Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon for August 13

The reading

Revelation 4:1-11

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this." At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God;  and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come." And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created."

The message

In 1522, Martin Luther wrote.

About this Book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.

First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and pla in words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions.

Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly [Revelation 22]—indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important—and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.

Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1[:8], “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.

This preface was part of Luther’s campaign to get the book of Revelation removed from the Bible. His reasons, it’s not from the apostles (none of them wrote entirely in visions), the overly bold, self-described claims as to how great the book is makes him uncomfortable and it does not proclaim Christ clearly and purely, the message of God’s salvation is hidden someplace in a serious of difficult, frightening visions. Luther wonders what comfort and good news this book can offer. Now, Instead of following Luther’s advice to ignore or disregard this book, we are starting a 4 week series on The Revelation to John.  

I wanted to start by answering a few questions I have (and you might have too).

Why are we looking at Revelation?  The answer is simply because I would rather we learn about it here, together then on our own.  I had a few choices for the next 4 weeks, a series on the sacraments or something completely different. The book of Revelation is the most confusing and difficult book in the Bible to understand and find grace in, but there is grace in it.  It is an often abused book where people twist its words and visions around. People have created a big, not really Christian business around interpreting this book.  We must be very suspicious if anyone talks about only a few verses from revelation without its context. The end of the world is big business but the Revelation to John is not about the end of the world.    

That brings up our next question, if it’s not about the end of the world, what is it about?  Also called the Apocalypse of John, this book is a disclosure, unveiling or revealing of a series of visions John receives.  These visions are rooted in Old Testament references, symbols and secret codes. The book is about Christ’s victory over all evil forces and God as creator and redeemer.

Now, we have to ask why is it written in this way?   Revelation’s message of God’s ultimate victory over the forces of evil was meant to be understood by insiders and dismissed by persecutors or outside authorities.  A book that said, God is more powerful than and will destroy the Roman Empire, the monetary system and the kings of the world,  would have lead those authorities to attack Christianity as rebellious. On the other hand, a book that talks about multiple headed dragons and horsemen with flaming swords, bowls of death and monsters, that gets dismissed as crazy talk by those who do not understand the symbols. Revelation was written to  7 churches in Asia. (the first 3 chapters are individual messages of encouragement against persecution and correction in faith to these communities, we will look at those in our Bible study after church) While John, the author of this book, is unknown (it is almost certainly not the same author as John’s Gospel), we do know the author understood the history, life and rituals of the Temple well. The author was well versed in the Hebrew scripture.  There are 440 verses in the book of revelation, 275 of them are references to Old Testament.  Numbers are deeply important, not so much for what they describe but for what they mean (7 is perfect, 6 is imperfect or evil, 12, the number of tribes and disciples, is special)   

Most importantly, whenever we look at the book of Revelation, we have to remember this book is visions, not prophesy.  There is a big difference.  We can think of the events seen in revelation like the visions of Christmas past, present and future in Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. In particular the sad, difficult vision of Christmas future, of what could be, what will be unless things change.  If you remember the story, things do change and that vision of Christmas future never comes to be.  Here in Revelation, God always has all the power, God does not have to do anything in this book, God is not promising to do anything in this book.   

I’d like to end with a few thoughts on today’s actual reading. Revelation 4 is a vision of the heavenly throne room.  Many parts of this vision are reported by prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah.  The vision of God’s throne room, and the book of Revelation in general, shows that God is to be praised. The 4 creatures covered in eyes, which represent all creation, sing constant praise to God, The 24 elders represent the community of faith and they too worship God. (its probably 24 to represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples)   Even the physical properties (gems, crystal, valuable stones) and layout of the place (God is the creator and center) reflect God’s power and glory. We are invited to worship too.  In this scene, there is no doubt God is in control.  Things are rightly ordered. This is a bit of a spoiler, but Revelation does not end with death and destruction, that is not the ultimate message. It ends with a new creation, a time when earth looks like this throne room.     

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sermon for August 6

The reading 

Ephesians 6:10-20

6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

The message

Growing up in New York City, my family and I would go to all of the different museums, historical sites and landmarks every year or two.  One of my favorites was the Met.  This art museum had all sorts of different famous paintings by artists like Van Gogh and Picasso, whose names I knew. They also had artifacts from all over the world, ancient places like Egypt, Rome and Babylon as well as more modern history.   As soon as we got near the museum, my brother and I would always say, “we have to go to see the armor first”.   There is a section in the museum where they have medieval armor, whole suits of large, thick metal protective wear meant for knights and soldiers.  There is a display in the middle with models of 8 or 10 knights and horses fully covered in armor. Even in the safety of a museum, there was something intimidating and overwhelming about standing in front of this display.  You could imagine being on the wrong side of this frightening and powerful group of knights.    

Of course, things changed over the centuries.  Today, soldiers have a range of armor, bulletproof vests, armored vehicles and protective gear for gas or chemical attacks but nothing like those suits in the museum.  A long time ago, enemies slowly began to develop crossbows and other weapons that would cut right through this armor.  It also made the knights incredibly slow, which caused them to fall to lighter, faster attacks. Then, as gunpowder was introduced and guns improved, this armor became virtually useless.  It was developed to protect knights from the impact of large, heavy weapons in close combat, things like swords and axes.  It was no good against very tiny projectiles easily able to go through it and shot from a great distance.       

Today, Paul ends this letter to the Ephesians with talk about armor and advice on living in and fighting in the battle between good and evil.  The early churches were places of confusion, anxiety, legal insecurity and religious conflict. To this Paul adds a cosmic battle between good and evil. In fact, all of those other issues seem to stem from those evil forces, intent on destroying the church and hiding the saving work of God. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  This is not the only time Paul talks about the armor of God, this idea is also found in his letter to the Romans and in places like Thessalonians 5:8: But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.

Paul is not the first person to talk about the armor of God.  The prophet Isaiah writes:

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
    that there was no justice.
 He saw that there was no one,
    and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory,
    and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.

The writer of Proverbs  reassures people every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.

Paul’s appeal to unity that we have focused on over the past few weeks, the demand for us to see all people as children of God, saved by the same, undeserved grace, is a large part of this armor. That is how we can show the power of God to conquer all things and that is how we can experience the power of God to conquer all things.   Paul was a smart guy, well aware that these evil forces would do anything to draw people away from God. Like bacteria evolving resistance and finding ways to survive old antibiotics, evil changes. That means the armor of God has to change too. It will not go the way of medieval armor, something cool to see in a museum but of no real use anymore. The armor of God needed to be invincible but flexible, able to protect us from whatever those evil forces could throw at us, to distract us from God’s grace.   Today, those forces of evil could mean school kids facing bullying, drug epidemics in the suburbs or poor cities suffering with the loss of work, gangs welcoming people with nothing else going on, corporations too greedy to develop new antibiotics (since it will only save lives and avoid a devastating health crisis but not lead to big profits), misused technology, a value system where not everyone is a child of God, (or that some children are more important), a constant stream of ads telling us we need stuff, or even messages that pretend to be wrapped in biblical teachings.         

We still have this armor of God and while it sounds like wishful thinking in light of what’s happening around us, that is enough to change things.  The armor is God is not meant to sit in a museum. Even today, I find myself stopping to pray in places I am not supposed to, in the medieval collections of religious art and artifacts.  We are asked to admire the craft, the beauty and historical value and virtually forget they are taken out of context, it is an object meant to be in a community, to teach and express faith, point people to God.   The armor of God is meant to be worn, to be used. This armor's power can be understood by 3 verbs or action words, to sit, walk and stand (this idea comes from Andrew Lincoln’s survey of the commentaries on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians).  In this morning’s bible study class with the Fujianese church, I looked at bible stories to illustrate each one.    

To sit:  We looked at Luke 10:38-42. The story of Mary and Martha. As Mary sits with Jesus, listening to his teachings, Martha is running around fulfilling the obligations of a hosts. Martha complains and Jesus remind her (and us) to sit with what is most important. We are invited to sit with the comfort and peace of God’s promises  

To walk: we looked at the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke.  Here, we are reminded to forget divisions or rules and see each other as a child of God, to stop for those in need because it’s what God does for us.   It meant knowing God’s complete care and sharing that grace.

To stand:  We looked at Jesus chasing the money lenders out of the temple in Matthew 21, an act that ultimately leads to his death. Here we are reminded to speak out about injustice, to confront the causes of suffering and stand up to the forces of evil, confident that we have the armor of God.   

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon for July 30th

The reading 

Ephesians 4:1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.  Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people."  (When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)  The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love

The message

This can be a very difficult reading.  I do not say that a lot. Usually, I reserve the word difficult for scripture passages like Jesus telling the crowds “"If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple”, or the sexual violence throughout the story of Lot and his family. Those are the types of readings I call difficult.  Comparatively, Ephesians 4 might not sound that challenging.  Today’s reading is simply a description of what church should be like, the unity we should live with in God’s church.  The difficult part of this reading is just how far we are away from that vision. There is a great amount of dissonance when we say “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all, and look at how divided, angry and separated the family of God is.

The church is separated by race and ethnic identity.  Back in the 1950s Billy Graham stated to readers digest “Sunday morning at 11:00 am was the most segregated hour in America” (Later on this quote was used by Martin Luther King many times and often gets attributed to him).  Over the next decades, this has not changed much.  Even here today, I often refer to the churches that share our space with us by their ethnic identity, the Indonesian church is having a special event, the Filipino church will be in from 7 to 10,  I am teaching the English program for the Fujianese church for the next few weeks.  The church is divided by theological differences like what happens in Baptism, what the role of Mary and the Saints are, the source of the Holy Spirit (this one led to the great schism in 1054 that split the Roman Catholic and Orthodox church) the meaning of Holy Communion (that’s why I’m officially not welcome to receive Communion in the Roman Catholic church I grew up in or a Missouri Synod Lutheran church with whom we share the word Lutheran), what the authority of the church is (this one led to the Protestant Reformation)  or the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture (this one is what lead our church, along with 1000s of others, to leave the Missori Synod in 1974) . The church is divided by political affiliations (to see this one, just pick up a newspaper or check the news feed on your phone) . The church is divided by social issues, perhaps we have the same goals, but we certainly have different priorities and ideas on how to get there.    

In Ephesians 4, we get to the logical conclusion of Paul’s attack on division, an argument about God’s radical welcome and acceptance.  Paul gives 7 reasons why the church should be united and work together.  They are that there is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. To be united is to share the Gospel by being organized in a way that points to one Spirit, one faith, one God.   All people have God’s gift of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.  It does not stop there, all people have value, all people have something to say, to contribute and share, Today, we live in a divided world where religion, economics, space, education, technology and history separate us as well.  We are divided by a sense of individualism, There are many people fond of saying “there is no I in team” during motivational speeches but someone will quietly think “but there is a me, its right there, just take that last letter and second letter and you have me ”. The difficult part is that church needs to be a place where “its not about you”. Church is not about us, it’s about Jesus, it’s not about one person, it’s about a community, it’s not about one place, it’s about the kingdom of God.  That is where our attention should be.

My time and attention has been divided. I have been all over the place this week. I have spent the week dealing with the fire alarm and people keep telling me it’s urgent (expect the person repairing it, he’s not in a hurry).  One of the churches that share the space with us held a large special event on Friday night and Saturday. As we moved people around to make room, I was reminded that this event was a large investment of their limited resources and things going well was urgent.  I got an email a few days ago from Rainbow, letting me know new vendex reports may be due, we need to be ready to fill then out immediately, Its urgent.  I have been announcing that the 150th anniversary journal is being assembled and if you want something included, it has to be done as soon as possible. Again, its urgent.  Like my week, this sermon was all over the place going on from page to page and tangent to tangent, with a whole page of great stories, that didn’t really say anything. (even now, I wonder why I spent so much time explaining the world is divided, I mean, was that news to anyone).  There is a local answer to all this division, there is a daily way each of us can live out all people are undeserving sinners saved by God’s grace,

 It’s a single word, awareness.  I need to be aware that sharing the Gospel is urgent.  I need to show you its urgent.  when I go out of my to explain to new people, I’m not one of those “Christians”, if you call them that, who thinks all gay people are going to hell, Jesus died so you can be rich or a community of special people that excludes all others.  Its important to me to say that, so people know.  I also need to realize that is increasing division.  I need to be aware that I can be wrong (not about God’s love but how churches work, how it’s lived out). We need to be aware that everyone has something meaningful to contribute. 

I think of a homeless man who would stop in for clothes, prayer, someone to talk to and any support.  He would often stop in during very inconvenient times, when I was in the middle of doing 15 different things. Of course none of those things were as important as following Jesus command to care for the least of us, but they all felt like they were.  One morning he stopped in and I was in the middle of fixing this cabinet in the church kitchen for the 20th time.  A piece of wood had fallen off and I was trying to put it back on.  I tried all different things and nothing worked for more than a day or two, Everyone was complaining about it and I hated looking at it. It was almost Easter so I wanted to make sure it was fixed by then.  He saw me trying to nail this piece in and asked “what are you doing”. I said “this stupid thing keeps falling off, I tried everything”. He looked at it for minute and said “why don’t you just get a good wood glue and put it around the edge”.  I thought “whatever, that won’t work”.  A few days later, the piece fell off again so I tried the glue. It’s now been up for 2 years plus.

It is about how we see each other, as children of the same one, loving God. When we do that, things change.    

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon for July 23

The reading

Ephesians 2:11-22
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;  for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

The message

Last week, we had an introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. To review quickly, this letter was meant for more than one community (as it does not address any specific issues or share any information about a particular church). It was also likely written by a student or a new Christian converted  by hearing Paul rather than Paul himself (about half of Paul’s letters in the bible were written in his name).

The letter focuses on Christian unity and the conflict between good and evil. In terms of unity, Paul shocks, disturbs and angers society when he declares that being joined to the death and resurrection of Christ is more important than social standing, citizenship, race, gender and status (like being free or slave, rich or poor, priest or non-priest).  All people were sinners, saved by God’s gift of grace. That identity is what matters.   Next week, as we finish our time with Ephesians, we will look at this cosmic battle between good and evil, one where Paul invites believers to “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil”.

Today, I want to look at what exactly it means to belong, to be part of a group where all people are equal in value, in giving as you can and receiving as you need. It’s as strange and counter cultural today as it was almost 2000 years ago.  We do a lot to set ourselves apart from others.  The good news that to God, everyone is the same, that we all , belong in the kingdom of God, can be a hard thing to actually live out.  I’d like to share a few personal stories to illustrate what this can mean for us.    

 First, there is something that happened Monday night, something that does not make Jen or I seem too bright.  It was about 8:00 O’clock and one of my friends came to pick me up for an event.  I was ready to go and then we realized that the cat was missing.  We saw her out in the yard next door (we let outside a few hours a day and sometimes she finds her way places she should not be).  We tried the usual lures, shaking the treat can, calling her, opening the garage door (the sound usually scares here back into the house).  We lost sight of her for a few minutes and then kept running back and forth to the yard and the front of the house, trying to take down part of the fence and then walking around the block to see if she got out. (while my friend is sort of impatiently waiting and amused by us running around ).  After a half hour or so, my friend left and we continued looking in the yard for the cat.  It started to get dark so we were getting worried, A few minutes after that, Jen asks me a simple question “did you look upstairs under the bed”.  I said no, we saw her in the yard and didn’t see her come in the house.  We search a few more minutes and then check under the bed, where, we find the cat, sleeping where she always is around 9 pm..  We wasted a lot of time and energy and stressed out because we were looking in the wrong place.   

I hear a lot of people talk about struggling to find where they belong and  often people get caught in looking in the wrong places.  Often people get stuck in bad situations, gangs, addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling, abusive relationships, hate groups,  cults, bad behaviors, loneliness and boredom.   A lot of that can be different if church is truly a place for everyone (perhaps the only one in the world).    

The church is not yet that different. I was not born Lutheran, I didn’t really know what Lutherans were until half way through college.   As I started seminary, many of the students were lifers, youth leaders, synod life, could sing, knew each other.   Early on I met an Italian pastor, who had been around a long time and worked at a very wealthy church in one of the East coasts most affluent areas.  As we talked, he told me if anyone bothers you or gives you any trouble about who you are, let me know and ill help, we have to watch out for each other.   It was a kind offer and it helped knowing someone was on my side, but really left me wondering, is that going to be necessary, what did I get myself into.   Years later, I was at a clergy event and was talking to a group of pastors I never meet before.   I wound up with a group of less formal and serious pastors who said not quite proper stuff, (we tend to find each other).   We were talking about different issues on inclusion in the church and I happened  to say “sometimes I don’t even feel like I belong” and we moved on to other topics.    One of the pastors in the group came back a few hours later and said “you belong”.  It took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about but I believed him. 

The churches Paul writes to would have rapidly made 1st calss, 2nd class and 3rd class Christians, based on property, wealth, family, who baptized you or time of participation. They often tried to.  Condemned as it was, it would happen again and again.  We have to see and try to stop the same thing here.   

Finally, I  have to go way back, I was in 5th grade.  My twin brother and I had just started a new school in 4th grade when we moved to a different house. I never really fit in at the new school, with some bullying and just not making friends.   We had a field trip at the end of the school year, which can be an anxious thing when you don’t have a lot of friends.   It was an outdoor park but I don’t remember we went or who was there, but I remember being invited to play tag.  It was so exciting, as my time in elementary school winded down, I had a day when I felt like I belonged.  Invite others in, they might write you off, dismiss you, most people will be polite and a few will come in, desperate to belong.