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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Struggles of faith

July 31, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 6:25-34 2nd Reading: 1 Peter 2:1-10

For the last Sunday in my “Burning Questions/Stump the Pastor” sermon series, I’ll be addressing the question: “What do you struggle with? What do you really question either from scripture, tradition, etc?” On the one hand, it is nice to be asked this question—it shows someone is curious about what goes on in my head that I might not otherwise share. Also, it points out that you, too, struggle with scripture and tradition and parts of your faith and maybe it might be nice to know you’re not alone. I might tend to be a cheerleader of Christianity and Lutheranism—obviously I am a bit attached and biased. But yes I also struggle with it and in it, just as you do. So I’m glad to share about my struggles with my faith. On the other hand, I don’t want this to become a gripe-session. I love my job. I love my congregation. I love being a Lutheran Christian. I love this neighborhood. How could I serve, otherwise? But love isn’t blind, and I do struggle.

I have loved and struggled within Lutheranism my whole life—I was born a Lutheran and always considered myself one, even when I attended an Episcopal church for a few years and explored other denominations and faiths. I do feel that I choose to be a Lutheran Christian, even though in some ways it was decided for me when I was an infant. But many of my friends who were raised in the church didn’t decide to stay Lutheran or anything at all really, so it is a choice.

When I was a teenager, I read the Bible cover to cover. I struggled with understanding the Holy Spirit. There were years when I didn’t say the part of the creed about the Holy Spirit that goes, “with the Father and the Son, he is to be worshipped and glorified.” I couldn’t find it in the Bible and I didn’t understand the trinity very well. In time I learned not to take myself so seriously and to look at both scripture and tradition in my understanding of how the Holy Spirit fit into the picture of who God is and I found a few places in the Bible that seemed to say that we can worship the Holy Spirit.

I struggled with sexism in the Lutheran church—even though women could be ordained, they can’t find a call as easily as men. I remember there were only about 7 of us who graduated on time. The men had calls right out of the gate, even though in my humble opinion some of them wouldn’t be as good of pastors as some of the women and weren’t as mature. Some of those men didn’t have successful first calls although there is no telling if that was their own fault or not. The women all waited for calls. I waited three years for a call. Now I know that God had a purpose in that—to find me a good match in Oregon where we could be near family and afford to buy a home and where I would have a loving, healthy congregation to raise me up to be a good pastor and teach me what I need to know.

I have struggled with homophobia in the church. When I was 16 I went to Camp Odyssey, the one I am volunteering at this year so that others can have a similar experience. We tackled racism. We tackled sexism. I felt we could conquer the world with love and acceptance. And I sat down on that Thursday afternoon in 1991 and heard from people I had never had the chance to listen to before, a lesbian couple, describe their very ordinary lives together, doing laundry, supporting each other, loving each other, just like any other couple. And it blew my mind. And I read an article in the Lutheran magazine about churches in San Francisco where gay and lesbian pastors were serving. In my mind, we needed gay pastors so that gay people could have role models and pastors who understood their situation. And I got to the Bay Area and I realized that a gay or lesbian person could be a role model for any of us and who of us can say another person’s call isn’t from God to preach and preside? But it has taken the Lutheran church a long time to catch up and still this issue fragments us.

I’ve worked through a lot of my arguments with the Bible. I am not too fond of the passages about hell and eternal fire and gnashing of teeth. I know from word studies and research that descriptions of hell usually refer to the garbage pit outside the city of Jerusalem that burned day and night. Or it refers to the grave. It can be hard to reconcile the concept of a loving God with one who would torture us for all eternity. I don’t believe in that kind of hell. I believe hell is something we make for ourselves here on earth. I also believe that someday all those painful things and all our problems and shortcomings will be no more—I don’t know if they will be burned up in a fire, but that would be fine. I don’t like trying to scare people into believing and doing good.

And I struggle with the role of the pastor. Often I hear and get signals from some of you that my idea of what I do and your idea of what I’m supposed to do don’t always match up. I get the feeling you expect me to do a lot of things for you—that’s what you pay me for. I should lead the children’s message. I should lead the singing. I should organize and lead adult forum. I should lead the prayer at the meeting or meal, and so forth. But I see my job as teaching you all to do those things. You are the priesthood of all believers. You have gifts and talents. I get to help empower you to use your gifts. I get to try to work myself out of a job.

Someone said to me recently regarding my maternity leave and some community projects I’m involved in outside of King of Kings, “You should be careful how much you’re away, we may realize we don’t need you.” That’s exactly what I hope you do realize—it is my job to make you realize that! You can do most of this yourself. That is part of what Pastor Solveig was trying to teach you when she made all those red stoles for you. You are the church. You can do this yourselves. You have God’s help and everything you need, so don’t get discouraged. And this is why I am particularly excited to see what comes of my maternity leave, besides a little munchkin and motherhood for me. There is a very special gift here for you as well. This is your time to take on many of the tasks that are yours anyway. My job is to preach and preside at the sacraments. Everything else is on you. I get to teach you how to be that priesthood that you are and give you the confidence to do it and this is a very good excuse to do just that. And that is why I need you to sign up to make visits with me, so you can learn to do your job, which I will not be able to do for you while I am away. Please be sure to check the sign up sheet on the door to the social hall so I can start taking you on visits with me so you know what to do if I am gone for 6 weeks or one day.

I get frustrated when I hear or feel that our congregation is the only place you’ll go to worship—not Oak Hills when we have worship there, not on vacation when you’re away, not at Thanksgiving Eve, not at St. Stephen for Advent services, and so forth. I realize that some of that is a shyness and awkwardness about being in a new place. But I just know there are so many places to experience God’s loving presence, and when we go to a new place, we might see something a little differently than we did before and it may give us a more complete picture of who God is. Sometimes I wonder if after you die, the angels will be inviting you into heaven and you’ll refuse because it isn’t King of Kings.

And I am concerned that the whole Christian church in general and Lutheran church in America doesn’t adapt to our culture to be relevant for people today. There is a good chance there won’t be a job for me in 20 years. I don’t think the Lutheran church will die by then. But many congregations will close because of an inability to reflect God in a way that people today can understand and be touched. I don’t like the idea of Katy Perry-type music at church, so I can understand some of you don’t want guitar or percussion. But is church really about what you or I want, or should it be what a world in need really needs? I do have hope that we will become what we need to be to share the love of God with those who aren’t like us. And if we don’t we will die, and others will do it for us. Either way, the love of God will go on. I would hate to see myself standing in the way of others experiencing the love of God, though.

The Gospel reminds us that whatever bothers or worries us isn’t the end of the story. Worrying and fretting won’t add a single day to our lives. God is in charge. I have spent nights sleepless concerned I had offended one or more of you, going over words I said that maybe I shouldn’t, or analyzing something you said to try to understand where you’re coming from. But those nights have been relatively few. And I am learning to come to you instead of letting it eat away at me. I was concerned that the unknowns of pregnancy and motherhood would make me fret more. So far, though, I feel very calm about the future. I feel very hopeful. I see a bigger picture that is about the circle of life and family and each of us having a place in the universe and our church’s development and growth. Some things that might have worried me before pale in comparison to the bigger picture of God’s amazing grace and creativity.

I know you struggle, too, sometimes, and worry and wonder about your place in the church. I’m not going to say, “Don’t worry” because that doesn’t work. Instead, I’ll say, look at the wildflowers growing outside this window and see how we don’t do a single thing to make them so beautiful. Look at your beautiful family and give thanks. Look at all the blessings of health and food and community and living in this part of the world. And praise God because there is so much more to be thankful for than to gripe about!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What is truth?

July 24, 2011 Gospel: John 14:1-7 Psalm 15 2nd Reading: Ephesians 4:25-32

This week I have the question from one of you “What is truth?” This question came to me in the context of some family strife and an argument where some people had more information than others, and some were unwilling to look at the information right in front of their eyes. So this is a question that we deal with everyday and we deal with when we think of Biblical truth, as well. And those two things aren’t unrelated. So on this big topic of truth, I am going to pick a couple of themes to explore.

Truth. Reality. Facts. Christians have been arguing over this kind of thing for centuries and denominations have split off from others because of how they regard truth. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod have a main difference in how they regard the truth of the Bible. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God—that every word in the Bible actually happened and was written down the way God intended it and has no errors or discrepancies or misunderstandings.

Now if that describes your view, have no fear. You are welcome here. I imagine we each have a different understanding of the Bible. It is the official stances of our church bodies that see us as divided. Christ says there is no male or female, citizen or illegal immigrant, inerrant-believing or inspired word of God believing. We are one in the Lord. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America says officially that the Bible is the inspired word of God. That means that God inspired the words of the Bible in human hearts and we wrote it down. Sometimes we may misunderstand what God said and sometimes human ideas can get in the way a little from what God intended. Each writer comes from his own perspective and some of that influences what gets written in the Bible. However we as ELCA Lutherans don’t see that as interfering in any way with the truth of the Bible.

This congregation is rather advanced in their understanding of the Bible, so I don’t feel I have to tiptoe around you. We were told in seminary not to rip the rug out from anyone—not to tell you more than you could handle in understanding the Bible as literature and as a living document that is always changing based on advances in translation and who is reading it and the context it was written in. But you’ve had some good Christian Education in the past that has taught you to look critically at the Bible. Not that you criticize it or say it is wrong, but that you analyze it and try to understand when some of these things were written and why and how the Bible evolved over time to include the stories and books that it does.

When you read the book of Genesis, for example, and you see two creation stories side by side and they aren’t the same. How can we understand the truth of the Bible? Is one of the stories right or wrong? Or when you read that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and you know from science that he’s not going to survive and then later in the story you read that even the cattle put on sackcloth and mourned and repented. Do you go home and put sackcloth on your cat or dog? Or do you consider that maybe there is a greater meaning behind these stories than the absolute fact. Or when you read in the Old Testament that a “young woman shall conceive” and in the New Testament that prophecy gets translated that a “virgin shall conceive,” how do you decide if that is a necessity in your belief or it doesn’t matter to you? I think Mary would have been pretty embarrassed that the whole world discusses her virginity so often!

There are facts and there is truth. Writing hadn’t been invented when creation first began, so that story was passed from one person to another over the camp fires, and you know what happens when you start that game of telephone. Two stories emerged. We get both, because they both have a greater truth than their facts to tell us. They tell us that creation didn’t happen all at once. They tell us that we are charged with caring for creation. They tell us that there is more than one way at looking at creation—a good lesson for those of us who argue about evolution verses creationism. We get a lot more truths than just facts so we should dig deeper to understand what God is trying to tell us, instead of arguing over who is right.

And the story of Jonah and the whale—it may be telling us to watch out for large fish. And it might be telling us something deeper about running away from God and how it doesn’t get us anywhere, but how God gives us second chances and can turn a hopeless situation into one of joyful celebration.

And the story of Jesus born of a virgin. Maybe it is about the miracle of virgin birth or about purity or something. And maybe it is telling us that his birth was very special and different from most, so we should pay attention to this Messiah.

When you read the Bible, even if you’re a literalist and you are believing all the facts just as they are written, and that’s fine, also look a little deeper and try understand the full truth of what is being said. There are so many layers to this amazing book. There is so much to take in. You’ll always find something new there.

And there are layers of truth in the people we know and interact with every day. Sometimes they seem like liars. Sometimes they don’t have all the information. But also look deeper and try to see why they can’t face that truth just then. Try to see it from their perspective what is true and what isn’t. There are few things in life that are so clear cut as to have right and wrong answers. Usually the truth is somewhere in between.

In the Gospel Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life. Some have taken that to mean that you have to confess the exact name of Jesus to be accepted into heaven or God’s love. Even the angel Gabriel didn’t get Jesus’ name right. He called him Immanuel—God with us. So what does it mean that Jesus is the truthi Certainly he told the truth, no matter how unpopular. He was honest with people of importance that they were missing out on something big because of all the distractions in their lives. He was honest with the nobodies—telling them parables, stories with details that weren’t about anyone factual, but told a deeper truth, that didn’t insult their intelligence, but made them think. He was honest with the disciples that he would have to die and be raised. And he lived his life in an honest way, not bowing to pressures from those who were rich and not sugar-coating his message for anyone. He was truth, pure and simple, and many times truth is not pretty.

When I was looking for hymns to help me tell the story of truth, I was surprised how few of them I found in the hymnal. Maybe truth isn’t a big Lutheran focus. But I would say trust is. We want to know if we can trust God and how to trust God and how to live in trust in an imperfect community where sometimes people let us down or we let others down. Trust is a lifelong journey. Think of trust growing or getting broken down in a marriage. We are born with trust. We don’t have any choice. It was beautiful to see the trust of the little children at Bible School. I know I will have a helpless infant soon who will fully trust in me because it will have no other choice. I will do my best to keep that trust, but I will fail at times. And we get to relearn that trust when we get older or other times we can’t do things for ourselves. Usually, people around us are helpful. Sometimes they fail us. Do you know people who are centered and generous and hopeful, no matter the facts and details? There are some people who are calm and trusting even when it seems so much is going wrong. For others of us, everything can be going right, and we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, for it all to fall apart.

Trust is an attitude we can cultivate that isn’t based on the facts, but the deeper truths that God never fails us. Sometimes God makes a different choice than we’d make. And sometimes we have bad things happen to us that are a consequence of our own actions or the sin in our society and world. But that is the world we live in, not God that has let us down. God is love. God is everything that is faithful and true and good.

So how do you cultivate trust in God? Some similar ways to cultivating it in any relationship: Daily conversation and open communication, sharing meals together, devoting time to the relationship, learning about the other, working side by side, paying attention to what is important to the other, compromising, being honest. All these things are going to be helpful in a loving relationship of any kind whether it be with a partner or with our partner we refer to as God.

What is truth? For Christians, I would say our main truth, is that God created us good, came as Jesus to show us how to live, and lives among us in our neighbors and enemies alike, that God loves us and is the love we share with others, and is a force that unites us as one with each other and the whole universe. I suppose that’s my creed, if I were to write one. You might have more in your creed or less. But I respect your truth and I am your sister in this Christian family, this family of God’s cosmos.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sermon for July 17

“Growing Wheat and Weeds”
July 17, 2011
Dialogical Sermon between Pastors Aimee Bruno and Greg Lund

Greg: When Aimee and I talked about this day, she said that their themes for Vacation Bible School are the gospel in the World, the Community, and in the Self. So we decided to look at those through two lenses: Jesus’ words in Matthew and Paul’s words in Romans.

The gospel reading is Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Here are Paul’s words in Romans 8:12-25

Aimee: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explains, the field is the world. I’m going to remind you that world here is cosmos. The field is the cosmos—all creation. We are living in this cosmos and we look around, as the wheat that we hope we are, and see some weeds on either side of us. Sometimes we are going to see certain people or nations as our enemies or as the weeds. This Gospel points to “all causes of sin” as another way of seeing the weeds—anything that hurts people, any injustice, anything that breaks people down. We’re living in the world of mixed wheat and weeds. Presbyterians and Lutherans, the good wheat and privileged people that we are, are looking at this world and saying, it is full of weeds. There are too many hungry people, too many people living in poor conditions without water and food and basic necessities. Why are there so many weeds—children dying of malaria and women who are illiterate?

Our congregation tithes a portion of our giving to the larger Lutheran Church. That goes to support our staff on a statewide and nationwide level. But much of that goes around the world to where it is most needed. Some of it goes to Action by Churches Together (ACT). They have helped after hurricanes in Nicaragua and with disasters all over the world. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is a part of ACT, too, along with 110 other relief agencies. We don’t do anything of these things alone, but when we partner, we see ourselves not as individual stalks of wheat, which can do a little good, and become part of a field where we become nourishment and relief for a world in need.

Greg: I’m glad you pointed out all the wheat God is planting in the world. It’s exciting to hear about the partnerships between our churches, not just King of Kings and Oak Hills, but the whole Church with a capital C around the world. Sometimes we look at a field like this and see only weeds, even though it’s mostly lawn. And when you look in the news, it’s tempting to say what the field hands probably said in the parable: “Where did all these weeds come from?”

Paul says the whole world groans. In some mysterious way, human sin doesn’t just affect people, it affects the whole cosmos. Let’s try an experiment. On Thursday I bought a copy of the Wall Street Journal. I’ll read some headlines. If it sounds like wheat to you (good news), then say “Yeah!” If it sounds like a weed to you (bad news), then groan. [Greg reads headlines.] So many weeds! Add to that the tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes Pastor Aimee mentioned, and it’s almost overwhelming. I find it hard to read the newspaper these days. Sometimes it seems like everything is hanging in the balance.

But Paul gives us good news. These groans are not a death rattle. The whole creation, he says, has been groaning in the pains of childbirth. The groans point to new life. I can’t claim to know what labor pains are like, but I was there for my sons’ birth, and I saw how quickly the pain was forgotten when my wife held her newborn. The joy was worth all the pain. God is leading creation to the new birth. As our Nicene Creed says, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” Suffering will be erased once and for all, creation restored, and we will see God’s glory. “Our present sufferings,” Paul says, “are not worth comparing with that glory.” Every groan is a reminder of the glory. God is still in charge of this world.

Aimee: At least twice a month, I have the pleasure of seeing our congregations working side by side to feed our hungry neighbors. I think of our two communities as two patches in this field.

The more we work together in the community, the more we realize that those who we might otherwise label weeds, are actually good seeds. There is a beautiful purple flower that grows in the gutters in my neighborhood and I’ve contemplated uprooting one and taking it to my house to put in my yard. I pull out dandelions every year and chuck them into the yard waste bin. A friend of ours makes dandelion wine. A neighbor of mine actually planted a blackberry bush a couple of years ago. When I even see a hint of a blackberry bush in my yard, I’ve got that thing out of the ground in ten seconds flat. I don’t mind riding my bicycle down to the blackberry bushes in my neighborhood and picking enough to freeze for pancakes and pies all winter, but I’m not going to allow those horrible bushes in my yard. What is good seed and what is a weed can be subjective. It is a good thing we don’t have to judge. We get to live together in community, good seed and weeds all living together side by side. And I suspect that when God goes to separate the weeds from the wheat, there will be far fewer weeds than we might have thought and that even parts of our own lives need to get thrown out, need to die in that fire, the ashes becoming fertilizer for the next year’s crop—a death and resurrection image that shows that God values all life that God’s created and so can we.

Greg: I had a piano teacher in High School who made dandelion wine, too. She looked at her overgrown yard, and did not see weeds, she saw wine. I liked what you said about really seeing the beauty in this neighborhood as we work together. When people come to receive food from King’s Cupboard, and when we deliver backpack buddy food to Concord Elementary, we see the beauty in the people we serve. And they see a tangible proof of God’s love. A neighbor might argue with our doctrine, but it’s hard to argue with a warm smile and a box of food.

Hope lets us see what is not there. If I said, “I hope the weather will be sunny for the outdoor service,” you could say, “Greg, you don’t need to hope for it. It’s plain for all to see.” But when we see a Milwaukie with no more hunger and with happy children who all know the love of God, that is hope. Not empty hope, but guaranteed by the One who came to live in a community, and died and was raised to redeem it.

Aimee: I hope I haven’t come down too hard on individuals when I’ve talked about community and world. It is just so exciting to work together. But lets not forget that God knows even the number of hairs on our head and the number of stalks in a field of wheat and weeds. Nowadays, our wheat fields are uniform clones. Back in Jesus’ time, and even 50 years ago a field was diverse. Each stalk had its own genetic code. That way if a disease or drought or insect hit, some stalks might be destroyed, but others would be more resistant. Our uniqueness and individuality contributed to a beautiful diversity that was good for the whole. That’s what I see today. Each of us is valuable and unique, God’s good creation. We may worship in slightly different ways. We may have slightly different ways of organizing ourselves. All that contributes to the strength and beauty of this field and this cosmos. Without each of us growing where we’re planted, contributing, sharing, there wouldn’t be any field or any bread to bake, but thanks be to God there is!

Greg: I don’t think you came down too hard on individuals. Most of us can do that all by ourselves. We come down hard on ourselves. We know that Paul tells us that in Christ, we are no longer slaves to fear and sin, but we are adopted children of God. But we still struggle, we let ourselves and others down. We look at our shortcomings and we groan, inside if not out loud. So where is the proof that we really do belong to God?

Again, it’s hidden in the last place you’d look: it’s in the groans. “When we cry out, “Abba! Father,”—when we call on our heavenly parent in our exasperation, our exhaustion, our doubt, our emptiness—that is the proof! That is the Spirit of God taking the witness stand, and giving testimony to our spirit that we are God’s children. Next time you are at the end of your rope, and your heart says, “Help, God!” remember that is God saying, “See? You’re my child. You wouldn’t have called out to me if you didn’t belong to me.” May we rest in that, until the new birth when all the labor pains are forgotten and we see the Abba face to face.

Aimee: That’s part of being wheat—those labor pains. Just think what wheat goes through to become bread: it is crushed and sifted and mixed and kneaded and left to rise and baked and eaten! We don’t have it easy just because we’re Christians, do we? But in the end, the smell of baked bread, the nourishment it provides to others, the table fellowship of a table stretching maybe a few feet, a few hundred yards from one church to another, across the continents, and perhaps across the whole cosmos, makes it all worth it.

Today we celebrate Holy Communion together. But the next time when we are apart, I invite you to remember that we are not only joining hands with Christ, but also with our neighbors just up or down the hill, as well as in the community and around the world.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Every Saint and Sinner

July 10, 2011 Gospel: Luke 23:32-43 1st Reading: Job 38:4-11
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

For this week, I was asked to reflect on this quote from Oscar Wilde, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” I always think it is important to find the context of any quote, so I searched everywhere to find out what other words surrounded these and whether it was a play or a poem or a letter or where this was written. That information is sadly missing. Instead I found out this is a questionable quote and that Oscar Wilde may likely have never said it. It may have been attributed him randomly.

But whether he said it or not, it is a popular quote today. You can find it on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and a lot of people quote it on Twitter, Facebook, or on their website. It makes you think. When I first read it I was really puzzled and had to let it percolate for a couple of days. I studied the scriptures for verses that might have something to do with it and read a little more about Oscar Wilde, hoping for a glimpse of what it might mean and how it might relate to us today.

The reading from Job is a good one for us to review. Job has lost everything at this point. He has been questioning God about why God is making his life so miserable and ranting against God and feeling sorry for himself. Many of us have been there. It seems like God is against us or at least not listening very well. We’re not sure if we can take one more setback. We’re overwhelmed. Maybe some of us were taught that you don’t talk to God this way. But I say, go ahead, Job did it. The Psalmists did it. It is Biblical. There is precedent. And being angry with God isn’t a sin. It is a true emotion we have inside of us. And it is especially healthy when we have it out with God. Just like newlyweds think they should pretend to get along and push aside their little peeves, but then it all bubbles up into a huge argument because they haven’t been honest with each other—if we hide our little arguments with God, they can build up until sometimes we give up on religion or get a divorce from God. The old hymn says, take it to the Lord in prayer. Job did it. We can do it. God can take it.

And God might come right back with a response like God has for Job, which is good for us to hear and remember. “Where were you when I was creating this amazing planet?” “Do you know my greater plan for all the universe?” We can tend to focus on our own little world and forget the bigger picture.

An example from my own family: Last year my grandma got a kitten and puppy at the same time, so they could grow up together and be best buddies. She was lonely after grandpa’s death and all her other pets had passed away. She had been looking forward to raising these 2 animals together. Last month, my cousin’s dog got into the house and killed the cat right there in her living room. She was devastated. I would be, too. And she cried for days. And she couldn’t sleep. She just felt terrible for herself and the cat and her ruined plans. The following week a cousin of mine miscarried at 7 months along. Suddenly the whole thing was put in perspective. She didn’t feel sorry for herself anymore. She was there supporting Abby whose grief was absolutely immeasurable.

Praying, even if it is railing against God, can open our minds to the bigger picture and put our own problems into perspective. What God points out to Job is that God is in charge and always has been and always will be. Which is part of what every saint has a past and every sinner a future means to me.

We all come from somewhere. In our society we talk about a “self-made man,” who “pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” as if they created themselves from the dust of the earth out of nothing and did every last thing for themselves. Of course this is a myth. We need other people to succeed. And we need this planet we live on, which we did not create, but God is lending us for a little while to care for and make good use of. Of course God made us in the first place and our family nurtured us—so none of us is self-made. We are a part of something greater and can’t really do anything on our own.

Every saint has a past partly refers to the good things that make for a saint, coming from somewhere outside that person, definitely from God and others God has placed in that person’s path. It also means that every saint may have negative things in their past, too, so don’t misdirect your worship toward saints instead of God because they are bound to disappoint you. Even Jesus’ family and friends in his hometown were reluctant to listen to him because they had known him as a child and couldn’t believe that God was working through him or that he could do miracles. That doubt left him powerless to help them so he had to move on.

The reading of Paul’s letter to Timothy for this morning refers to the kind of past that Paul had. Even the bad things of his past made him who he is when he is writing this letter. He came from somewhere. He’s not proud of the things he did. Paul refers to himself as the “chief sinner, a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Yet there is enough forgiveness and love through Christ even for him. God was able to turn his life completely around and appointed him to service. This is good news for sinners, because we find that God forgives us and can work through us. This is good for saints, because when we find ourselves getting too proud of our own good deeds, we can remember all the times we failed and our life lived up until now and get humble again.

And of course we are both, aren’t we? We are sinners—every day we find ourselves separate from God and those around us. We have faults. We are broken, fallible creatures. And we are saints—Christ has redeemed us and made us his own. We are saved. God is working through us, even when our intentions and actions are all messed up. So we are both saints and sinners and we have both a past and a future.
Then we read the Gospel for today. Jesus on the cross, has on either side of him, two criminals also being crucified. And leave it to Jesus to take this opportunity as he is dying to include other people in his concern, and convicted criminals at that. One criminal acknowledges Jesus at the last minute. Even though that poor guy is dying there, he has a future. Jesus tells him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It is never too late to confess Jesus as our savior and to learn from him. Probabaly better to spend a whole life knowing about that grace and love. However if you don’t get to it until the end, that’s ok, too. And don’t we all at times get it and other times don’t? God’s love is revealed to us over a lifetime and in those times of crisis and suffering we may come to a deeper sense of the presence of God and hope for new life.

We can also remember from this quote to treat everyone with respect. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know everything about a person’s past and what makes them act the way they do. It can help us treat them with grace when we find out. And we never know what kind of skills and talents someone might have that may shape our future together and build a stronger community. What an opportunity to ask someone you’re curious about of their life and faith and how they got to where they are now, whether you see them as a saint or a sinner or some combination of the two. That is one of the principles in organizing which we practice in the Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good—to be curious and listen to build relationships between people, to understand where we have come from and what makes us tick and then to use that information to act in the future to make a better future for everyone.

So whether you are a saint or a sinner you have a past and a future. We all come from somewhere and are going somewhere. Use this quote to remind you to love one another and learn about one another’s past and to encourage you to look toward the future with hope. God loves you. God has always loved you. God will always love you. Go forth into that future in love and hope.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sermon on God's forgiveness for soldiers

Gospel: Matthew 18:23-35 1st Reading: Deuteronomy 5:6-21 2nd Reading: Romans 13:1-7

A prayer from Martin Luther: “Dear Lord, Thou seest that I have to go to war, though I would be glad not to; I do not build, however, on the justice of my cause, but on Thy grace and mercy; for I know that if I were to rely on my just cause and be confident because of it, Thou shouldest rightly let me fall as one whose fall was just, because I relied upon my right and not upon Thy sheer grace and kindness. Amen.” From "Whether Soldier's Too May be Saved" P 18
Here is the burning question that I hope to address today. It is one that I have been asked many times in my ministry and I know many people struggle with it: “How can God forgive someone fo killing other human beings while fighting in a war he was drafted into?” To address this topic, I read various Bible passages, as well as a 30 page letter that Martin Luther wrote in response to just such a question called “Whether Soldiers, too, may be saved,” and I also consulted “Just War Theory” that comes from our Christian tradition and gives some guidelines for when it is ok to go to war and when it isn’t.

Let me start with a quote from Martin Luther that sums up my feeling. “And here enters the fact that when we try to set up fixed for this matter, there arise so many cases and exceptions that it is very difficult, or even impossible, to decide everything accurately and equitably. This is the case with all laws; they can never be fixed so certainly and so justly that cases do not arise which deserve to be made exceptions.” Basically, he’s saying this is a complex question with no easy answers, as his 30 pages attests to. Don’t worry, I will condense this all down to 3 pages.

Complicating the issue, you can get both sides from the Bible, right? On the one hand it says, “Do not kill,” “Vengeance is mine says the Lord,” “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” and “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Few of us can think of anything more horrifying and sinful than war.

On the other hand the Israelites attack the Canaanites to get the promised land in the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho and they used the sword and killed lots of other people in various battles, some of which they won and others they lost. In Exodus 35:2 it seems that God’s laws say that anyone working on the Sabbath should be put to death. And some psalms seems to revel in killing and triumph over the enemy. I couldn’t find any similar examples in the New Testament, although Jesus himself says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He is probably referring to the kind of violent reaction that he knows people will have to his message. He seems to be a pacifist himself, not even using self-defense when others come to take his life. Also in the New Testament, Paul, in the reading for today reminds us to pray for and obey our leaders on this earth and reminds us that God put them in charge, which gives us the message that when our leaders tell us to go to war, we ought to do it.

The foundation of our faith is that Christ gave his life for us, to give us life. We are all guilty because of our sin of putting him to death on the cross and he not only forgives us, but comes to us and offers us peace and life. We can be forgiven for causing the death of God’s Son, so certainly we can be forgiven for killing people. Matters of our salvation are a done deal. God has given us eternal life, period. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, period—not even killing someone.

Having said that, we want to know how to best live our lives in that life, grace, and hope. Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that no one sin is greater than another—even thinking the thought counts as a sin. He doesn’t say this to make us feel more guilty, but to help us see that we all fall short and none of us can say we are without sin. Killing is not any greater a sin in God’s eyes than any other sin. On the other hand, we know that killing has a great impact on other people. The hurt never goes away. The pain and suffering of the family goes on and on. So we have a greater duty to see that others aren’t caused unnecessarily pain, so killing goes on the top of our list of what is hurtful and wrong. This is part of treating others like we’d like to be treated. So, of course, killing is to be avoided whenever possible.

Those of you who have been soldiers and know and love them will be glad to know that Martin Luther was very gentle on soldiers and offered a lot of grace. He pointed out that God can work through something as terrible as war to bring good. He is just as concerned about greed and sloth in a soldier than killing. He sees that war can sometimes be a necessary evil to prevent worse evils and that it can also bring peace. Used in self-defense, it is justifiable, he says. If we didn’t have swords, the world would run rough-shod over us and take everything we have and hurt us. He says, like anything, war and violence can be misused just to get what you want or to bully others or to get glory and in that case it isn’t right. He also says, it depends on your motivations as a soldier. Two people might go to war, side by side, and one is doing wrong and sinning, and the other is righteous and has a good conscious. It is a good sign that you are examining your heart to know yourself and your motivations and thinking about the consequences of your actions, because that means that you are open to God’s instruction and wisdom about whether you have done the right thing.

Martin Luther composed two prayers for soldiers to say to keep them focused on God’s will rather than their own. One I offered at the beginning of this sermon and one I will offer at the end.

Now for those of you who are draft-dodgers, Luther addresses a second question: “Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war.” I reply: If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should fear God rather than men, and not fight or serve, for you cannot have a good conscience before God. “Nay,” you say, “my lord compels me, takes my fief, does not give me my money, pay, and wages; and besides, I am despised and put to shame as a coward, nay, as a faith-breaker in the eyes of the world, as one who has deserted his lord in need.” I answer: You must take that risk and, with God’s help, let go what goes; He can restore it to you a hundredfold, as He promises in the Gospel, “He that leaveth house, home, wife, goods, for my sake, shall get it back a hundredfold.” In all other works, too, we must expect the danger that the rulers will compel us to do wrong; but since God will have us leave even father and mother for His sake, we must certainly leave lords for His sake. But if you do not know, or cannot find out whether your lord is wrong, you ought not to weaken an uncertain obedience with an uncertainty of right, but should think the best of your lord, as is the way of love, for “Love believeth all things; thinketh no evil” (1 Corinthians 13:7). P 23

Martin Luther admits that war should not be entered into lightly and goes into times when war is justified and when it isn’t. I have to think that some of his thought process went into developing “Just War Theory.” Or maybe it is just common sense:
These include that: The cause of initiating war must be just. War cannot be initiated justly except by those who hold the proper authority and responsibility. The moral merit on our side must clearly outweigh the moral merit on the other. The intention of going to war must be to obtain or restore a just peace. Desires to punish or humiliate are not adequate intentions. All non-violent alternatives must be exhausted before resorting to war. If the prospect of success is hopeless, war is not justified no matter how just the cause. The good expected must be greater than the estimation of anticipated costs. War should be regarded as a tragic necessity.
Some Principles for Conducting War include that No action should be taken that generates more harm than good. A strong distinction must be maintained between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants must never be deliberate or primary targets of military action. No use of evil means (even for a just cause). As much as possible, the enemy must be treated in good faith in order to keep open the possibility of reconciliation.

More than forgiveness from God, which is guaranteed, killing in war brings a necessity of two other kinds of forgiveness. There is forgiveness of those you have wronged. Many times in war, you can’t go back and find those you hurt and make amends. Sometimes you can try to right that wrong by traveling back to the country where you killed in war, or in some other way give back to the community where you may have caused injury. One of the most difficult steps is self-forgiveness. How can you have grace with yourself and let yourself go from those things you did? Even if you can justify it and say, “I was drafted,” or “I thought it was a just cause,” still I’m sure you can never erase the images from your minds of the things you saw and did. But somehow, can you admit to yourself all that you did in wartime and forgive yourself, although you never forget and move on to try to make a better world from here on out? Knowing that God has forgiven you and all of us who participated directly or indirectly, I hope that in time you can find the grace and love for yourself that God has for you and forgive yourself.

Here is one final prayer from Martin Luther: “Heavenly Father, here I am, according to Thy divine will, in the external work and service of my lord, which I owe first to Thee and then to my lord for Thy sake. I thank Thy grace and mercy that Thou hast put me into a work of which I am sure that it is not sin, but right and pleasing obedience to Thy will. But because I know and have learned from Thy gracious Word that none of our good works can help us and no one is saved as a soldier but only as a Christian, therefore, I will rely not at all on this obedience and work of mine, but put myself freely at the service of Thy will and believe from the heart that only the innocent blood of Thy dear Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, redeems and saves, and this He has shed for me in obedience to Thy holy will. On this I stay; on this I live and die; on this I fight and do all. Dear Lord God the Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me by Thy Spirit. Amen. P. 26