Sunday, January 28, 2018

Discerning God's Word Amongst Various Voices

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak––that prophet shall die.” (Deut 18:19-20) That’s quite a way to start a sermon, don’t you think? Either I’m speaking the word of God and if you don’t listen, you’re in trouble, or I’m not speaking the word of God, and I’m in trouble. There’s a lot of pressure here!

But seriously, this passage points out to us a real challenge that we have when we are trying to discern whether what we hear is truly God’s Word. Last week, I said that the church of Christ includes churches of different, and even opposing, viewpoints about what is the right way to live as God’s people. And I said that individual Christians can make completely opposite decisions about which path to take to follow Christ, and that they are nevertheless united in the one Body of Christ. But I didn’t say how we make those decisions. I didn’t say how we know whether our path is truly putting Christ first or whether it’s putting ourselves at the center. Each prophet, each church, each pastor will claim that they have the authority of God to speak and that every word out of their mouth is the word of God. Out of all the voices claiming to speak the Word of God, how do we discern which ones actually are? 

I ask this because this is a very real and very serious issue. Claiming the authority of God and then speaking in God’s name is incredibly powerful. Done truly and it brings life and light and healing and helps us to feel God in our midst. In one of the older versions of the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, the pastor says, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I proclaim to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That is powerful! That is life and light and healing! But claiming the authority of God and then speaking falsely in God’s name is also powerful. Except instead of life and light and healing, it brings darkness, and death, and trauma. It drives us away from God. It fractures the security we have in God’s love for us. There’s a reason that our Third Commandment is, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” There’s a reason that God says that false prophets will die. 
And it’s not like it’s always easy to know whether the word we hear is God’s Word or not. Often, we hear what we want to hear, especially when the stakes are high. And, just as often, we don’t realize we’re even doing that. Sometimes we make decisions and choices about what path to walk, and only realize later that we actually weren’t listening to God’s Word. Instead, we were listing to worries, anxieties, unspoken fears over worst-case scenarios––sometimes our own, and sometimes someone else’s.

And the fall-out of all of those things is intense. When we realize our past decisions were not what God wanted we can feel incredibly guilty. We can then doubt our ability to hear God, and become anxious thinking about decisions that need to be made in the future. If someone in a position of spiritual or religious authority proclaims words that are not God’s words, it can be hurtful at best, and damaging or even traumatic at worst. Again, we can start doubting our own ability to hear God, and become anxious about God’s relationship with us.

But this is not God’s will for us. God does not will that we should doubt our relationship with God, or become so anxious about which path to walk that we do nothing. And so God, who is “ever mindful” of the covenant made with us, helps us with this. In our Scripture readings for today, we can see three guidelines in particular that God has given us to to help us with this whole “discernment” thing.

The first comes from our Psalm today. “The fear of the LORD––(actually, awe might be a better word here)––awe of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10) We start listening, and speaking, and making decisions from a stance of awe, and particularly awe that God alone has the power to give life. Anybody can kill, anybody can speak words and bring about someone else’s death, either literally or metaphorically. But only God’s words have the power to bring true life. And so we begin with the recognition of the power of God and of our own insignificance in the face of that. Which means that we begin with humility. How can we feel anything other than humility before God? I can tell you at least from my own experience, that when I am preaching a sermon that I truly believe is God’s word and not just my own personal insights, I am terrified. Completely terrified. Who am I to deliver this word? What if I’m wrong that it’s God’s Word? Who am I to be a prophet, claiming that I have the authority of Christ? Even this sermon––terrifying. But in any case, this terror, or humility, or awe is the beginning of wisdom. It is the beginning of discernment.

The second guideline comes to us from 1 Corinthians. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Our test for knowing whether we are hearing or speaking God’s Word, and for knowing whether our decisions are rooted in Christ, is simple: Does it build others up or does it tear them down? God’s very first act in our world was to create life. This is the first thing we know of God. And so we ask ourselves, do our words or our actions create or affirm the lives of those around us? Or do they destroy it? The path of Christ and the Word of God build us up through love, and more specifically, through God’s love for the world that we see through Christ. Do our words and actions, or do the words and actions directed at us, center on that love, or do they build walls between God and God’s children? Paul remind us, “Love builds up.”

[Speaking of children and love, I’m going to pause right here and ask the children to come forward so I can talk to them for a bit. [interlude for Children’s Message]]

So, our two guidelines for discerning God’s Word and will so far are awe and love that builds up. The last guideline comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. In the Gospel, we have people of faith asking the same question we are: are this person’s words from God or from somewhere else? Not knowing who Jesus really is, they want to know whether he is a true prophet or a false one. And, of course, they come to find out that he is a prophet, because his actions reflect our first two guidelines. That is, Jesus’ words and actions build up the man suffering from an “unclean spirit,” and the people around him are amazed––in awe of––the power of God that works through Jesus. Jesus’ action––his casting out of the unclean spirit–gives us our third guideline: God’s Word leaves us feeling clean and whole. Healed. At one with ourselves. With a clear conscience. We see in the Gospel that when Jesus speaks to others, and when he heals and does things for others, that the result is typically healing and cleansing, so to speak. People are granted new life, either in body or in spirit. The love that builds up leaves them feeling whole, what might be called “integrated.” When it comes to discerning what is from God, even though there might be a great wrenching, a convulsing and crying out even, as we let go of those things that are actually destroying us, in the end, if God’s will and God’s word are at work, there will be a calmness and healing and new life.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that any of this discernment is easy, or that following these guidelines is a fool-proof method for identifying God’s word or deciding on the right course of action. I said that the second guideline is that God’s words and actions build up, and create life, rather than destroying it, but even that’s complicated. Sometimes we have to tear things down in order to build them anew, sometimes one way of life must end in order for another to begin, and we don’t always know which is which. We can never see all of the consequences of our actions, nor understand the scope of how our decisions and words affect others. So it’s inevitable that we will, even in following these guidelines, even in earnestly desiring to do right, hurt people. We will make the wrong decisions. We will make a decision that we are convinced is focused on God and others, only to look back later and realize we were actually acting in our own interests. We are human, finite and limited in both our knowledge and our efforts. In the end, even following these guidelines will not make us righteous or justify us.

God alone, revealed to us in Christ, is the source of our righteousness and justification. God is the only one whose words and decisions always build up and always bring life. And so God alone retains ultimate authority and alone is worthy of worship. Nevertheless, God does desire that we, too, should be able to participate in God’s love and life-giving towards others and receive that for ourselves. God wants us to experience the joy that comes from walking the path of wisdom, and from hearing God’s Word and sharing it with others. And so God has given us these guidelines to help us discern whether God’s Word is being spoken: do they begin with awe, do they love and build up, and do they bring calm and healing and new life? If so, they are the Words of God, and we say, Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Epiphany 3 - Christ's Unity Encompasses Diversity

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

So today we are about halfway through something called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A century ago, a few Catholic Friars proposed that the week beginning with the Feast Day for Saint Peter and ending with the Feast Day for Saint Paul would be a week when the Catholic Church should pray for the unity of the church. After all, Christians believe that the church is the body of Christ, and that it is one body, although with different parts. The divisions between us can sometimes make it look like we are acting as separate bodies, which is a bad witness to Christ. About fifty years after the Catholic Church began praying during this week, the  major Protestant churches joined in, and now this week is recognized around the world as a time when the various denominations can engage in deepening their relationships with one another, and acknowledging that each church is doing its best to follow Christ.

On the one hand, this is huge. Our Christian history is full of arguments and excommunications and even wars as we each have tried to defend our own understanding of what it means to be a Christian. We have done such horrible things to one another, all in the name of Christ, that it’s surprising that anybody even wants to be a Christian. That we have finally come to a point where we can, at least in theory, accept one another as belonging to the body of Christ is tremendous. It is, truly, a testament to the peace that can be found when we focus our eyes on Christ, and Christ alone.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if God is seeing this and thinking, “What took them so long??” Our Scriptures give us lots of stories of people responding to God’s call albeit in very different ways. Take our Gospel reading for this morning. We often focus on Simon and Andrew and James and John leaving everything and following Jesus. At the same time, Zebedee, the father of James and John, is sitting there quietly in his boat, mending the nets. We hold up the ones who left their nets as our models for responding to Jesus’ call, but there is absolutely nothing in the text that tells us that. Indeed, Zebedee, whose name means God has bestowed, is responding to Jesus’ call in his own way, which is to stay behind and take care of the family, and continue providing for those around him. We don’t give Zebedee, or any of those who respond to God’s call by staying behind, enough credit. And yet Luther tells us that those who stay at home, and wash the baby’s diapers are living out their Christian vocation just as much as those who leave everything to follow Christ. There are many different ways of responding to God’s call.

Our first reading, from the book of Jonah, tells us the same thing. Jonah, born and raised as one of God’s chosen people, responds to God’s call, albeit reluctantly and under duress, by doing what God tells him to do and going to Nineveh and telling them that God wants them to repent. The people of Nineveh, who are essentially non-believers, respond immediately, without any reluctance whatsoever, to the call of this God who is completely new to them. In the end, both the one from the chosen people and the ones who are non-believers respond to God. They just do it in different ways. This idea that there is only one way to walk as God wants us to is not held up by these Scriptures, nor by our own experiences as members in the body of Christ.

And yet... trying to understand how God can be so inclusive is challenging. What about those churches that support the ordination of women and those churches that outright forbid it? How can both of these denominations be right? When we talk about the unity of the Church, can a church that believes in infant baptism and one that does not think of themselves as both following Christ? On a more personal level, does God really recognize that those Christians who advocate for abortion as a woman’s right to choose and those Christians who believe abortion is murder and protest abortion clinics are both following God? Are those who use the Bible to defend capital punishment and those who use the Bible to argue against it both responding to Christ’s call to follow him? What about forgiving abusers? The Bible says to forgive, and the Bible also calls us to fight for justice? Which is the right path for following Christ?

“God alone is my rock and my salvation; ... Trust in God at all times, O people; ... Power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.” This is our psalm for today. God alone is the one we trust and love. Or, as Luther says in his Small Catechism, “We are to fear, love, and trust only God.” This is the heart of what it is to follow Christ––our single guiding principle: to fear, love, and trust only God. It’s simple, actually, although that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It does mean, though, that the right path for any Christian to follow is the one that comes from fearing only God, and not anyone or anything else, from trusting only God, and not ourselves or own good intentions, and from loving only God, and not ourselves or our honour or our life. It is not the particulars of the path itself that makes it right, because each person walks their own path. It is right because it is done out of fearing, loving, and trusting only God.

Peter and Andrew and James and John trusted God’s Son to take care of them on the road, and so they followed him. Zebedee trusted God to take care of him in his boat, and so he stayed. Job (eventually) feared only God, and so he went to Nineveh. The people of Nineveh both feared and then trusted only God, and so they repented. Those churches who ordain women and those who don’t both are trying to fear, trust, and love God the way they think is best for them, and so they are united in their desire to follow Christ. One person can trust God so much that they are willing to die to prevent an abortion, while another person can trust God so much that they are confident that their pregnancy is not what God wants for them at that point. When both make their decisions rooted in a deep trust in God, then, as contradictory as it sounds to us, they are united in following Christ.

One way in which I have come to see that this is particularly true is in the debates and decisions around medically-assisted dying. I have sat at the bedside of a Christian whose trust in God was so profound that they chose not to take advantage of medically-assisted death, believing that God would take them when the time was right. This person’s decision not to take advantage of a medically-assisted death was rooted in fearing, loving, and trusting God. I have also sat at the bedside of a Christian whose trust in God was so profound that they were not afraid to die, and they asked for that death to be hastened so their family would not suffer and so that they could be with God as soon as possible. This person’s decision to take advantage of a medically-assisted death was just as rooted in fearing, loving, and trusting God. Two completely different paths, united in one faith in the goodness of God that they had experienced through Christ.

Just because we come to different decisions about which is the best path to follow Christ for us, it does not mean we lack unity. We are united in our love for Christ, and in us all being recipients of the grace and forgiveness bestowed on us through Christ. Our diversity does not threaten that but points, rather, to the depth of God’s inclusion and love for everyone, far beyond what we can even understand. It points to how glorious Christ is that so many diverse members make up his body. A God in whom unity is made up of diversity is far more worthy of praise than a unity where everyone is the same. We are truly blessed that God has finally brought us to a point in time when we’re able to see this, and where we are able to confess that all who seek the Lord are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. This is the Good News, thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Baptized in Trinitarian Love: A Sermon on the Trinity

Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
The Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord

Happy New Year! I know that our church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, but I love that our calendar year begins in January, just as the days start getting longer again, and as our part of the earth begins its journey closer to the sun. A few days ago, I received a seed catalogue in the mail, and I thought about how lovely it is to look forward to spring, to seeds sprouting and leaves budding and all of the signs of new life.

Our readings this morning, carefully chosen to honour today as the Baptism of Our Lord, are full of new life. Which is, after all, the central claim of Christians––that our God is the God of new life. In Creation, in baptism, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the new life of God saturates the Christian life, from birth to death, and, most importantly, past death. In baptism, God draws us into a new way of living, where death is just one step along the eternal journey of life.
What sometimes gets lost, though, is our understanding of the way in which this new life is centered and grounded in Trinitarian love. The love that is encompassed in the Trinity, that is generated by the Trinity, that overflows from the Trinity to us, is what gives us new life. Trinitarian love determines and shapes the kind of new life we receive. Christians baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit because we have come to an awareness that the Trinity is central to our faith.

Now if you are sitting there thinking to yourself, “I’m probably the only person here who still has no idea what the Trinity is,” you are not alone. I guarantee it. Most of us can define the Trinity as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but that’s about it. We might even go so far as to say the Father created the world, the Son redeemed the world, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies the world, like it says in our Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. And yet, the Trinity doesn’t appear explicitly in our Bible, Jesus never talks about it using the words we use, and as you can see clearly from our readings for this morning, baptisms in the Bible didn’t use the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit formula that we do today. In fact, the Trinity is a distinctly Christian belief that emerged only within the first century after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The understanding of God as a Trinity developed as Christians tried to make sense of the relationship between the God of Abraham and Moses and Isaac, who created the world and delivered Israel from slavery, and Jesus, the beloved Son of God who was given new life after death, and the Holy Spirit, who was present at Creation and inspired the prophets and came to the disciples at Pentecost. If we are confused about the Trinity, it may be because it’s a part of our faith that is less than two thousand years old. 

And yet the Trinity, or rather the relationship that defines the Trinity, and the new life that is generated from that relationship, is the ground of our baptism. Without the Trinity, Christian baptism is empty and meaningless. So what, exactly, is that Trinitarian relationship, and what kind of new life does it give us?

Love. Inclusive, life-generating love. The relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is defined by inclusive and life-generating love. When we say that God is love, that’s actually shorthand for saying that God is the love of the Father for the Son, the love of the Son for the Father, and the Holy Spirit that is the manifestation of that love in our world. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in the fourth century, whose theology was foundational for our own understandings, said that the Trinity could be understood as the lover, the beloved, and the love between the two of them. The Trinity is a circle of ever-flowing love between Father and Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father’s first words to God the Son were, “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The first words were words of love. There are some theologians who have said that the love of God in the Trinity is so abundant and over-flowing that God created life in order for love to flourish even more. We are created so that we might be included, and include others, in that love.

And through baptism, we are drawn into the center of this Trinitarian love. Imagine that! When you were baptized, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you were baptized into that ever-flowing circle of love. On that day, God drew you into the midst of God, so that perfect, divine, holy love might fully surround you and engage you and give you new life. On that day, you become God’s beloved child, with whom God––Father, Son, and Holy Spirit––is well-pleased. 

The Trinitarian love into which you were baptized is a life-generating love. Out of that love, God created the world, and the Spirit of God moved on the waters and light emerged, and all life on earth. Out of that love, God took on the body of a human and lived among us and suffered with us and died rather than kill, so that we might be healed. Out of that love, God comes to us in the Holy Spirit and gives us hope and the strength to do what is right and life-giving for others––in essence, to be holy. That is the power of our baptism, actually, the power that gives us and others new life: The power of the Trinity to create, and to heal, and to live holy lives for the sake of others.

Through baptism, we are drawn into the center of the Trinity, into the center of Trinitarian love. At the same time, that love is placed into us. It becomes our center. And every time we remember our baptism, whether it is once a year, or every time we come to church, or every morning, we recenter ourselves in that Trinitarian love. We recenter ourselves in the love that creates, and heals, and shares new life with others. We remind ourselves that we are grounded in and encircled by the inclusive and life-generating love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

And the effects of this baptism, and of this reminder to ourselves of our baptism, the effects of being placed in the center of Trinitarian love and having that love as our own center, are astounding. Because as we are drawn into that perfect love of God for God and God for us, we are transformed to love in that same way. And our love, as a manifestation of God’s love, creates new life, and heals, and is holy. It is astounding. As astounding as watching the snow-covered ground around us turn into beautiful green grass and flowers in the spring, as astounding as watching the leafless trees sprout buds and unfurl bright green leaves. As astounding as new life after death.

As we enter this New Year, I want to invite you to share a New Year’s Resolution with me. I invite you to resolve that every morning when you get up, the first time you look in the mirror as you are washing your face or brushing your teeth, that you will make the sign of the cross on your forehead and say to yourself, “I have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I am baptized into Trinitarian love.” And remember that that love has created you, and heals you, and makes you holy, and that you are empowered to do likewise for others. Whether you say it aloud or just in your head, I invite you to do this every morning, from now until Trinity Sunday, which is at the end of May, and we will see what new life emerges, whether it is the creation of something new, or the healing of some old wound, or a deepened capacity to share new life with others. And we will say then, as we do every day, Thanks be to God. Amen.