Saturday, December 07, 2013

What we get wrong about sin

Matthew 3:1-12

            I think one of the things that people get wrong about sin the most often is that they reduce it down to being a moral judgment against a single person.  In my mind this oversimplifies something that is much more complex  and, perhaps, even more insidious.  It's so easy to think of sin as something that happens when somebody does something wrong to somebody else.  This is why can erupt in such outrage when something truly horrible happens.  Somebody steals from another person, and we know that they have done something wrong.  Surely that is a sin, and lo and behold it is indeed a sin.  Somebody cheats on his or her spouse and we know that they have done something wrong.  They have hurt another person emotionally through their actions.  Indeed that is a sin.  Somebody takes the life of another human being over argument.  Indeed, that is a sin.  I don't think anyone would object to those actions being called sinful, because in each instance another person is hurt and relationships are destroyed.  Perhaps that's where we see another layer to sin as that which destroys our relationships with each other and with God, but sin can still be even more complicated.

            Sin isn't just the events we can point to where a bad and wrong thing has been committed by one person against another person.  Sin can even be those systems which oppress and hurt people on a daily basis.  We can sometimes point to single people responsible (Hitler, Bin Laden).  We can sometimes point to organizations or governments who hurt people and destroy relationships (The South and its participation in the horrors of slavery).  But there are sometimes in which we cannot point at any one single person or even one single action as being the event of sin.  The biggest example of this in the world is how there are people in the world who die from hunger when we throw away tons of food per day from our fast food restaurants.  This world has the resources to stop people from dying of starvation or access to clean water, yet people still die.  In other words, people are hurt and relationships are broken.  If sin is simply a moral pronouncement against a single person, who do you judge?  The truth is there are many people to bring to task over issues like hunger - local warlords, corporations and profit driven policies, governments abroad AND here who could handle this issue better, and even the American consumer like me and you.  In some ways, no single person is at fault AND everyone is at fault.  Do you really think that God has nothing to say to these situations as much as when we personally take the Lord's name in vain or would rather not keep the Sabbath day a day of rest?  Like I said, sin is more complex than that, and we are all too often drawn up into sin that we are explicitly committing and complicit in its existence.

            That's why when John the Baptist begins proclaiming a baptism of repentance, he makes the proclamation that all who have come are indeed in need of repentance in their lives.  Not even the Pharisees and Sadducees can escape his bold proclamation that they too are in desperate need of help as well.  This brood of vipers as he calls them are perhaps the people who could have been the most boastful about their lives.  They were the ones who devoted their lives to the study of God's Law.  They were the ones who devoted their lives to trying to be able to live out God laws to their fullest.  They were the ones who could call themselves priests and caretakers of God's house.  But John singles them out and tells them that they should even be wary of the wrath that is to come.  They too have sinned as we have sinned.  For John, repentance is the way to turn around, change your mind, and possibly even reorient your whole life into a new direction.  He tells the people gathered there repentance leads to a life that bears fruit.  To start this new life, they are then invited to a ritual cleansing to be purified as they would start their new life.  Too bad for John that he did not know exactly what Jesus was coming on earth to accomplish.

            John knew that Jesus was coming.  He was trying to prepare the way for him, to make his paths straight.  The only thing he wasn't prepared for was how Jesus would come to him and identify with all the people  who needed to repent of their sins.  John at the close of our reading refers to the one who is coming who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.  He knows that the way of purification for the Israelites is for things that can stand fire to be passed through fire and things that cannot stand the fire to be passed through water.  By this process they will be made clean.  John knows that the people cannot stand the coming fire, so he passes them through water.  This coming fire could be considered to be God's wrath, but it is important to remember that the fire of this other baptism is not meant to destroy, but to purify.  This is important to hold onto to because God does not and will come to destroy us or the creation that God has made.  God's wrath indeed says "No!" to the sin that pervades our life, but it also still says "Yes!" to us.  Before God, the devil and sin cannot stand and will be burned away, and we will be left standing because of what Jesus has come to earth to do.

            He has come to be for us even in our sins, and he comes to be WITH us where we are even in our sins.  And this is precisely what surprises John the Baptist when Jesus does come.  Jesus comes and he identifies with us.  He enters into the same waters of purification that all the sinners have waded into.  He comes as one of us to be one of us.  In him, we see that God will indeed not throw us into the fire to be destroyed.  Rather, we see a God who would give up everything, even the rightful condemnation of us because of the sin that we steep ourselves in.  What then becomes of repentance?  Rather than being that which purifies us and gets us right with God, it becomes the new life that is lived out in "the new world of God's Rule." (Duane Priebe, Lutheran Study Bible; Matthew 3:2 note)  This is not something that can be brought about by us.  It is brought about by the God who loves us, who comes to us.

            What then of all this sin?  Is it something that we simply do not need to worry about? No we do not need to worry about it in terms of banishing it to get right with God before the end.  But sin more than anything does this:  It calls a thing what it is.  That may sound simple, but it is indeed something that calls into the complexity of seeing and discerning what is going on in the world and joining in with God in declaring what is harming ourselves, each other, and our relationships.  For even as Jesus comes to earth to bring us life and salvation, he also invites us into new life of God's rule of love and compassion.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Being Known and Unkown

"Lord, you have searched me out; O Lord, you have known me."
(Psalm 139:1)

This past month, I had undertaken the endeavor to visit as many people of the parish as I possibly could.  I must say, I enjoyed every minute of it.  It was a pleasure to get to know you all better.  It was a pleasure hear your stories again.  It was a pleasure to hear the stories I hadn't heard before.  If there is one thing that I have learned from this endeavor, then it is that there is so much that I don't know about you, this place we find ourselves in, and even myself.

It is said that Socrates' whole method of instruction hinged upon this one single thought: the quest for knowledge and wisdom is only ever truly found in searching the edges of what you do know so that you can find out what you don't know.  Let me tell you, this past month has been encounter and encounter with what I don't know about you all and this place.  I didn't know that some of you were sisters.  I didn't know some of the things that you have struggled with in your life.  I didn't know some of those things that have truly brought you joy.  As I come to the end of this one round of intentional visitation to get to know you all better, I feel so very honored and privileged to be trusted with your hopes, dreams, fears, and sorrows.  I also get the feeling that I could try and try and try some more and never get at the complete bottom of who you are, and there is a beauty in that.  There is a beauty in how we are so wonderfully complex creatures that cannot be reduced down into our simplest parts and be completely know by each other with no more surprises to be had as we interact with one another.  For you all are truly wonderfully made.

There is also something I know that is truly wonderful as well.  As much as I or any other human being would not be able to know you fully, you are fully known by God.  Trust me that is a wonderful thing, even though I am sure it makes many of nervous to know just how much God knows about us.  God knowing you fully means that God does have this special relationship with you, but it also means that God knows about all those dark and scary parts that we may not want to show anybody else.  But know this: As much as God may have searched you out and as much as God knows all about you, God still calls out to the corners of creation, "You are wonderfully made!"  Not only that, but God has seen the things we have done to other people and ourselves, God has seen the things we have not for other people and ourselves, but God the Father has still sent the Son into the world "not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him."

Perhaps as we continue to encounter each other in our daily lives, we should do well to remember how God has forgiven us, even as we have been fully known.  Perhaps that should cause us to encounter each other with the same Grace that God has encountered us with.  Maybe when we do that, we will be able to see each other more clearly as wonderful, complete, if yet complex, creatures who should be encountered with a wondrous curiosity that seeks the other out as they are and not as we think that they should be.


Pastor Ben

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Remember Him

Luke 24.13-35

            I remember where I was.  I remember that I had just finished a test in my German Language class in college.  I remember walking through the halls of the fine arts building at Missouri Western State College and seeing all of my friends and the staff and faculty of the music department standing around in an almost complete daze.  I remember professors trying to still teach their classes even with everyone's minds someplace else.  I remember the rumors.  I remember the conjecture that it had to be this or it had to be that.  I remember the marching band field that afternoon completely devoid of air traffic in the skies.  I remember my friends lashing out in anger, vowing revenge.  I remember sitting in my best friend's dorm room watching the New York City skyline smoke and smolder with a headache from staring at the screen in the dark.  I remember that day, and I'm sure that most of you here today remember that day very clearly as well.

            All throughout our history, our lives get punctuated by single, large events that forever shape how we live out our lives into the future.  For some people, it was that day Pearl Harbor was attacked.  For other people, it was the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas while riding in his motorcade.  For yet still others, it was the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN.  Yet the common thread throughout those days is terribly tragic nature of those days.  The common thread is how we remember how we and other people hurt upon hearing that terrible news.  We remember things like how violent it was.  We remember things like how much destruction there was.  We remember how many lives were lost.  In short, we remember how those days live on "in infamy."

            Now consider these two disciples as they were walking down a road to the town where they were staying.  They too were trying to come to grips with these days that they just experienced - these days that will live on forever in their minds "in infamy."  I don't even have to conjecture much as to what was on their minds on that journey.  They are "talking with each other about all these things that had happened."  In case you haven't been paying attention the past two weeks, they have been discussing and talking about the betrayal, execution, and disappearance of their master, teacher, and friend Jesus.  These things are weighing heavily on their minds, and the events of those few days will mark a change in how they will live their life from that point on forward.  The only thing is, they just might be living those days out in different ways than they were expecting.

            They are in the midst of remembrance though.  They are in the midst of remembering the tragedy and mystery that had entered into their life.  Yet, little do they know that they are also in an act of forgetting.  They remember the things they have experienced.  They have forgotten the promise that had been proclaimed to them.  And while they are busy remembering, yet forgetting, they are also too bust to see that that very same master, teacher, and friend had joined them on their journey.  They can't see or won't see what is right before them.  So Jesus explains to them yet again what he has come on earth to do.  He explains that the Messiah was meant to "suffer these things and enter into his glory."  He tells them again about God's love and forgiveness that given to the whole of creation as he gave up his life so that we might see upon that cross how he gave up his life so that we may the rise with him into new life.  He tells them about how the life he brings bursts forth from the grave, that death has indeed lost its sting.  Yet in all of this, these two disciples still don't recognize who is before them.  They still don't recognize who is setting their hearts on fire.

            Yet that's when Jesus reminds them of a great gift that had been given to them.  They sit down for a meal, and Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.  And in the breaking of that bread, their eyes are opened, and they see and remember who this Jesus is.  They remember the goodness he brought them in their lives.  They remember the love that he had shown them.  They remember how, even in the midst of all the tragedy of the past few days, that the Gospel message (literally the Good News!) had been fulfilled.  They are forgiven.  They are freed from fear of sin and death.  They can go forth living their life with boldness!  Jesus is alive, and life has begun anew amidst all that tragedy and confusion.

            My guess is that we too forget the great and wonderful grace that God has given us, especially in times of loss, grief, and fear.  My guess is that we sometimes forget that Jesus is indeed already present with us.  My guess is that we at times dwell on the bad news so heavily that we sometimes forget the Good News that has been accomplished in our midst.  We too are a people that need to come to the table and to have our eyes opened in the breaking of the bread.  We too are a people who need to touch, smell, and even taste that Christ is indeed with us, that we have not been abandoned, and that God's tremendous has ultimately won the day.

            The Christian life is not one that is lived out in perfect obedience to God's commands.  The Christian life is lived coming again and again back to God's good grace and hearing that we are indeed forgiven and freed to finally stop worrying about ourselves and finally start loving and caring for others as they too are a people that God loves dearly.  Come and receive that grace yet again.  Have faith at the foot of the cross that God's love has indeed won the day.  Taste and see and remember that God is indeed good.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Loving Service

John 13.1-17, 31b-35
Maundy Thursday 2013

            When Mara and I were married this past October, we received a gift from one of my friends and colleagues.  It is a beautiful porcelain washing basin and pitcher with a note attached to it reminding us that the relationship that we share is one that is based upon the service that we give to one another – that the life that we share is one based upon the many different ways that Mara and I will wash each other's feet in the coming years.  Of course, I don't mean that the whole reason that we are married and stay married is because how we scrub between each other's toes on a weekly basis.  But it is based upon the ways in which we give of ourselves in service to one another.  It is based upon how we listen to one another as we communicate our concerns and struggles.  It is based upon the things we do for each other when we are sick to help the healing process.  It is even based upon things like how I like to make sure that I've picked up the living room before Mara gets home from school after living the bachelor lifestyle for a few days.  Our relationship is based upon love, but it is love lived out giving of the self for the sake of the other.  Mara and I aren't perfect at making sure that our relationship is lived out in this way of every single day, but my guess is that none of our relationships are lived out in perfect service to one another every single hour of every single day.

            This night that we contemplate right her and now is the very night in which Jesus puts on display the kind of loving service that marks good relationships.  Yet, it is also the night in which we see just how hard it can be for people like us to carry out this kind of loving service, especially when things start to go wrong.  Those people like us are the owners of the feet that Jesus is kneeling down to wash on this night.  These disciples, they vow that will never leave Jesus' side.  They vow that they will follow Jesus' example.  They even vow that they would never betray him.  But soon, the disciples will scatter.  Soon, the disciples will say that they don't even know him.  Soon, one of the disciples in particular will hand Jesus over to be falsely accused, beaten, and executed.

            Yet Jesus still calls them friends.  Jesus still wants to be in relationship with these people.  And that perhaps is why Jesus continues forward to accomplish what has been set before him.  Jesus is seeking a relationship with us as well.

            That kind of relationship that Jesus seeking with us all demands to be more than a simple exchange where we are concerned with what we are getting out of him.  The relationship that we have in Christ is not one based upon how many wonderful and great things we are getting from God.  This relationship is based upon loving service where you're as concerned with how you are caring for another as much as how someone else is giving you something you need.  And this is a reality that is even born out in our human relationships.  If we are only concerned with what we can get from our friend or lover, whether it be how much fun that other person can give us or how that person can give us the sex that we want, then we have turned that other person into a vending machine that dispenses what we want when we want it.

            But Jesus wants a different, life-giving kind of relationship.  Jesus wants us to give of ourselves as we have been given great and tremendous gifts.  Jesus gives of himself for our sake.  He wants us to give of ourselves too so that love may actually then be found in abundance, rather than have it be a scarce resource that doled out carefully only when the correct price has been paid.  Yet there is something still greater that Jesus gives us as we try to live out that relationship: forgiveness when the disciples fail to follow Jesus and his example of loving service, forgiveness when we fail to follow Jesus and his example of loving service.  How do we know that that forgiveness is there?  Because Jesus still turns to these disciples, the ones who betray him, deny him, and abandon him and he still calls them his friends – all on the night in which that betrayal, denial, and abandonment is going to take place.  He still gives them the great gift of his presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  That forgiveness becomes essential in our relationship with God, just as much as that forgiveness is essential in our relationship with each other.

            The plain and simple truth is that God has a deep, abiding, unsearchable love for us and the whole of creation.  There's not much of a rational reason as to why God loves us so much.  God just simply does.  And in that love, God gives of God's self to us.  God gives to us that very same loving service which Jesus beckons the disciples to on this evening.  God loves you.  God the Father gives up his very own Son for us.  God goes to the very depths of hell for us.  And there is nothing you can do about it.  Except perhaps, by loving each other in service and forgiveness to each other, as Jesus loves us in service and forgiveness.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jesus! Watch out!

Luke 13:31-35

How many times have we watched bad movies where the plot is so transparent that we as the audience know exactly what is going to happen to the hero of the story before it actually occurs?  Think about it.  It’s like the old cartoon image of the villain with the handle bar mustache laying the heroine on the train tracks.  Old Nefarious Nick has taken Vicki Virtue, and Young Johnny Justice has to go save her. Johnny gets on his swift steed and, no matter how close the timing is, Johnny will come and untie her from the railroad tracks and save the day.  Nefarious Nick is foiled and justice has returned to the valley, at least for this day.  This isn’t exactly what the story of Jesus is like, but I can see some parallels.  Jesus lives a life dedicated to ministry to the down trodden in the land which upsets the powerful and wealthy.  We can see right from the get go that this business is going to end in confrontation, but I think the real twist in the Jesus story is that he can clearly see not only coming confrontation but the outcome of that confrontation as well.

How many times in our lives do we as Christians want to live wrapped snugly in the memory of Jesus healing the sick, feeding the poor, and fighting injustice?  We love the stories and images of Jesus as a child in temple conversing with the elders, of Jesus seeing a sea of hungry people and feeding them, of Jesus telling a paralyzed man to get up and take his mat with him, and of Jesus walking with us on a road and breaking bread with us later at dinner.  We start to think that, yeah, this guy was an amazing caring human being and maybe we can be just like him.  We ask ourselves things like “What Would Jesus Do if he was in this situation?”  We like to think that these stories are simply a wonderful rule book for how we should live our lives.  But, what we tend to forget is what Jesus has done once and for all time – he died because we are sinful creatures who forget how to live in true relation to one another and with God.  Our own self interests start to come in the equation whenever we think about what would Jesus do.  Our concern moves from concern about who we can maybe help to how we are doing as helpers.  It becomes about us.

I think that this is exactly the kind of thing that those Pharisees were trying to do when they came to Jesus on that day.  Jesus had been going from town to town and village to village teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.  After Jesus makes his famous speech about how the first will be last and the last shall be first, some Pharisees came to Jesus and told him to get away because Herod was looking to kill Jesus.  Wait a minute.  Did the text just say that the Pharisees told Jesus to get away because Herod wanted to kill him?  That seems to be a real disconnect from the other stories we hear in the New Testament about the Pharisees.  In fact, more often than not, it is the Pharisees themselves who are doing the plotting and planning to kill Jesus.  So why are these particular Pharisees any different?  Well, I think that these particular Pharisees have witnessed the teachings and actions of Jesus in his ministry, and because of that, have come to see the great good that Jesus had done.  Yes!  Jesus has finally done it!  He has finally persuaded some of the people that what he is doing is right.  I can imagine them saying, “We finally have someone who can be an advocate and defender of injustice in the world.  Now all we have to do is keep him alive, because these teachings are causing quite a stir amongst the wealthy and powerful.”  If they can just hold on to him for a little while longer, maybe he will make a difference in the world.  These Pharisees are trying to desperately hold on to this Jesus who heals, feeds, and defends.  And you know, we are right alongside those Pharisees trying to cling on to the glory and majesty of Jesus’ ministry, but…

But, Jesus knows that this is not the way things are going to go.  He says as much when proclaims that he is “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed out side of Jerusalem.” Jesus knows that sin and brokenness are deeply ingrained into the human experience, and that the only way that our cycles of sin can be broken is through a radical act of love that takes place in the very city of Jerusalem.  What is heart breaking about this these few lines of text from Luke is that Jesus would like nothing better than if he could just be like a “hen [gathering] her brood under her wings.”  We would like to go along with this and have Jesus be our hen covering us with his wings, but Jesus knows that, because of our sinful nature, something radically different needs to happen in this world for anything to truly change.

It is exactly because Jesus knows that we, in the end, are not willing that is the amazing twist in the Jesus story.  Jesus knows and realizes what must be done and he does it.   Jesus sees that death and sin are realities and the only way to change that reality is to die and be raised up three days later.  And the Pharisees will know this is so, when they hear and experience that event in which sin and death loses its power when Jesus dies and the cross and is resurrected three days later.  When they hear that story and experience that story, they will be able to truly see who Jesus is and say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  This is so, because the fullness of who Jesus is can only be known when one takes into account the fullness of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. 

Now that we are in the midst of the Lenten season, realize that we are on a journey that explores who Jesus was, what Jesus did and who Jesus is.  The Lenten season is a journey in which we retell and re-experience the Jesus story with the knowledge that at the end of the journey the fullness of who Jesus is revealed in his death and subsequent resurrection three days later.  So, yes we can reflect and think about who Jesus was and the things that Jesus did.  We can even take the time to ponder what Jesus might do in the dilemmas we come across in our lives.  But when you ponder about what Jesus might do, also ponder and know that Jesus is alive and present with us to day in this world that we live.  The new reality which Jesus brings in to our lives tells us that our sins are forgiven and that death is no longer the final end point in our lives. 

Like the plot of a bad movie, we can see exactly how Jesus is going to end up and we so often want to scream out, “No! Don’t go in there!  You’ll be killed!  Stay with us where it is safe and where you can care for us our entire lives!”  But Jesus knows that he will be killed, and Jesus knows that staying safe from harm will do nothing change the reality of the world in which we live.

When we realize that sin and death no longer has hold over us, we can then see the fullness of who Jesus is present in our lives.  We see what Jesus is doing when take the time to do as he did and care for the hungry.  We see what Jesus is doing when we speak out against injustices in the world.  And we see what Jesus is doing when we come together as a community in worship and mission.  “What Would Jesus Do?” can be a very important question to ask ourselves when are at a loss to know what we should do next, but when you are asking yourself that question, think about what Jesus is doing in the world, because Jesus’ loving actions are just as active now as they were two thousand years ago.