This challenges the traditional Lutheran theology of salvation through the cross of Christ, and that the grace of God, not works, saves us.

Salvation is still present in the Gospel of Luke. John is the old chapter in a long salvation history. Salvation history does not begin at this pivotal moment, but a new chapter of salvation opens up in the time from John to Jesus. This change is indicated in Luke. With John the Baptist, the crowd is asking, "What should we do?" They are at a loss for the next step. This same concern happens in Acts 2. People, cut to the heart by the Word of God, ask about the next step. Yet, when we get to Acts 4, we read "Now the whold group of those who believed were of hone heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." (NRSV) Something changed, that the people now knew what to do.

Professor Greg Carey, in his book "Sinners: Jesus And His Earliest Followers" (Baylor University Press, 2009), reminds us that in Luke, Jesus does not confront sinners. He is accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners and of being a glutton and crunkard. Jesus does not rebuke people for their sins, but there is an ammendment in the lives of the sinner. It is the presence of that which is good, Jesus, and his spirit, that leads to the transformation of the human heart. As Professor Carey states, "His salvation [Referring to a young man named Brian in an illustraion] came not through the condemnation of his behavior...It came through blessing, the acceptance of his presence regardless of his history." The presence of the goodness of God in Jesus and his Spirit transforms human lives.

It is worthy pointing out public rebuke by Jesus is aimed at those who are self-righteous and reject the possibility of their sinfulness, thus rejecting the power of the goodness of God.

A heart transformed by the presence of the goodness of God shows genuine goodness to others. John's answers to the crowd do not give answers to all the questions of life, but they do challenge us to ask, in other situations in life,"How am I showing genuine goodness to others?" Out of this text from Luke, we can draw themes that help us address a current challenge in our country, that of health care.

Assistance. What then should we do? To the crowd, John tells those with two coats, to share one of those coats with a person who does not have that outer garment. This challenges an assumption humans make. I am tempted to believe that all my possessions are necessary for my survival. I then can conclude that someone else is responsibile to do the work to help and cough up the money needed to help people in need. Dr.'s Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman state in their book, "How God Changes Your Brain," (Ballantine Books, 2009) that human beings have a neurological and biological propensity to act in hostile ways. When we perceive that our survival is in jeoprady, we lash out. In the debate on health care, we make the debate about our own survival, engaging in hostile resistance to what is required of us, and conclude the responsibility belongs to another. Yet, goodness tells us that this nation has the wealth to address the health care dilemma.

Honesty. To the tax collectors, John teaches the need for honesty in their work. This is a challenge to the actions of tax collectors in Jesus' day. Tax collectors could not be trusted. In our time, we make the same claim about politicians. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, in their book, "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track," (Oxford University Press, 2006) write, "In recent years a number of factors--the two parties at parity and ideologically polarized, a populist attack on Congress that has weakened its institutional self-defenses, a more partisan press and interest group alignment, and an electoral environment making legislative activity subordinate to the interests of the permanent campaign--have conspired to encourage a decline in congressional deliberation and a de facto delegation of authority and influence to the president." The health care issue calls for significant debate that sees the issue beyond the need to provide insurance and find a way to pay for the insurance, but to address systemic failures that restrict accessibility of health care to many. Unfortunately, we draw our conclusion that the characters of politicians is not trustworthy, instead of naming many of their actions as untrustworthy. Then, we conclude, there is no hope amidst the political realm. Yet, goodness tells us that the human heart can be transformed, and a genuine concern for the welfare of others can be inspired.

Equity. John challenged the soldiers to be satisfied with their wages, and not to engage in acts of fear and threats of risk to supplement their incomes. Currently in our country, the issue of homelessness is addressed by not-for-profit corporations. Likewise, we see feeding programs, and even adoptions handled in the same way. Housing, feeding, parenting skills are within the capacity of most people. The field of medicine requires a trained and professional class. This limits accessibility. With limited accessibility comes the potential for profit. Highly trained professionals are paid more than a person with "common skills." Limited access to prescription medication increases demand and generates income for drug manufacturers. With an increase in professionalization comes an increase in the possibility for malpractice, thus litigators weigh in. Fear of not receiving needed health care and risks associated with that fear lead people to invest with health insurance companies. Equity challenges the professionals to be satisfied with a reasonable wage. This equitable satisfaction creates the possibilities for resources to reallocated.

The goodness of God brings about a transformation of the heart. Changed hearts bring about a genuine concern for the well-being of others. The solution to significant ethical issues in our culture may seem to be a hidden blessing. But, the Word of God and its transformative power tells us that what is required of us is hidden in plain sight.

Monday, December 7, 2009

There Is More Beyond

There Is More Beyond. Sunday, December 6, 2009

The preaching text for this sermon is Luke 3: 1-6.

Luke gives us a prologue which includes kings, governors, tetrarchs, and high priests. Through this prologue, we are given a time and place. In that time and place, we read, "The Word of God happened to John the Baptist."

While it was beleived that God came to be among creation, rabbis were concerned that God may be identified with earthly leaders and powers. God was given a high station, known as heaven for a residence. While heaven was God's throne, earth was the footstool. God still remained active and present in the world. Distance from God was created by human acts of sin. These unrighteous acts brought about a divide between God and God's people. As God comes to be among the people, God's presence judges the people and calls for their repentance.

Luke quotes from Isaiah 40 in this text. The pattern followed in Isaiah is that God speaks to the prophet, and the prophet speaks to the people. The section that is quoted by Luke is God's direct statement to Isaiah. John now speaks that word in his time and place. God comes to be among the people, his presence judges the people, calls for their repentance, and brings about salvation. In that moment of God happening to the world, God brings salvation.

We are haunted by the statement, "for now." These simple words convey a tentative and short-lived safety. Instead of hope, we await the in-breaking of failure, tragedy, gut-wrenching news. This tyranny of fear lords itself over our lives. In the moment of "for now" the weight of brokenness is upon us.

Contrary to expectations, the current Christian understanding of heaven may not liberate us from the tyranny of fear. Ben Witherington, III in his book Imminent Domain: The Story of the Kingdom of God and Its Celebration (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) states that there has been "the loss of a viable hope for the future of the world and replacement of it with a dying and going to heaven sort of hope." The vision of enduring now and going to heaven where there is no pain, fear, or dying encourages a passivity in this life. Traits of Christian character such as humility and meekness have become justifications for the current passivity of "the loss of a viable hope."

With the prophet Isaiah, the reign of God broke into a time when God's people were under the burden of judgment and punishment for their sins. As the reign of God broke into their lives, through repentance of their sins, salvation was offered to all who were repentant. With John the Baptist, the reign of God is announced once again. God's people, under the rule of the Roman Empire, are under the burden of judgment and punishment for their sins. John announces the breaking in of the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. Salvation is offered to all who are repentant. The Word of God breaks into our moments and places where we are under the burden of brokeness. For all who are repentant, salvation comes to us with the in-breaking of the reign of God and the promise of the coming kingdom of God.

Heaven breaks into our lives now, with the promise of completion at the end of time. We live now with the boldness of hope, and the promise of the re-creation of the whole world. Already, but not yet. This gives us the courage to confess our sins, promises us salvation, transforms our hearts and minds, and empowers us to live in this day with the hope of what is yet to come.

Expecting God: Getting the Church

Expecting God: Getting the Church. Sunday, November 29, 2009.

The title is from a paraphrase of the French scholar Alfred Loisy by Ben Witherington, III in his book Imminent Domain: The Story of the Kingdom of God and Its Celebration (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009)

As we begin the church year with the season of Advent, we are centering ourselves on the kingdom of God.

I used three statements that Professor Gregg A. Ten Elshof puts before his students. These statements were outlined in his book, i told me so: self deception and the christian life.
(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009)
1. I have lots and lots and LOTS of beliefs. These beliefs can be simple statements of math or history. Or they can be more complex statements concerning human life.
2. I believe that some of my beliefs are false. I can be convinced that my car is parked in section F of the Pittsburgh International Airport, only to find that the car is in secion L. We don't know beliefs are false until they are tested.
3. It's fairly likely that I don't believe all of the things I think I believe. This is the arena for self-deception, states Ten Elshof. The statement is illustated in the inconsistency between what we claim we beleive and what we say and do.

I applied deception to the area of belief. To make a claim about belief is to claim to believe in something. In our culture of commonly held values, belief can be seen as a commonly held value. Believing is not seen as trust in something or someone, but a statement of morale. With the statement of morale, in the face of adversity, we claim we believe to strengthen ourselves. Yet, we may never finish the statement. As a result, we may think we believe in an ultimate power to sustain us, when instead, we are motivating ourselves with a positive thought. We deceive ourselves that we are believers.

Christians are called to believe in something. We are called to believe in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God breaks into the world and reveals to us God's salvation. God's salvatation is a new way of living.

The sermon series on the kingdom of God, then will focus on three areas as outlined by Witherinton in the book mentioned above:
1. God desires that all persons be saved. This can challenge commonly held convictions of heaven;
2. God desires that all be conformed to the image of Jesus' character;
3. God desires that all become their best selves.

Each of these three areas will be explored in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th weeks of Advent.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Confident in Uncertain Times

The sermon on Sunday, November 15th, 2009 was titled "Confident in Uncertain Times." The preaching text was from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

In the beginning verses of Mark 13, we hear Jesus speak to his disciples concerning the end times. Jesus mentions the destruction of the temple; wars and rumors of wars; nation rising against nation; earthquake; and famine. All of these signs were actual historical events. When the Roman emporer, Nero, committed suicide, a civil war broke out in the empire. Within the span of a year, three emporers were killed. With civil war, Rome's enemies sought to take advantage of the weakness and brought attacks from the borders. Earthquakes shook much of what we now know as Italy. Famine brought scarcity of resources to the people. Rebellion broke out in Israel, leading to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

God's people believed God to be just--those who were righteous were to be blessed and those who were wicked to be condemned. Among God's people, however, the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered. God was called unjust or announced to be silent. To speak to this dilemma of the justice of God, the theology of God's people took a temporal shift. At a given moment, it may appear that God is not just, but a time will come when God's justice will be established. This was known as the Day of the Lord. God's people yearned for the time when the will of God would be established. The fervor for the Day of the Lord is the root of apocalypticism.

Mark's congregation was an apocalyptic community. Having heard the announcement, "the kingdom of God has come near," they lived in anticipation of the Day of the Lord. Drawing on images from Daniel, historical events, such as those mentioned above, were interpreted as signs of the coming of the Day of the Lord. As they witnessed the wars, the earthquakes, the famine, and anticpated the fall of the temple, they concluded that the end was immediate. This frenzy of immediacy led them to place their trust in leaders who manifested power, spoke with great wisdom, or rallied the people. All these leaders made promises of glory to those who would follow them. Mark, in using the teaching of Jesus concerning the end times, calls his people back to the cross of Christ. This is his theology of the cross over against the theology of glory.

The temple, temple worship, and the temple cult will be obsolete, Mark teaches. The potential and promise of the "large stones" of trust will collapse. The new community of faith will be founded on Jesus Christ. Mark calls his people back to the cross of Christ and to place their faith in him.

Human beings have animal traits. When in need, we seek immediate gratification for those needs. Contentment is the satisfaction we find as the needs are being met. Gluttony is the result of having an over-abundance of resources to meet those needs. As with Mark's church, we can easily seek to fill ourselves with what lies at hand...feeding upon the quick and easy satisfaction.

Hope is not about immediate satisfaction. Hope is the trust in the future, not yet in our hands. The future is revealed to us by looking backward. Our foundation is in looking back to the cross of Christ. In looking at the cross, the future is revealed.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Too Large To Do What Is Right

On Sunday, September 27, 2009, I preached a sermon titled "Too Large To Do What Is Right." In that sermon, I spoke of the difference between policy and tactic. Policy is a statement related to how decisions are to be reached. Policy is broad brush and seeks to address every situation that arises in a similar manner. Tactic is the engagement of each situation with intentionality and thought to determine the outcome. Tactic requires an investment of thought and time.

Christian decision making is not as easy as saying, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Christian decision making requires a process of discernment. Each situation is intentionally addressed. Christian decision making requires time.

I raised concern about structures of organizations that are limited in the amount of time available for decision making. The structures are typically large structures, with many employees and many constituents. In lieu of room for tact, these structures are obliged to decide via policy.

I gave the example of Zero Tolerance Policies. In education, a 1st grade child who accidentally picks up a butter knife with his school books on the way out the door is held to the same consquences as a 16 year old who takes a hunting knife to school intending harm to another student. Fred Craddock, preaching at the Chautauqua Institute, claimed that Zero Tolerance Policies were morally and ethically lazy. Policies can become lazy if they do not demand thought and time for decision making.

As Christians, we are in the world, but not of the world. Time is a gift for the believer. Our faith leads us to conclude that we are not "running out of time." All around us may crumble and fall, but that is not the end. We await the fullness of the kingdom of God.

In anticipation of the kingdom of God, we are called to be a discerning people. First, this involves the need for intentional, difficult decision making. Second, we must attend to what we hear from large institutions to determine if their promises are good for us. Third, while personal responsibility is necessary in ethics, their is also communal responsibility for large institutions.

This sermon concluded our series on forgiveness.