Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Gathering: There's Grace for that, and hope for what comes next

1 John 1:5-10, 2:1-6

            “My little children,” writes John, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
            My honest first thought reading that verse? “Good luck with that, John!” The one constant in the universe is sin. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better; we really should—and do. I just spent a week with a bunch of high-schoolers and, let me tell you, we do our darndest to provide the boundaries they need to not do anything particularly stupid while we are in charge of them. We do this because we care for them, because we believe that on their own they will sometimes make poor choices, and, also, because we like not being sued. But, at the end of the day, all we are really doing is forcing them within boundaries to keep them safe. They aren’t choosing of their own free will not to sin; we just try to keep it from them. Given true freedom we know what they might do, and we also know that they will eventually spread their wings and, like Icarus, they may very well crash and burn. I think that’s called college.
            On the 3rd night of the Gathering we heard from Pr. Will Starkweather, who talked about his experience with cutting himself, starting in high school. This was one of many speakers who spoke on difficult, challenging subjects that directly impact the lives of our young people. Will talked about the first time he was honest with a spiritual leader about his problems, and the pastor told him four words: “You are going to hell.”
            That is the law, friends. That is where that first verse in 1 John 2 seems to be leading us. Don’t sin. Or else. I’ve heard this kind of self-righteous blathering from pastors before. I’ve heard pastors who get up at funerals and talk about how the person who died might have been saved if only he had done X, Y, or Z—if only he had been a better person, if only she had been a better follower of Jesus; if only they would have chosen to follow. I’ve heard this stuff before.
            Miraculously, Will came back to the church—a different church, obviously, because if you go to a pastor with a spiritual problem and he tells you you’re going to hell, then you find a new pastor—and Will eventually confided in a second pastor. You can imagine the anxiety this would induce in a person who was already suffering for something whose root cause ran parallel to anxiety. He went to his pastor, shared his story, and she responded with four different words, “There’s grace for that.” Four words that changed everything.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Coveting, boundaries, and why we can't do it without Jesus

            Boundaries… when I read the commandments about coveting I think about boundaries. These commandments are so vital, because obviously none of us can come away from them feeling justified. All of us covet things—we all want things we can’t have. Often these are silly little desires, easily forgotten, but sometimes these things gnaw away at us, and other times they wreck us completely.
            There are a lot of tricks to deal with coveting, which runs hand-in-hand with addiction. Some of these methods are good: prayer, meditation, service, and accountability groups to name a few. But, at the end of the day, you have to figure out a way to erect healthy boundaries between you and the thing you are coveting or you will fail, every single time.
            I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people tell me they just need to be strong, just need to get through this rough stretch, just need to work harder. Inevitably, they come back feeling like a failure. The heart is not so easily conquered by our willpower. You can’t combat your deepest, darkest desires on your own. You just can’t. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty of people try.
            Coveting is so insidious, because it makes us make all sorts of excuses about a thing. It’s that little devil on our shoulder telling us exactly what we want to hear. It’s not about the truth, because the truth is that road leads only to more pain and suffering down the road, but it feels like the truth. More than that, it feels good.
            However, the commandment doesn’t just tell us not to follow through on our coveting; it tells us not to covet in the first place. A person can take this two ways: 1. It can feel like an impossible burden, because how do you stop the coveting before it happens? Or 2. It can feel like an incredible relief, because it forces us to look for the thing that will actually save us from these feelings that are completely out of our control.
            It’s about boundaries.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The fulfillment of the law

Exodus 20:12-16

            There were a few things going on this week, so I suppose I (and you, too) could be excused if we weren’t paying much attention to the news. But I was paying enough attention to note, as many of you probably did, that our U.S. Attorney General made a foray into theology, which turned out about as well as these things typically do when people try to use the Bible as a weapon for their own ends.
            Most of the time, issues like these pass in the news cycle and it’s not worth a comment; not because it isn’t important, but because it’s hard to be nuanced enough to talk about politics without everybody slipping into their lanes. But today, as luck (or misfortune) would have it, the scripture for the day just so happens to be right in the same vein as the one in the news. Today, we talk about the law as it relates to our relationship with one another, which means I have to pick a bone with Mr. Sessions.
            First, I feel compelled to say that it’s tricky business talking about the law at all. For very good reason, we-Christians like to focus for the Gospel; after all, it is the uniquely amazing thing about being a follower of Jesus—it is the good news!
Nevertheless, if you remember picking up the Small Catechism in Confirmation you might recall a good portion of it has to do with the law and, specifically, the Ten Commandments. Luther, who was the champion of salvation by grace through faith, wrote in his introduction to the Large Catechism that, “He who knows the Ten Commandments knows all of scripture.” Luther understood what we so often fail to understand; that the good news of Jesus Christ requires the bad news of the law. You can’t have one without the other.
            We might find a clue why this is in Romans 13. Yes, that very same Romans 13 that the Attorney General used to try to justify the government having essentially whatever laws he wanted it to have: In Romans 13: 8-10, Paul writes: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Why Sabbath matters

Exodus 20:3-11
            If we were to take a poll, asking, “If you could remove one commandment from the Ten Commandments, which would it be?” and I absolutely forced you to remove one, I bet the answer would be the third: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
            You see, when we break most of the commandments we feel genuinely bad about it. Maybe next time we’ll even try harder not to take the Lord’s name in vain; we may carry guilt about stealing or coveting. But the Sabbath? That one we might feel guilty about, but we’re not even sure it’s that bad.
            Some of this can be ascribed to poor definitions of what Sabbath is. So, what is this Sabbath that we’re supposed to remember and keep holy? One easy answer is: “Go to church.” A good start, but not the whole picture. Sabbath is about so much more than church. It’s about rest; it’s about admitting we cannot go and go and go forever; it’s about admitting we are not God. All of these things might just be a little convenient. It’s telling, actually, that when you ask people about Sabbath, the first thing out of their mouths is typically a thing they feel obligated to do—in this case, go to church—when Sabbath is about exactly the opposite; it’s about not doing a thing.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The sermon I don't want to preach

Exodus 20:1-3

I had an awfully hard time with this sermon this week—not because I didn’t know what to say, but because I only had one thing I felt like needed to be said and I didn’t want to say it. Preaching is hard, you know? If I were writing a blog on the subject, I just wouldn’t write it, but I’m sort of being paid to do this and it would be pretty awkward if I just stood up here for ten minutes of silence, though sometimes I think that’s probably about the best I can do. So, here I am preaching on something I don’t want to—come, Holy Spirit! It’s especially hard when the scripture of the week is the fullest expression of the law.
We begin a four week series on the Ten Commandments today with the commandment that matters above all others: “I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other gods before me.” This is the commandment of all commandments. And I know what needs to be said about it: You are sinners, and, more than that, you are completely dead in sin. No heart beat—dead, dead. You put all sorts of things before God.
I don’t want to say that. I want to say, “It really isn’t that bad. You’re all wonderful. You all have a spark of goodness in you; you can overcome this inclination toward sin.” I want to say that, but I can’t.
But the thing I really don’t want to talk about—the thing that I wrote an entire sermon around before changing it last night because of how much I really didn’t want to talk about this—is all the things that we place before God that are mostly good. I don’t want to tell you about how our children can become an idol, but I have to. I don’t want to tell you about how our country can become an idol, but I have to. And I really, really don’t want to talk about how the Bible can become an idol, because it will confuse the heck out of you, but I have to. Because we don’t worship our children, or our nation, or even the Bible; we worship the God we know in Jesus Christ. In fact, because those things are so very, very good, and because they represent so many things that are deeply meaningful to all of us, they are all the much easier to turn into idols. But I really don’t want to talk about how our children, our nation, and even the Bible lead us to breaking the first commandment.
I don’t want to talk about all this stuff because it’s a razor-thin distinction, and it would be so much easier to talk about how awesome it is to love those things that are next-most important to God. It is always much easier to preach healing than resurrection, because healing allows us to pretend that we aren’t dead people; that there’s something about us worthy of being healed; that we just need a little help. I don’t want to tell you that you are dead in sin, because I know you, like me, would rather not hear it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pentecost and the One Story

Acts 2:1-21 

            One of the things we watched in one of our early sessions preparing for the upcoming ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston was called “The Danger of a Single Story,” a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi. In her talk, Ngozi spoke of growing up in Nigeria where she had only British books to read so that when she began to write fiction as a child she would write about the kinds of things British people talked about—tea, the weather, and the like. This story became her one story; never mind that that story wasn’t even compatible with her own story.
            We all do this when we learn things for the first time. We mimic. Whether you are writing, doing art, making music, or cooking the process is much the same; you watch and try to replicate those who know how to do it. We all start with that single story—the first example of what a thing is. This is true in every aspect of how we live our lives, and for those of you who have, or have had, children you know this. Their little brains just grab on to the one example—the first example—of a thing. But this is true of us well into adulthood as well. In fact, it’s more persistent with adults, because while we are just as susceptible to the single story as children our brains are also much more set in their ways, so we are less able to detach from that story, as children are.
            An example: On our way to daycare last week Natalie was upset with me because I was speaking Spanish to her. She was wearing her nice, new Spanish dress her aunt and uncle gave her so I took it as a cue to teach her a little Spanish, but she didn’t like that much. She told me, “I don’t like Spanish, because I don’t speak it.” I’ve heard adults use similar logic. So I told her, “Natalie, you can learn how to speak Spanish just like you know how to speak English!” To which she replied, “What is English?” There, in front of my eyes, her one story became many. By the time I picked her up for dance class later in the day she was asking me how to say all sorts of things in Spanish—things I had to Google because, frankly, I was pretty rusty. By next week I’ll be asking her how to say things.
If you only know one story about English, or about race, or about women, or about Jews or Palestinians, or about Liberals or Conservatives—if you only have one story, you only have a starting point—and it can be a terrible danger to live this way. It’s the easiest way to dehumanize one another; to consider others beneath us. You can only do this if you have a single story, because real people are much more complicated than all this.
This was a long intro to Pentecost, but I’m finally there.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

It won't win you anything, but be humble anyway

One of my favorite lines in the Philippians song, that we read today in Philippians 2, is verse 3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” I also believe, after some experience in the world, that certain people will think that is an awfully wise sentiment, and others will think it utter foolishness, and I’m not sure we can do much to make people come across that divide.

I’m optimistic about many things, but I’m pretty sure some people will just always be selfish and others will always be humble. Is it really possible to make a selfish person anything but selfish? People are finicky by nature. What some people see as strength others see as weakness. So, what do we do when our worldview is opposed to others? Are we supposed to show the world that humility is preferable to a life of showboating, arrogance, and vanity? If so, how? It’s awfully hypocritical to be walking around bragging about how humble we are.

The honest answer is we can’t change people, and, more than that, there is no objective reason why humility is best. Far less can we say that we will receive any reward for viewing others in the most favorable light even when they don't deserve it. It's just foolishness. But just because it is foolish to a world that values seeking after power doesn’t mean we are wrong. It might be a lonely road to walk, this Christian humility, but know that you need not prove a thing to anybody.