Sunday, September 25, 2016

Forgiveness is power: The story of Joseph and his brothers

Genesis 50:15-21

Power. The story of Joseph comes down to power. You may remember this story from Sunday School or from watching Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at some point along the way; it’s familiar but in case the details are fuzzy I’m going to run through them quick. Israel, whose original name was Jacob, had twelve sons. Now, Jacob was married to both Leah and Rachel at the same time because of some trickery done by his father-in-law and uncle, Laban. By the way, this is one of the reasons to be skeptical of anybody who says there is one singular biblical definition of marriage, because marriage in this time was wacky. Jacob has two wives and at least two mistresses and nothing was the bother with it.
Of Jacob’s twelve sons, the first four were from Leah; the next two with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah; the next two were with Leah’s maid, Zilpah; the next two were again with Leah; and then there was one daughter with Leah as well. Then, in Genesis 30:22-24 it says, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’” Some time later, Benjamin is born to Rachel and we have our twelve tribes of Israel—a hodgepodge of mothers, a strange accumulation of brothers—and, as usual, God elects one we would not expect to rule over the others.
There’s a long scriptural tradition of choosing the unexpected one, so maybe it’s not as unexpected after all. Joseph was the second-youngest, the child of Israel’s old age. But Joseph was the first son of Rachel, the one wife Israel loved most. We’re told that Joseph was destined for great things and had the dreams of one whom God favored. But this is not how power was established in those days. The eldest had the claim to the inheritance. Israel knew this; after all, it was he who stole the birthright and the inheritance from his older twin brother, Esau. To all rights Reuben, the eldest son, should have been the blessed one here, but Israel held a special place for Rachel, the wife he had always wanted first of all, and so it is Joseph who is chosen and set apart.
Now, that’s a lot of names to keep straight if this story isn’t particularly familiar to you. Suffice it to say, Joseph was 11th of 12, but in his father’s eyes he was greatest of all. So we come to this story. And power. It came down to power.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Abraham; God's capacity to make something from nothing

Genesis 15:1-6, 17:1-8, 15-22

God does things with extraordinary people—you know this. He takes Abram and makes him ABRAHAM! He takes Saul and makes him PAUL! He takes Moses and makes him MOSES! I like that last one most of all because that’s me. I mean, like Sarah, my name change could be more subtle—you know, changing that last letter in your name but not really changing the pronunciation—like FRANQ! Of course, the names have more to do with ancient meanings we mostly don’t understand today. For example, Abraham means “father of many” in Hebrew. Paul means “humble” in Latin, which was such a big change precisely because Saul had been quite the opposite of humble.
            The point here is that Abraham is so great because God made him so. Same with Paul. Same with Moses—who never changed his name, I’m just messing with you. All these guys just had the fortune (or misfortune) of having God show up and meet them face-to-face. This is the only difference between you and me and Abraham; he had God show up at his door. And he did what most human beings do when confronted with God: He laughed. It’s not that “O-M-G. Wow. I can’t believe it’s you” laugh either. It’s honest to goodness, you’ve got to be kidding me, I DO NOT BELIEVE YOU laughing. Same with Sarah. They are pretty sure that God is out of the freakin’ divine mind here.
            You see, in spite of having a song about him now Abram was not so different from you or me. He spent one hundred years of his life doing nothing of importance. Well, I mean that’s maybe not fair. Perhaps he was the homecoming king, maybe he was a really fast runner, maybe he could grow a mean fig tree, but history was going to forget him. He was did nothing we would remember for 100 years. We can probably relate to that. By all odds Abraham should have died a nobody. The fact that Abraham was around at all by the time God came calling was something of a miracle. The idea that he and Sarah could have a child? Ridiculous.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Breaking Promises, Building Relationships

Genesis 2.4b-9, 15-17, 3:1-8

            It begins with shame. Have you ever noticed that? The first thing that happens to Adam and Eve after eating the fruit from the tree is that they become ashamed. Their nakedness becomes something needing to be covered. Shame is a powerful thing. It’s one of the most powerful things. It’s so powerful that the fear of being outed as a fraud or being considered anything less than an upstanding citizen tends to exceed the judgment of actually being as bad as you imagine you might be. We are paralyzed by shame, afraid of what the neighbors are thinking; afraid to live in our own skin—private, too private--and our relationships suffer because of it.
            Shame is the harbor of gossip; it’s the dark cave that you live in even as you pretend your life is spent in the light. Shame is powerful. And shame shatters promises and kills relationships—with others, in your work, and even with yourself. Shame is the thing that begs us to put on fancy clothes and to not let anyone—even those closest to us—know us on anything other than the surface level. To risk more than that is terrifying.
            The church is rightly criticized for its hypocrisy on the topic of shame. The church will forever be filled with people who are not perfect—this is fine. You aren’t perfect people. The problem comes when the church is the safe harbor for the same kinds of practices that break promises and shatter relationships everywhere else in the world. The church needs to be the place where all those broken promises are strengthened by one another.
           This is the interconnected web of relationships in which we live and it is built on the foundation of trust with one another. This comes about by being honest with one another, by sharing our experiences and our stories, by not imagining the worst of one another but by sharing our misgivings openly and honestly and explaining the actions of others in the kindest ways. In short, trust comes through vulnerability, and vulnerability is the path out of shame. It’s actually the only way out. If you imagine what is the opposite of shame you might think of honor or glory—this is true—but the path out of shame is paved with vulnerability. You can’t walk from point A to point B without taking that road. And being vulnerable with one another is the only way to have authentic relationships.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Prayer makes us uncomfortable, and that's why we need it.

Luke 11:2-4

Do not bring us to the time of trial
            Deliver us not into temptation… do not bring us into the time of trial… I don’t know about you but to me those sound like very different things. Before this week I’m not sure I ever thought about the difference between those two versions of the Lord’s Prayer and I never really even considered the reasons why they exist. I mean, sometimes we assume that new things in the church—like, for example, versions of the Lord’s Prayer—are for cultural reasons when, in fact, it has everything to do with debates around what the Bible says. I’m guessing most of you probably prefer the temptation version because it is the version we pray here every Sunday, but rest assured that you could also say “save us from the time of trial” without feeling as though you are selling Jesus short, because both translations are grasping at the meaning of one Greek word.
But before we get to that I want to quickly talk about the “time of trial.” For me, when I hear that phrase the religious sphere of my brain kicks in and I think, “Oh, Jesus must be talking about judgment and eternal salvation—those kinds of things.” But, here, that’s not the case, because the Greek word Jesus speaks is πειρασμς (peirasmós), which means “to put to proof by experiment” (in other words, to “try” as in “trial”) and it also means “temptation.” Again, those seem like two different things—trials and temptations. So, in order to understand this word you might have to imagine a temptation as a test between two things—one right and one wrong—and the trial is the decision of which one to choose.
            But here’s where this gets interesting, because the trial and temptation language highlights something about what it is that Jesus is having us pray; namely, Jesus is telling us to pray to take choices away from us. The prayer is not “lead us through temptation” or “keep us from giving in to temptation” but instead “do not lead us into temptation” at all, which is subtly, but importantly, different. Jesus implies that we need prayer not to summon enough self-control to overcome something but instead we need prayer to keep us away from that situation completely. We need to pray that Jesus removes temptation, because we are not as strong as we think we are. The things that truly tempt us function like depression or anxiety or PTSD to a person with mental health problems. These are things that seem on the surface like they can be controlled if only a person can internally muster enough courage and willpower to overcome them, but the truth is that none of those, or anything that truly tempts us, can be defeated by strength or willpower. We aren’t strong enough; we just pretend we are. We triumph over things that didn’t actually tempt us very much. It’s like the man who is alone on a desert island for years and proudly proclaims, upon being saved, that he didn’t cheat or steal or commit adultery once in those years. For some, that’s what it takes.
So, we are told to pray for total removal from those situations—for a safe space from ourselves.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

You are not enough (no matter what the advertisers tell ya)

Luke 11:2-4

Forgive Us Our Sins
What does this mean?
In the small catechism, Martin Luther says, “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account, for we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we sin daily and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.”
See, I don’t think we actually believe that. It doesn’t matter how often we recite Paul in Ephesians 2:8, saying “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” I don’t think it matters how often we say that, because the rest of your life you are inundated with other conflicting messages that are much more attractive than that one. So I really don’t think any of us are good enough to truly believe it. Instead of messages of grace we’re told: You are enough … You deserve it! … God will bless you because of your faithfulness.
These messages can be found in everything from advertisements to memes and viral messages on social media to old-fashioned Bible commentaries and commentators on the TV, and they sound so dang attractive and they resonate with us so deeply that we end up trying to believe both what the Bible says and what our culture says at the same time. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith… but also I am enough! Yes, it’s not my own doing but it is the gift of God… but also I deserve it! We believe these things even though they are contradictory and, at the end of the day, the one that will win out is the one that I can control and feel good about, which is the idea that the solution to the world lies in me; that I am enough; that I am what the world needs. We might believe that grace stuff in the religious sphere of our lives but that sphere doesn’t hold a candle to what we are inundated with between Sundays.
Because of this cultural battle unfolding inside of us our pleas for forgiveness become prayers for partial forgiveness: Lord, forgive me my sins—you know, those one or two things keeping me from being completely and wholly awesome.
See, here’s the real problem with asking for only partial forgiveness: It’s weak and it treats religion like the fix for an otherwise pretty-good you. I mean, if I’m partially good and partially bad, then it stands to reason I could just become a better person—perhaps little by little. Then, I might begin to believe that I need that forgiveness less immediately than that other person down the street—you know, that real sinner. Once we enter into the world of comparison—both with others and even with ourselves—faith no longer becomes a life or death matter. Then it’s basically over—we can pack up the church, go home, and let McDonald’s and Victoria’s Secret do the evangelism.
Forgiveness is so central to our faith that any softening of it risks throwing out the baby Jesus with the bathwater.
But this is a difficult thing to preach because it’s so counter-cultural; it’s literally saying the exact opposite of what the TV advertisers know will get you to buy things. No weight loss commercial is going to tell you that you are 100% sinner and 100% saint. They’re going to talk about controlling that sinner and making you more of a saint, and you’ll believe them, even though more often than not their claims will leave you disappointed. The sad truth is that most preaching is less believable than marketing, even though marketing puts an unrealistic best light on things that rarely matches up to reality. Yes, go buy that $200 metal bar to attach above your door and pretty soon you’ll be rocking a six-pack full of abs… and your complexion will probably improve too, don’t ask why… It’s still easier to believe that than the promise that by grace you have been saved because radical grace means a tacit acceptance of something about yourself that you are super scared of admitting. (You know what it is?) You aren’t enough. You are NOT enough.
            You’re dirty, rotten sinners who need a big, fat Jesus to take away your sins, and you are desperately—DESPERATELY—in need of confessing your inadequacy to yourself and receiving a real awareness of your forgiveness.
            See, you might think the way to unite the world is to inspire all people to let out their inner goodness, to inspire people to be who they were created to be, and you may feel that this is the key to an egalitarian, peaceful society, but let’s be honest: This is make-believe. Conservatives and liberals, you both have your make-believe. Conservatives have their make-believe that everybody has an equal footing if we just remove the government from their lives. Well, liberals also have their make-believe that the secret to a better world is lifting people up and making them better. Both have a grain of truth; both fall into the same category as advertisements that get you to react according to your baser desirers.
Have I offended everybody yet? I mean, isn’t this the perfect day in the park for getting offended?
            I’m sorry, but grace is offensive.
            Grace means that all receive the same reward, like the workers in Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Not only does everybody receive the same wage—those who worked all day and those who worked just a few minutes—but, if that’s not enough, Jesus goes out of his way to make sure we know that everybody else knows exactly how blatantly unfair it is. Everybody will know what everyone else gets, which is precisely enough. We don’t trust true forgiveness because it’s not fair, because we don’t trust other people, and we also don’t trust ourselves—though we may not be self-aware enough to realize it.
            Grace is offensive because it is for the worst of all sinners, and the worst of all sinners is always ME. There is no other, because when I start to consider who may be worse than me I prove that by the very act of comparing myself with them I am worse. I am 100% sinner; not 50; not even 99. 100%.
            Grace is offensive and counter-cultural and forgiveness is all we have. So, today, as we sit out in the beauty of God’s creation the reason I preach this message (and not something fluffier) because it is also the only message that frees us. We receive grace not by virtue of our trying but by virtue of our letting go—letting go of the messages that tell us we need to be better, that we are enough, and that we could be so much more. No, you aren’t enough because you are dead without grace. But with grace? Oh, that’s a different story.
You are saved by grace through faith; not through confession and forgiveness; but forgiveness is where the realization of that salvation happens. And you simply cannot know forgiveness without being punched in the gut by grace. Accept who you are—a sinner saved by grace. I’m not sure how strongly you’ll believe it—what with this world full of more attractive messages begging for your attention—but it will change you if you do.
You are saved by grace. Forgiven. Free.
That’s something I can get behind on a beautiful day at Lake Bronson.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Our daily bread

Luke 11:2-4

Give us each day our daily bread.
The nice thing about preaching on the Lord’s Prayer is that when you’re lost, and maybe writing some stuff down on Saturday… evening… after dinner... there’s this guy named Martin Luther who wrote on this topic and he put it in an easy-to-find location right in the Small Catechism, which I can pull up on my smart phone on Augsburg Fortress’s new Small Catechism app (available for download for Android and possibly iPhone, I’m not sure, I’m not a very good advertiser).
Anyway, when I want to know about the Lord’s Prayer I just open up the app, click on “Lord’s Prayer” and, today, we’ll scroll down to the Fourth Petition, “Give us today our daily bread.” What does this mean? Oh, good, exactly what I wanted to know! “In fact, God gives daily bread without prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.” What then does “daily bread” mean? Good, I was wondering that one, too! “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”
Wow. OK, so that’s a really good starting point. Daily bread isn’t limited to communion or food or even things related exclusively to physical well-being; it is anything we need to live our lives in all of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. Daily bread is everything from the air we breath, to the water we drink, to the earth and its habitats, to the paycheck we receive, to the relationships we have and the governments and various systems that support us. Asking for daily bread is asking for quite a lot.
The one part of Luther’s explanation that I really like is the bit where it says “we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.” See, it’s not enough to get good things; it’s critical that we have to wisdom to acknowledge these gifts and to understand from whom they come. It’s one thing to catch a fish; it’s quite another to understand that that fish, no matter how adept my angling of it, is not my fish. I didn’t create it; I didn’t earn it. It comes as a gift.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Forget the big solutions, try little acts of love

It’s election season… yay? The time when we disenfranchise one another with our Facebook posts. The time when everybody knows what is right and what our country needs. The time when I see more self-centered, all-knowing, blathering than at any other time. The time when everybody is looking for a big solution.
            I don’t care if the big solution you are convinced will solve the world’s problems is one associated with conservativism or liberalism—e.g. whether your big solution is immigration reform, universal healthcare, ending legalized abortion, or ending the war on drugs—all of these solutions are given more importance this time of year than they should, because this is the time of our lives when we are fed a constant stream of negativity about how this or that is going to end our lives or save them. Policies don’t save us; Jesus does.
            In fact, no big solution has yet to make us more righteous. I suppose it would be one thing if there really was a war going on between good people and evil people, but that’s just not the case. There are well-meaning, devoted, faithful people who take a variety of stances on the “big solutions” for a variety of good reasons. This means that no matter what happens in November we will sit down at coffee tables, chat on bar stools, and share a bleacher at sporting events with people who think the world is going to hell alongside those who think the world has finally gotten its act together. Either way we are divided.
            Our identity as Christians is in Christ; not in party allegiance. That should be so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said and, yet, here we are, because I think too many people get that completely backwards. When we buy into party politics we allow the big solutions to frame our lives, urging us to spend more time and energy explaining to others how wrong they are, suggesting that the only way to make a difference in the world is to advocate one particular ideology, when the Gospel is calling us to something different: Little acts of kindness and love. You should vote, absolutely, and you should do so based on your faith and values, but your vote shouldn’t be the primary way of identifying yourself as Christian. That should be evident from all the little ways you care for others in your day-to-day life. Then, you will be reminded that your vote will not make you righteous and votes contrary to yours should not make you angry, because we are all in this together, struggling as Christians to find the best way to love one another.
            The only way we can prove that is in those little acts of love; those surprising moments of joy and those little lights we spark in the darkness. The only big solution that matters is God’s plan for creation—God’s telos, to use a beautiful Greek word that you should all become familiar with—God’s ultimate objective. God does big solutions; we aren’t qualified. The best we can do is make our little actions count.