Thursday, August 18, 2016

Division and Discernment

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches on 8/14. The text was Luke 12:49-56.

There aren’t too many things in life we can be sure of, but in the Holy Land, the weather is one of them. Here in New York, when we make plans for outdoor events, it is always with backup plans of what to do in case of rain.  However, in the Holy Land, there are distinct rainy and dry seasons.

If it is summer time, which is in the dry season, you can make definite plans for outdoor activities. It will not rain. If the sky becomes cloudy and dark, it just will not rain. That can be counted on! In the rainy season, if it clouds up, it will rain.

In the summer you are likely to experience that dusty, scorching wind from the south. These are givens that the average person knows and understands. As Jesus said, these are signs that can be read.

So, are you puzzled with the way Jesus portrays himself in today’s gospel lesson?

Most of us do not enjoy controversy and division, do we? We do not look back longingly on times of congregational, personal or family strive as “the good old days.”

And yet Jesus says come to bring division. That division is being brought to families, which we consider the basic building block of society. Isn’t harmony in or families God’s will?

Yet Jesus chastises his listeners who are intelligent enough to read weather signs, but miss the signs of the times. What are the signs that Jesus is talking about? He is talking about his ministry and the coming of the kingdom of God. The Jewish people could read the weather, but they could not recognize that Jesus was the messiah and his miracles were from God. Do you recall that at one time when Jesus performed some miracles that the Pharisees accused him of using satanic power? They just didn’t get it because they refused to accept that a carpenter from Galilee could do great things.

Jesus is asking us the same question. Do we recognize the signs of the times? Do we recognize that Jesus is the Son of God? Do we recognize that Jesus died on the cross to redeem us with the Father? Do we recognize that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the ransom of our sins to give us eternal life? To read and understand the signs of Jesus’ ministry sets us apart and divides us from those who do not. It’s not a matter that Jesus’ audience that Jesus’ audience could not read the signs, they refused to read the signs of Jesus’ life. God’s actions demand a decision.

As preaching professor David Lose explains:

Like dark clouds or a dry wind, the teaching and acts of mercy [Jesus] performs indicate what will come. Jesus is born for one thing: to herald the coming kingdom of God, and to establish this kingdom he will raise neither banner nor sword but instead hang on the cross, the vulnerable insignia of God's new reign. Those who recognize the signs and choose to follow him will not only need to forsake the trappings of power that adorn the lords of the present kingdom, but can also expect resistance, even opposition. (Working Preacher)

Jesus is calling us to make a decision. We are to follow him or not. If we follow Jesus’ call to the cross, we will meet with opposition. We will not think or live like those who embrace the status quo. Friends and family may not approve of our lifestyles as Jesus’ disciples. Wholehearted discipleship calls for a change of heart and mind, which is demonstrated by our actions. That’s what brings the division in families.

Does the fear of altered relationships deter us from giving our all to Jesus? God is drawing a line in the sand and asking us to make a choice. To quote Moses from the book of Deuteronomy:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors... (Deut. 30:19-20). 

This is what God is calling us to and yet, how can we respond in a way that pleases God?

Have any of you been watching the Olympics? Have you noticed how quiet the audience has been? We don’t hear a sound from them when their teams are competing…or do we? They are not mere detached spectators!

We too are being watched by “by so great a cloud of witnesses,” (Heb. 12:1). They are not detached as they watch us either. Like the audiences of the Olympics, these saints are cheering us on.

As we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, God enables us to choose to respond to God’s overture of love. The choice is ours. Amen


Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C Katherine M. Bush, David E. Gray, & C. Shelley, Feasting On the Word: Year C, Volume 3

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Rich Toward God

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 7/31 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text is Luke 12:13-21
Our society encourages us to succeed. From the time we are children, we are taught that if we work hard and do our very best we will be rewarded. Having plenty of money, a nice house, lots of vacations and a good retirement is what we are told to strive for. Some would consider such success a sign of God’s blessing of our efforts. 
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That theology was even more prominent in Jesus’ time. From that perspective, the rich landowner was a success. In fact, he was so successful that his current storage facilities were too small.
Today's gospel passage is bracketed by two equally powerful, yet opposite drives--greed and being rich toward God. When Ray and I moved from Rhode Island to Gettysburg for seminary, we left many things in storage in Rhode Island. We felt we could do without them for four years and we did. Whenever we visited Rhode Island and drove by the storage unit, we’d say, “Hi stuff.”  But I have to say that I did miss that stuff--especially the Christmas ornaments the kids made in school.

A few summers ago we were reunited with our stuff. It was like Christmas with all the things we had forgotten that we had. Everything was loaded into a UHaul truck, which I had the honor to drive from Rhode Island to Olean.

Was God telling us that success or having stuff is wrong? Things in themselves aren’t bad. Success in itself isn’t bad, so what is the problem? Immediately before the parable, Jesus warns against greed--a word which covers more than money and gets at the root attitude. It is the strong desire to acquire more and more possessions and experiences.
Jesus does not warn against money, possessions or material wealth. This parable is not about any of those things. Greed is that feeling of never having enough, the sense of never being satisfied with what one has. They must have more. That desire becomes all consuming. Greed is referred to as idolatry in today’s second lesson (Col. 3:5). From Luke’s description of the rich farmer, he had more than enough. The rich farmer had a bumper crop. As theologian Joel B. Green says:
In fact, he did not need the money from the sale of his crops to begin his building program and he will wait a year to sell his surplus produce so that he can get top dollar for them when the market isn’t as saturated (Joel B. Green, NICNT).
The rich farmer would have been the top dog in his village, while the peasants around him would have been living on a subsistence economy. The rich farmer’s need for increased personal storage space would have been considered extremely odd, perhaps even monstrous in the face of the poor around him. In the village economy, the rich man’s practices would have been detrimental to his peasant tenant neighbors. The rich farmer would grow in economic power and status in the village, while others become more dependent upon him. Simply put, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
There are a few confusing things about this rich farmer. Most men were married and had families at that time. When the rich farmer is considering all the crops he has, there is no mention of family to share the abundance with. He doesn’t talk about selling the excess and most decidedly isn’t going to share the blessing with the poor.
Now comes the most puzzling thing of all: if this kind of success is a sign of God’s blessing, then why didn’t the rich farmer thank or even mention God? The rich farmer’s attitude is clearly shown in the verses of his self-dialogue:
"‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?18Then he said, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry'" (vv. 17-19).
Who is the main subject of the rich farmer’s conversation with himself? IT’S HIMSELF! The pronouns I and my are used repeatedly while he talks to HIMSELF. Is there no one else in his life? We only hear talk about himself, not God or others.
However, there will soon be in a collision of world views. God has had enough. I love the phrase, “But God said to him.” It reminds me of how God interrupted Job with the words, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). God calls the rich man a fool, which is a very forceful word describing one who rebels against God or whose practices deny God. 

God is trying to draw our attention to the right way and wrong way of thinking. The rich farmer’s focus is inward, while God’s is outward. The rich man is selfish, while God is generous. The rich farmer operates out of what is called a  theology of scarcity. God wants us to live a theology of abundance. This means God gives us enough to do everything He asks us to do. When things are tough, rather than turning inward, holding on to what we have for dear life, God says to give and give generously. The rich farmer’s objectives and God’s are diametrically opposed to each other. Contrary to popular belief, the one who dies with the most toys does not win. God wins.
How do we make sure our treasure is God? According to Luke, it all boils down to sharing with the poor. It’s not all about us. If we hold up a mirror to our inner thoughts and our actions, what do we see? Do we see our own desires reflected or do we see the image of Jesus? May God give us the grace and will to be continually rich toward him and to be a blessing to those around us.    Amen!!


Joel B. Green, The New International Bible, Volume IX, Luke

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Getting Gutsy With God

Does it ever stop? No matter how much we pray for an end to the violence, again this week there has been more. We weep and pray with the families and friends of the officers killed in Baton Rouge, LA and of the victims of such horror in Munich, Germany. Where is God In all of this and what can we do?

Image result for ask, seek knockRemember last week’s gospel about Mary and Martha? Each represents 2 different, but equal characteristics of the Christian life. Mary faithfully listens to Jesus and Martha faithfully exercises hospitality. Mary exhibits being while Martha exhibits doing. 

The being and doing are evident in today's gospel. The first part concerns the Lord's Prayer. Because this is so familiar to us, as we pray, it is often by rote without even thinking about what we are saying. One thing I learned during my Clinical Pastoral Education in seminary, is what sticks with people, even when they are suffering from dementia. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper and the Lord's Prayer are such things. When it comes to the Lord's Prayer, people pray right along without stumbling over the words. It has gone deep into their hearts, into their spirit and is evident when there is little else. And yet we often pray this prayer without thinking.

In Luke, we frequently find Jesus at prayer. Jesus prayed at his baptism (3:21), before choosing the twelve disciples (6:12), before the first prophecy of his passion (9:18), at his transfiguration (9:28) and at other occasions. If Jesus prayed often, then how much more do we need to pray?

Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray.  From the beginning, we see that this prayer comes from relationship. Jesus prayed, "Our Father..." He did not say, MY Father, but OUR Father-emphasizing the fatherly characteristics of love, nurture, mercy and delight.

"Hallowed be your name." What does that mean? Hallowed means the Father's name is kept holy. The holiness of God is a central theme in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit enables us to keep God's name holy in our lives.

"Your kingdom come." Isn't this the cry of our hearts as we see the violence, devastation and pain all over our world? This petition is for God's reign to be allowed entry into our world. It represents the hope for the full manifestation of God's promised rule. God will not act against people's will. The Holy Spirit will show us how to invite and advance God's reign in some way.

It has the two-edged focus of now and not yet. God's kingdom has a future aspect. Only he can overturn the powers at work in the world and establish his universal reign. We've tried it on our own and have failed miserably. Human efforts don't work. It has been tried in Geneva, Switzerland, the Plymouth Bay Colony and numerous Christian communes.

Forgiveness is a central theme in Luke's writing. Then and now communities and families cannot thrive unless members forgive and admit their need for forgiveness. "We ourselves" or "We are forgiving" (v. 4b) is present tense meaning continual action. Forgiving is the lifestyle of the followers of Jesus. What would our world look like if forgiveness was a continual practice? Would we see as much war? Would we see as much racism? Just imagine the possibilities if we just let God be God in our lives and if others did so as well.

The phrase "lead us not into temptation" can be confusing. It helps a bit to see how it's worded in the translation used this morning, " not bring us to the time of trial" (v. 4b), but it is still a bit puzzling.

I find Luther's explanation in The Small Catechism to be helpful. He wrote, "It is true that God tempts no one, but we ask in this prayer that God will preserve and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins, and that, although we may attacked by them, we may finally prevail and gain the victory."

The message of the Lord's Prayer would engrave itself into the lives of the community of faith. May it be so here in our community of faith.

In the final paragraph of today's gospel, we hear the words ask, seek, and knock, along with a promise.This has often been misunderstood as to ask for anything and God will give it to us. This has become the basis for the "name it, claim it" gospel. What Jesus is actually saying is that if we ask for and seek a relationship with him, he will gladly give it to us. In these verses God is inviting us to get gutsy with him. Is prayer supposed to be a passive experience? No. We are supposed to be fully engaged in conversation with our Heavenly Father. Notice in the verses that follow the Lord's Prayer, Jesus tells a parable that lifts up persistence, followed by Jesus spelling out very clearly that God's children are not to simply sit and pray all day. Action and prayer go together. Jesus tells his disciples to ask, search and knock.

Jesus says we need to ask and keep asking for what we need. Sometimes we may think that God cannot be bothered with our problems. Jesus assures us that we will receive if we ask. That is not a promise for any self-serving request one may have.

But what good and loving parents would be unconcerned with the concerns of their children? The reason we have the prayer list in the bulletin and the reason we keep asking for prayer is because the asking, searching and knocking Jesus is talking about are in the present tense and can be understood as “Keep on asking, searching and knocking.” This promise is for us. Jesus said, “everyone who asks receives… everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (v. 10). The caveat that is misunderstood in this passage and is clarified in the gospel of Matthew is the reason behind what we are asking God for. In the misunderstanding of this passage, God has been viewed as a big vending machine. We ask and pop--out comes what we want. But Matthew states that what we are asking for should be done so that God may be glorified.

The last illustration tells us that if evil parents give good gifts to their children, HOW MUCH MORE will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. How would our lives be different if we took God at his Word? How might it change the way we walk through each day of our lives? Think about that.

For God's people, praying and working for the fulfillment of the reign of God go together hand in hand. We do not just sit back passively and wait for God to answer, but we get to work and live into the reality of what we've prayed for. For example, we may pray for the lonely, but then go and visit the lonely. In the face of violence, we may pray, but we can also protest when police use excessive force and we can visit the police station to tell officers that we're grateful for their service and pray for their safety.

Ultimately, prayer is the presence of God. It is a relationship into which we are invited. God wants to give us life and God tirelessly continues to work for our salvation. This doesn't mean that God will always change the situation, but knowing that God is with us, that God is going through the tragedy, illness, suffering, depression or death with us should give us the confidence to pray for God's protection and to grant his will in any circumstance. That is the good news today.