Sunday, October 28, 2018

Special Welcome to Worship, October 28, 2018

We begin our worship this morning, however, with the events at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh hanging over us, and the loss of eleven lives. The person in custody identifies as a Christian and used the Gospel of John, a Gospel we will be reading from this morning, as justification for his acts. Given this day and that fact, instead of our order of confession, I would like to read from the ELCA Document called Guidelines for Lutheran Jewish Relations.

”In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear [Luther’s] name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther's anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther's own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations. In concert with the Lutheran World Federation, we particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther's words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day.

Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people. We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us.”

Let us pray:
God, whom our Lord Jesus Christ worshipped as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph: 

Forgive us when our words are used to kill your children in the name of Christ. Strengthen us to stand between your chosen people and hate. Comfort those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death and bring us all to your shalom. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Minimum and Maximum Inclusion - Reformation Sunday 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

I don’t think it’s an over-generalization to say that as long as there has been religion, there have been well-meaning religious people arguing about who gets to be in the community and who doesn’t. Every religion has its version of minimalist inclusivity and maximalist inclusivity. That is, in every religion there will be people who make the conditions for being in the religion so restrictive––so minimally inclusive––that only the most dedicated can belong. At the same time, there will be people who want to reduce as many conditions as they can––who aim for maximum inclusivity––so that the entire world can be included in that religion’s understanding of community. And, just to be clear, each side, if you will, is doing their best to act with integrity. The minimalists truly want to protect the holy and sacred nature of their religion. The maximalists truly want to reflect the love and spiritual generosity that they believe their religion embodies. Both sides are trying to be as faithful as they can––they just understand the embodiment of that faithfulness in different ways.

And so we come to our Scripture readings for today, and our celebration of today as Reformation Sunday. And we find, lurking underneath our reading from Jeremiah and our readings from the Letter to the Romans and the Gospel according to John, and indeed in the very history of this denomination, this tension between the minimalists and the maximalists.

The prophet of our Old Testament reading, Jeremiah, seems to be a maximalist. He lived at a time when Israel had been pummeled by other countries’ militaries, when its national and religious existence was threatened, and several prophets blamed it on Israel’s lack of religious commitment to God. These prophets said that the Israelites had abandoned the covenant God made with them, and so God had abandoned them, and the only way back was to strictly reinforce the law. But Jeremiah’s message is that God was reinstating the covenant. And God, who was not interested in a minimalist approach to inclusion, was going to put the covenant––what they called the law–––into the people’s heart, where it could never broken. The result would be that “they shall all know me, from the last of them to the greatest, ... for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” They shall all know me. That’s pretty inclusive, maximally so, we might say.

Unfortunately, it seems that over time, the people forgot, as we all do. By-and-large, by the time of Jesus and Paul, the minimally inclusive branch of the Jewish religion was again in charge. Now I’m not criticizing them. Israel was under extreme religious stress, with the Roman Empire setting up idols in the Temple in Jerusalem and demanding that Jews either worship the idols or pay a tax. 
Those responsible for the well-being of the Jewish religion and the people were deeply concerned that their religion was being contaminated, and that they would no longer be holy enough for God to be in their midst. They instituted strict boundaries around holiness and righteousness and religious inclusion in order to protect their relationship with God, just as we find often ourselves doing.

For example, in the Gospel of John, which is truly minimalist. As beautifully as the Gospel opens, and as much we might love the imagery of the light shining in the darkness (which I do), the honest truth about this Gospel is that it is extremely restrictive about who gets in and who’s kept out. This Gospel is adamant that those who do not follow Jesus, especially the Jews, are excluded from God’s community (and yesterday we saw the horrifying legacy of that argument). In the case of the original Christians who wrote it, they were struggling to defend their relationship with God in the face of those who didn’t accept them, and so they retreated into theologically walled-off strongholds and erected strictly defined boundaries. They allowed only the few, only the completely trustworthy, into the Christian community. The minimum possible.

At the same time, though, we have Paul and his letters to the Romans. Poor Paul takes a lot of unpacking, and sad to say, for most of the past two thousand years we have read him completely wrong. We used to read him as someone who grew up a Jew and then met Christ and converted to being a Christian and rejected all Jews––a minimalist––but now we know, thanks to rigorous biblical scholarship, that this story about Paul isn’t accurate. Instead, what we know is that Paul turns out to have been a maximalist. He worked really hard to find out how to make God’s religious community as inclusive as possible. He recognized that the Jews are in an unbreakable covenant with God, that they are saved by the law (which, by the way, the Jews are able to fulfill, in Paul’s eyes.) But he also recognized that non-Jewish Christians are not in that same covenant. We are not Jewish, and so we are not in the covenant of the law, and so we are not saved. But how could this be? How could the people who follow the Jewish messiah not be saved? Paul’s answer was that God’s grace and mercy and righteousness was so complete and so concerned for all of God’s children that God sent Christ to die for us, so that we––non-Jewish Christians––would be saved apart from the law. Because––sorry, Christians––we aren’t blessed to be able to obey it. Paul wanted the maximum number possible to be included in God’s community––the Jews through the law and the non-Jews through Christ.

Of course, this tension between minimum and maximum inclusion continues throughout history. It’s the reason we celebrate Reformation Day today, in commemoration of Luther helping us to understand that it is God’s grace, which is infinite and eternal, that saves us, and not our finite and limited works. According to Luther, the Holy Spirit works where the Spirit will, and gives people faith, and draws us to church, and moves us to be baptized. Any participation in the Christian community comes from the Holy Spirit, not us, and the Spirit is radically inclusive. Luther wanted as many people as possible to feel included in God’s community, unlike the Catholic church of his time who were trying to restrict membership, or manipulate it.

Even today, within the Christian church we continue to experience both the minimalist and maximalist versions of inclusion. On the one hand, we have those who would argue that entrance into the Christian community should only be through a baptism where the one being baptized has consciously made the decision to come forward. We have those who would argue that participation in the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to those who’ve been baptized, lest Communion be treated frivolously and made less holy. We have those who, with the best of intentions and wanting to protect the holiness of God’s relationship with us, impose certain prerequisites for inclusion and participation in the Christian community. These are our Christian minimalists.

On the other hand, we have those who would argue that infants who are incapable of rational thought should be baptized, so that the decision is entirely up to God. We have those who would argue that the Lord’s Supper is open to all whom God brings forward, regardless of whether or not they’ve been baptized. We have those, with the best of their intentions, wanting to fling open the doors and shower everyone and anyone with the love and grace of God that they experience through Christ. They want to get rid of all prerequisites, so that everyone can be part of God’s community. These are our Christian maximalists.

So which direction ought we to pursue? It’s tempting, as we feel the pressures of the secular world and increasing religious diversity, to isolate ourselves in our mighty fortress, to double-down on protecting God’s holiness, and to follow the path of minimalism. There’s a security that comes from retreating to traditional ways, battening down the hatches, raising the drawbridge. We feel safer when we can pre-approve those who come into our midst. When we don’t have to fear that we’re diluting God’s presence among us.

But I am not convinced that this is the direction God is calling us. The history of our relationship with God, starting with the Old Testament and continuing through thousands of years and through the Reformation, tells us that God is constantly calling us to radically new inclusivity. God does not seem to be as concerned with protecting God’s holiness as we are, (probably because God knows that humans can’t possibly corrupt God). Through Paul, through Luther, through the courage of those who challenge our preconceived ideas of what religious commitment looks like, God calls us to constantly reform the restrictions we set in place. God calls us to new understandings of inclusion.
Now we still affirm that both the Gospel of John and the letters from Paul are the Word of God. Both the minimalists and the maximalists are inspired by their relationship with God. The tension between the two will not be resolved in our lifetime, or possibly at all on this earth. In the end, we can never fully know God’s mind, or who God welcomes in. All we can do is move forward in the faith given to us by the Holy Spirit, trusting in the grace and mercy of God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And I’ll leave you with this. Over this past year, several states in Germany have proclaimed Reformation Day a public holiday. But not for the reason you might think. It’s very explicitly not a “Martin Luther commemoration day.” Rather, according to German Lutheran Bishop Ralf Meister, “The Day of Reformation is a day on which we will seek to promote tolerant relations among religions, confessions, and worldviews, based on dialogue.” [] 
Relations among religions, confessions, and worldviews as the focus of Reformation Day in Germany. That sounds pretty maximalist to me. May God bless us as we move forward in that Spirit as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

God's Radical Welcome of the Rich Into Heaven

Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Aren’t there three topics that you’re never supposed to discuss in public? Religion, politics, and money. Guess what we’re going to talk about today? Money. And more specifically, people who have lots of money.

Now, typically in church, a sermon on this passage would go something like: being very rich is very bad, therefore if you are very rich, you are very bad, so repent, and take care of the poor, and give away all your  money, and God will forgive you. We really connect issues of money with issues of morality, and so most of us in the church distance ourselves from people with piles of money, those in the 1% as it were, because we suspect they’re using that money to gain access to power and to give themselves advantages that the rest of us can’t afford.

It’s not surprising that we think this. In society, money really does do these things, and for those of us who value equality, it seems immoral to use money for our own good, especially at the cost of others. An example of this that pops to my mind is a recent option at the Calgary Stampede, the Midway Express wristband, where you can pay an extra $25 to get to the front of the line for all the rides, thereby skipping the 30 minute wait in line to get on the Crazy Mouse. (Why anybody would want to wait thirty minutes to get on a ride that is essentially a roller coaster where the car spins around and goes down the slide backwards is beyond me, but clearly I’m in the minority.) Anyway, to me, that $25 Express Pass is a prime example of money getting you advantages and access that come at the cost of others. For every person in the express line, the people in the regular line have to wait an extra five minutes. That $25 pass increases the gap between those who are first in line and those who are last––because of money, the distance between the rich and the poor becomes even farther apart.

And I don’t think that’s fair. Partly because my kids can’t afford to buy that pass (there’s my bias), but mostly because it violates the rule that we should all wait the same amount of time for the same amount of fun. It emphasizes inequality, and it privileges a few over the rest, and it does so on the basis of money, not merit. I would be happy if the Stampede did away with it altogether.

Now the Stampede Pass is a somewhat superficial example of the inequality caused by money or the lack of it, and I know we can come up with others that are more serious and would require more nuanced conversation, like two-tier health-care, or progressive income-tax, or paying an extra $25 so you can pick your seat on an airplane. And I’m sure we could have very vigorous conversation about these things. But I think it’s safe to say that in the church, generally speaking, we listen to Jesus say, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” and “the first will be last and the last will be first” and we think, yeah! After all, we can all think of people who are richer than we are that we would, just once, like to get ahead of. We can imagine standing on the inside of the pearly gates, all fancy and wrought-iron, kind of like a really nice English country club, and saying, “Nyah nyah!” to the rich in their Lamborghinis and private jets having to stay on the outside because they aren’t poor enough. God is here for us!

Except that that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not actually saying that the rich won’t be welcome in the kingdom of heaven. If you look really closely, you’ll see that Jesus is actually making room for them. Yes, the first will be last and the last will be first, but the last still get in. The poor get to go to the front of the line, and the rich have to go to the back, but the line doesn’t cut off. Heaven doesn’t have an occupancy limit, the gates don’t actually ever close. God is not about to run out of grace. Yes, the rich might have to wait longer than the poor, but they’re still getting in.

You see, Jesus is trying to disrupt the system of the rich getting ahead and the poor falling behind but not by reversing it. Simply turning the system on its head, so that the poor get ahead and the rich fall behind doesn’t abolish the system, it just recreates it in a new way. There’s still injustice and unfairness and inequality. Instead, Jesus shows us how God breaks apart the system, by stepping completely outside of it, by making all things possible.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is about––creating a totally new system of inclusion that is entirely free of merit or conditions or worth. This is why God’s grace and mercy and love are so mind-blowing. What God is doing is radical: welcoming in absolutely everyone––especially those whom we think least deserve it, either because they’re too rich or because they’re too poor. It tells us that in God’s eyes, all the measures of worth that we hold, whether those are measures of financial net worth, or Instagram likes, or good intentions, or selfless living are meaningless. We might as well measure our worth by our shoe size, or our bone density, or the month we were born for all the good it would do. Because God abandons measurements altogether. How we compare to other people, where we stand in line, becomes completely irrelevant. Everybody gets in.

Which is both bad news and good news. It’s bad news if we’ve spent our lives trying to accumulate wealth, and using it to get to the front of the line (which, btw, is all of us when you look at how even the poorest among us are still richer than 70% of the world). It means we’ve spent our lives on nothing, and, like the man who came before Jesus, we will be much grieved when Jesus tells us that what we have is worthless. We’ve spent all our time and energy getting nowhere and when we die, the moths and rust will consume the worth we’ve stored up on earth.

It’s bad news if we’re hoping for the great reversal at the end of time, when everybody’s going to get what’s coming to them, and those Stampede Express Pass holders aren’t even going to be allowed in the gates. It’s bad news if we’re secretly hoping for a little schadenfreude and just desserts on the Day of Judgement. Yes, the first shall be last and the last shall be first, but everyone’s still getting in.
At the same time, God’s radical welcome is good news if we’ve spent our lives trying to accumulate wealth and still ending up at the back of the line, (which, again, is all of us when you look at how 1% of the world owns 50% of it). It means we can stop spending the rest of our lives in the pursuit of wealth as a means to feeling better about ourselves. It disconnects money from morality, and frees us from thinking that if we have money, we’re doing something right, and if we don’t, we’re doing something wrong, or vice versa. It’s good news if we turn around and realize we were at the front of the line the whole time and didn’t mean to be. It’s good news if we have no hope of even making it to the line, never mind being one of the last who get to be first.  

As much as we might wish it were so, Jesus is not taking the idea that was prevalent at the time––that money gets you into heaven––and flipping it on its head to suggest that money keeps you out of heaven. God does not measure our worth by money at all. God measures our worth by the amount of grace and mercy and love that God makes available to us, which is an infinite amount. God’s grace towards you is infinite, which makes you infinitely worthy to be in God’s kingdom, no matter how much money you have or don’t have. God’s mercy towards you is infinite, which makes you infinitely bold to come before God, no matter how righteous or unrighteous you are. God’s love for you is infinite, which makes you infinitely welcome into God’s presence, no matter where in line you stand. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Thanksgiving For ALL Relationships

Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16

What does it mean that one of the core beliefs of the Lutheran church is that we believe that the Bible is the Word of God? In the Constitution of the ELCIC, it says that we believe that the Scriptures are “the inspired Word of God, through which God still speaks.” Every Sunday, we come together to hear this Word of God, and to try to hear what God is saying to us today through this Word. And every Sunday, what God says to us is both the same, and different, from what God said the week before, or the year before, or even the century before. Which is both comforting and unsettling. On the one hand, we yearn for things to stay the same, to be predictable from day to day. We need to know that the God who loved us in the past still loves us today and will continue to love us tomorrow. To imagine that God is going to say something different to us next week makes us anxious––how can we live our lives according to God’s will if there’s a chance that will is going to change?

On the other hand, especially in times like these, we are desperate for things to change. The things that we’ve been told God said in the past, like women come from the ribs of men and are therefore relegated to the position of only helpers of men, or divorce is a sin on par with adultery (the punishment for which is stoning), these interpretations continue to shape our lives today in profound and traumatic ways, and we are yearning for a new Word from God to wash away all of the pain. Our world is different in so many ways from the world of Jesus, from the world three thousand years ago when our Genesis stories were written down and we need to hear the Good News that God is speaking to us today, in these circumstances, even if it will be different next month, and next year, and in the next century.

This morning’s Scripture readings are a prime example of this tension between the Bible being comforting and unsettling. In the past, and even today, they were comforting to those who heard them––our Scripture from Genesis tells us something meaningful about the human need for companionship: it is “not good” for us to be alone. We were not created to live in isolation, but to live in relationship with others, and our yearning for connection is not a sign of weakness or sin. God blesses our search for meaningful relationships and encourages us to find them. And our Gospel reading tells us that God does not desire that we go through the pain of a relationship coming part. Jesus emphasizes that intimate relationships should not be disrupted easily, either by the ones in them or by others from the outside. He also emphasizes the role of God in our relationships, and reminds us that when God is the center and goal of our interactions with those around us we are all blessed. These things are a comfort.

But in the past, and still today, these passages have also been unsettling, if not downright painful. They have been used to argue that marriage is for heterosexual couples only, they’ve been used to relegate women to second place behind their husbands. Jesus’ words have been used to label divorce a sin worse than many others, and to imprison victims in abusive marriages. They were written at a time when marriage was very different from what we today in Canada understand it to be––when marriage was essentially an economic arrangement, the movement of human property from one man to another. And though times have changed, these passages have profoundly shaped our culture’s––our church’s––attitudes towards relationships, in sometimes destructive ways. They have led us to unthinkingly privilege marriage as the most desirable and fulfilling relationship God intends for us, thereby painfully excluding those who are not called to be married, those who want to be married but haven’t found anyone, those who were married but aren’t anymore, because of divorce or death. I mean, think about it for just a minute, how often do we in the church celebrate marriage as the primary relationship in our lives, or hold events that are focused on families? In our church membership database, when you enter the names of two people who live in the same household, the default setting is that the primary contact is Mr. So-and-so, while the secondary contact is Mrs. So-and-so, same last name. If the people are sisters, or roommates, or have different last names, or are the same gender, the database doesn’t automatically recognize that.

By the same token, how often do we in the church bless––truly bless, not just acknowledge––friendship? In my entire life in the church, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put flowers on the altar in honour of a ten-year anniversary of their Best Friends Forever friendship. I’ve seen those anniversary markers on Facebook, but not in church. What are we teaching our children and young people about God’s presence in their relationships with their friends? What are we teaching them about fulfilling God’s calling to them in life if they choose other priorities in life than getting married? Or if they choose not to get married at all? Believing that today’s Scripture passages are the inspired Word of God, through which God is still speaking to us, what is the blessing God intends for us to hear today? What is the new life God is speaking to us this morning? 

Well, one of the blessings of the passage from Genesis comes from its emphasis that God intends for the relationships in our lives to be ones that give life––to us, and to others. In the translation that we heard this morning, God creates a “helper” for Adam. We’ve seen the problems that word has caused in relegating women to “helping” positions, but the Hebrew is more nuanced than that. The Hebrew actually translates more accurately as “helpful counterpart,” which is a term found in Psalms that call on God for help. In other words, God is one of our helpful counterparts. Definitely not a secondary position. And so we can see that those interpretations that tell us that the woman is to be a helper and servant to the man are not right. Instead, what God is telling us today is that God blesses and nurtures relationships––all relationships––that are based on a radical equality of helpful counterparts, where the stronger helps and serves the weaker, not the other way around, so that no one struggles alone and so that both are lifted up by one another’s companionship.

When it comes to what God wants for us in our relationships, our Gospel reading tells us that God desires that in our relationships with others we act in such a way that the other person finds it easier, because of us, to draw closer to Christ. The writer of the Gospel of Mark follows Jesus’ words about divorce with the incident of Jesus and the children because it’s Jesus’ words about the children that show us what God wants in relationships. “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ ... And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” In other words, do not disrupt someone’s direct relationship with Christ. The life-giving relationships God intends for everyone are the ones in which each person feels blessed by God through the other, whether that other is a spouse, or a sibling, or a child, or a friend.
God does not restrict the blessings of relationships only to marriage. Marriage is one of only many different ways in which God gives us life through our relationships with others. While Jesus’ words about divorce might lead us to believe that he thought marriage was the height of what God is calling us to, his actual life tells us otherwise. Jesus’ most meaningful relationships did not come in marriage, but in his friendships with his disciples and those around him, including men, women, and children. His relationships were built on serving his friends, and also in being helped by them. 

For the church, the inspired Word of God through which God still speaks to us today both challenges and comforts. Today, it comforts us by reminding us that we are born into community, and that God’s plan for us is that we should all be nurtured by relationships that are a blessing, whether that be through marriage or family or friends. And it challenges us to reflect on how we, in our practice, keep people away from Christ when we insist that the only relationships God blesses are the ones found in marriage. It also both comforts and challenges us by reminding us that this very community, this particular incarnation of the Body of Christ, is called to be a place where people can come to find life-giving relationships. It’s a place where we are called into life-giving relationships with one another, as sisters and brothers through Christ, where we are called to make it easier for others to feel Christ’s blessing on them, where we are called to be “helpful counterparts” to one another, maybe for a lifetime or maybe just once.

In all of this, in the comfort and the challenge, in the things that stay the same and the things that change, the Word of God comes to us and God still speaks to us, telling us that God is with us always and that God desires blessing and new life for us here and now, in a diversity of relationships. Thanks be to God. Amen.