Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dec. 19, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25

18  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah  took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  19  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  21  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  22  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  23  "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  24  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  25  but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;  and he named him Jesus.

Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

Allow me to begin with a bit of a confession this morning: there are few characters in the Biblical narrative for whom I feel more sympathy than dear Old Joseph.  When his role in the birth of Christ is acknowledged, and this is far from always being the case, he is little more than the background upon which the rest of the narrative plays out.  Indeed, if it were not for the fact that we can hang a bathrobe on the quiet boy in class and throw him up in front of the church in the Christmas play to represent Joseph, the man would have no real purpose at all.  I mean, think about him for one moment.  Here he is, with all the anticipation of a man who is about to enter married life, and he discovers that his wife has already conceived. This scandal, in the times in which we are dealing, constitutes a transgression that one could pay for with her life (remember how Jesus spares the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel).  We have the benefit of knowing just exactly with whom Mary is pregnant, but Joseph does not.  And please, for one moment, try to put yourself in Joseph’s shoes, or sandals, as it were.  Would you honestly believe this story, that she had been overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit,  over your paranoid conviction that your fiancĂ© had instead indulged in a momentary weakness, in which she succumbed to the seductive advances of that good looking carpenter down the street?  Does this actually strike you as a plausible story, a worthy excuse? Oh, what hushed arguments must have ensued.   From that perspective, do Joseph’s actions not make a little more sense?  Rather than be embroiled in scandal, the subject of stabbing whispers behind his back, indeed a man scorned, does it not make more sense to go about one’s business quietly?  Oh, he loved her too much to ask that she be stoned, and it is this compassion that allows Matthew to name him as righteous, but that does not mean he did not hurt.  For his pride had been wounded in that way that only a man’s pride can be, and he knew that staying with her would mean a life-long embarrassment, a life long resentment that would simmer just beneath the surface of a domestic cease fire.   
We can, if we let ourselves, be drawn deeply into Joseph’s humanity, and what we find there is a God who, to be frank, will not play our games of ego and resentment.  For God, in sending an Angel to Joseph in his fitful sleep provides Joseph with a terrible comfort.  A comfort that shatters Joseph’s sense of what is possible in the world, and let us be frank, this is always, always a terrifying experience. Oh Joseph, you know that story Mary has told you, the one you greeted with such prideful scorn, the story that violently overran your sense of well being, and in a moment collapsed your dreams of watching your children run through the same Nazareth streets that had been your boyhood home, well that news, dear Joseph, turns out to be rather true.  Mary is with child, and yes, it is God’s child.  Please bear in mind we are here dealing with actual people, and how Joseph must have watched his sense of what is possible drop into free fall.  This is the sort of news that literally turns the page on what one believes to be possible, the sort of news that is like adding seven senses.  A reality so bizarre, so surreal, that it requires an angel’s visit in the night’s small hours as evidence, if evidence is even an appropriate word to apply to such an encounter.  While we can note the way in which Joseph obeys the commandment of the angel, remaining with Mary and naming his son Jesus, or he saves in Hebrew, at this point is there really much of a choice for Joseph?  I mean, really, it appears as though God is going to have his way regardless of Joseph’s pride or doubt.  Yes, Joseph is to be involved in this whole business of God’s son’s birth, but whether or not it will happen, well that reality was decided without his consultation.   
And that this is so, that God does not always wait for humanity’s ascent to God’s decision; this is actually the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. For, if we are honest with ourselves, God acting decisively on our behalf, even if it appears as though God is acting against our wishes, well, this is what we can begin to call the Gospel.  For in so doing, God does for us what we can do for ourselves; that is, God heals us, God forgives us, God makes us whole with a power and a gentleness that is not the work of human hands.  This is act of reclaiming, of redeeming, well we are about to witness its most clear expression as Emily Lillian is given new life through Holy Baptism.  And really, we are no different than that darling babe in terms of our dependence on God’s mercy; as Martin Luther’s final recorded words remind us, we are all beggars of God’s mercy. And, oh, dear people, please do not be offended at such words.  For this is not intended as a blow to your self-esteem or anything of the sort, it is instead the deepest comfort of the Gospel.  For God’s care is that of a vigilant parent who takes no end of delight in attending to the needs of God’s children. Also, just as Joseph was given the responsibility to name and raise God’s son as his own flesh and blood, you too have a very real role to play in this drama.  For just as God in Christ became vulnerable to the care of two very real human beings, so too, your lives are one of the ways that God becomes real in the world.  In all that you do and say, in the love that you extent towards all whom you meet, you, along with dear Joseph, give this God a name in the world.  No, you did not choose this Christ child, he chose you and made you his own at those birthing waters of baptism, but in choosing you, he also gave you a purpose, and asked you to make his name real, so that others may abide in his mercy.  In the name of Jesus, amen. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Solitary Man

 Matthew 11: 2 -11 

2  When John heard in prison what the Messiah  was doing, he sent word by his  disciples  3  and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  4  Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:  5  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers  are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  6  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."  7  As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?  8  What then did you go out to see? Someone  dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.  9  What then did you go out to see? A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  10  This is the one about whom it is written, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'  11  Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
This is, I am willing to bet, a slightly less familiar version of John the Baptist for the majority of us, myself certainly included.  Yes, we are accustomed to thinking of John as that eccentric out there in the wilderness vividly proclaiming the need for repentance, a man whose diet makes Whole Foods look like Taco Bell by comparison.  Yes, the John with whom we are more familiar is the fiery, prophetic John, a figure of towering religious authority who possessed enough strength to shout down the religious bureaucrats of his day for the shallow performance of their religious task.  We are, I think, more aware of the John who is in control, a man so completely enthralled by God’s Kingdom that he seems even beyond life’s cruel uncertainties, the sort of man to whom we implicitly give our trust, so convinced is he of his message’s importance, its fundamental truth.  This is after all, a prophet with whom we are dealing.  One who has been drawn so near to God that his words thunder with the authority of divine things.
But we have before not this man of uncompromised confidence, but a man now mired deeply in his own insecurity.  A man who was once the great center of crowds greedily pushing forward to hear his message, that man is now crowded not by other bodies, but by isolation, choking on the thickness of his own loneliness.   Oh, but even that physical and psychological aloneness is not the whole story.  Instead, John’s unwavering certitude as to what the Messiah was going to do seems to be crumbling.  He had prepared the way for this Christ, calling others to repentance as his divinely appointed mission indicated that he must.  He had been called as a prophet and given a prophet’s sermon: repent for the judgment of God has drawn near. But as far as the Messiah for whom he had cleared a path was concerned, well, John was starting to have his questions, starting to wonder whether this Jesus was in the fact the long promised Messiah. 
While this might not be the most familiar version of John the Baptist, I think it is certainly a more relatable image of him.  Personally, I cannot exactly see a lot of my life story in a man living off the land and proclaiming God’s ever-nearing judgment.  Though the requirements for seminary were many, this was not one of them.   However, a person who has lost enough to begin questioning whether or not God is real and acting in the world, that, I dare say, is a nearly universal human experience.  Who is God to us when the sluggishness of the economy makes unemployment a very real threat?  When the decidedly rosy picture we have of ourselves as virtuous and caring people is ensnared by the little compromises and temptations that make up modern life? Or when our children get sick and there is nothing we can do to help them?  Or perhaps most of all, when our bodies start to succumb to age, and begin to break down as we, day by day, minute by minute, slump towards the grave?  Yes, it is easy to praise God when we believe that we are in control, loudly and defiantly alive, and that God is acting in accordance with our wishes and expectations.   But where is God when we are thrown in our prisons of doubt and decay, and everything that has made us who we are is being stripped from us?  When those things for which we worked so hard to achieve and to gain, be they status or money or degrees or retirement savings, who is God when those things are robbed from us with alarming ease?  In these moments, be they realized or anticipated with corrosive fear, we can hear John’s question as real.  This question is not a theoretical exercise in a Comparative Religions course, nor is it a verbal wink from a man who already knows the answer and asking it simply for the benefits of others.  No, with the  urgency of one who needs some good news and needs it desperately, John’s question exposes the fear of a person who has lost control and might just be beginning to lose faith: “Are you, Jesus, the one to come, or should we be expecting someone else?”
The question, though, cannot really hold the answer, which may be why Jesus, in the words of the poet Emily Dickenson, tells the truth, but tells it slant. Yes, Jesus is the one for whom John is waiting, the hopes and fears of all the years are indeed met in his person, but that does not make him any easier to recognize, even for the prophet John.   For, it is not that John is wrong about the need for repentance; it is just that he does not yet have the full story.  The fulfillment of this story must end with mercy and not judgment, the gathering together rather than the scattering apart.  Not the condemnation of sinners, but the forgiveness of them.  And John, just like any other human being, cannot see this without the Holy Spirit to create the faith that receives Jesus as the Christ.    As Jesus will go on to imply, it is only through birth into the kingdom of heaven, that is the birth of baptism, that humanity can receive Jesus as the Christ, and this includes John. Yes, the Messiah surprises even the one whom God has appointed as his fore-runner, and how astounding is that? Even the one who Jesus calls the most righteous of those born of women, even he needs help, needs reassurance.  And it is not some because Jesus is somehow ineffectual as the Messiah, but because his power is put towards a very different use. Oh, it is not because he is weak that we cannot see him, but because his strength is used not to destroy, but to quite literally recreate, redeem the human story that has fallen into bondage.  For his is a mercy rigorous enough to cure the blind, to put lepers back on their feet, to restore the hearing of the deaf and return to the poor the dignity that years of hard living has ground out of them.  Yes, Jesus’ mercy is potent enough to reach into the grave and call forth the dead.  For this is one whose power lies even beyond our control, beyond our expectations.
            Just as the Christ and his reign of mercy and healing surprised even this greatest of prophets, so, too, I think we can expect to be shocked by what Christ is doing in our midst and even apart from us, hence his words that the blessed are those who do not find him a stumbling block.  Yes, blessed, happy are we in this fact: that God in Christ defies all our expectations, transgresses all our boundaries and comes to us as one powerful enough to condemn, yet merciful enough to save. That the kingdom comes not through human striving and effort, no matter how well intentioned, but through the gracious gift of God who is always present, always active in healing the sick and offering comfort to the sad.   Blessed are we when the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to see that the shattering of our expectations of what God is allowed to do and not do (oh, we are a presumptuous people indeed)  that when these false and vain restrictions are torn apart, the space is created in which we can see that God is always, already at work, in our lives and in the life of the world, and that we are given the strength to go out and join the work that God has already begun:  to care for the vulnerable, to attend to the needs of pained and suffering.   Yes, blessed are we to see that the Christ who alone has the authority to fling wide the gate of our suffocating prisons, that that Christ has sat down next to us on our mourning benches, and he will remain with us always until that great day when the prison itself shall be destroyed and we will walk hand in hand with the one whose scars testify to the fact that he knows us. He knows us in our pain and anxiety, our fear and our weakness.  Blessed are we, for there is no one else we should be expecting.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sunday November 7, 2010

“Things Are Not as They Appear”

Rev. Justin Nickel

Luke 6:20-31

20  Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21  "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22  "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you  on account of the Son of Man.  23  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  24  "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25  "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26  "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.  27  "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  28  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  29  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  30  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  31  Do to others as you would have them do to you.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, amen.

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

  And so, perhaps we ought to begin with a few clarifications.  No, I have gotten the order of today’s liturgy confused, nor have I neglected to prepare a sermon and am hoping that you will allow me to sort of fast forward the liturgy to the Apostles’ Creed.   Instead, we together, are proclaiming the fulfillment of our Christian hope, our belief that, all evidence to the contrary, this whole thing we call life is actually headed towards a peaceful resolution, towards some sort of end goal, the greek word is “telos,” in which God will be all-in-all, wiping away every tear from our eyes.  Indeed, though there is always a danger of this getting lost in the repetition, when we say these words, that we believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Church and her forgiveness, in a community of the faithful that extends beyond time and space and will culminate in the resurrection of the body, when we say such things,  we actually speak some pretty bold and defiant words. 
For, if there is one certainty about this life, it is that it comes to an end: death and taxes, as the old saying goes, or in the uncompromising words of Bruce Springsteen: “everything dies, that’s a fact.”  But, it would be the height of insensitivity for me to carry about the reality of death as a theoretical notion, for that is a reality that this community of faith, both as individuals and collectively, has experienced time and time again, and there is one thing, I think, that all of us who have lost a loved one share, no matter if it is a spouse of 50 + years or a distant grandfather.  Though the degrees to which this is experienced certainly vary depending on the situation, death’s cruel reality is the same, and it is absolutely awful, so unsentimental, so final.  There is nothing about the experience of death that merits our romanticizing, and being the cruel and reckless force that it is, it is no wonder the poet Dylan Thomas’ only advice in dealing with death was to “rage against the dying of the light.” 
And we can certainly do this, take up arms against that old foe, and there is much in our culture that can help us in this particular battle.  Yes, death’s bitter reality is that which we will avoid at all costs, punishing our bodies for not looking like they did 10 years ago, or insisting to ourselves that age is merely a mindset, and one may thereby stay young forever.  To be sure, there is something good and noble about extending our lives and our health and enjoying all the time that God gives us. But, this is also where the human predicament becomes so entirely confusing, and all one can do is marvel at the illusions we create for ourselves.  On the one hand, we know the certainty of death as deeply and instinctively as we are aware of our being alive, and yet, on the other hand, we flee from this reality, doing anything and everything in our power to ensure that death does not get us, or at the very least, that we postpone our grim meeting with it as long as we possibly can.  Indeed, instinctively we do rage against the dying of the light, and perhaps we rage with all that is in us, because we know that it is a losing effort.  We cannot, despite our efforts and intentions, rage forever and this is our tragedy.  We want what is fundamentally impossible for us to have: to outrun death and quench our own thirst for the life eternal. 
So, really, what are our options here?  Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die?  Indulge ourselves in every pleasure and whim we can afford, knowing that tomorrow is far from guaranteed?  Do we maximize our pleasure and comfort here with no regard for others around us? Or do we succumb to another enemy, that nastiness we call cynicism and despair in which nothing is true or lasting, and those who profess faith in anything are worthy of mockery? 
Or do we take yet another option, one in which we courageously acknowledge the reality of death and the ways in which it impacts us and others, and yet, with all the defiance of a willful 15 year old, tell death that we believe in something greater, namely that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.   The question, then, is not whether or not death is real, but rather, is death finally all that is real, all that is lasting?  Yes, the question is: are things really what they appear to be? It is precisely at this point that we look to Jesus’ words, for they, too,  are an uncompromising declaration regarding what is true, what is finally real, and dearly beloved, it is not just death.  Contrary to the way things seem, the hungry will be filled, the poor are tenderly loved by God and the heavy-hearted will exchange their sorrow for everlasting laughter.  This is reality contrary to the ways things appear.  And what else should we expect from this God who operates free of our understanding of what is real and valuable? A God who has no interest in our impressive games of power and privilege, status and wealth? A God who blesses the poor and hungry and who urges us to do the same?   What else should we expect from the God who first comes not in naked splendor and might, but as a helpless babe, dependent on the love and care of his mother and father, just like any child?  What else would we expect from a God who goes to the cross, who defeats death by submitting to it?  A God who, against everything we know to be true, rises again in the glory of the Father, so that we might do the same?  Indeed, with this God, things are seldom as they appear. 
And because things are not what they appear to be, because we believe that God remembers and cares for us, even in the loneliness of the grave, we are given the strength to go about the seemingly ordinary tasks that make up the life of sainthood. Because being sainted means living our present in the sure hope of the resurrection, we embrace this life, in all of its joy, despair and messiness, limited though these things may be.   We realize that our sainthood is a gift that we have been given, and so we neither attempt to storm heaven with our good deeds nor do we neglect the very real needs of those we encounter.  Instead, we give generously of all that we have been given, we help feed the hungry, and we do not exchange evil for evil, gossiping word for gossiping word.   Instead we pray for those who annoy us, and, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we show mercy to those we would rather treat with spite or anger.   For this, all appearances to the contrary, is what the life of sainthood means.  It does not mean being something more than human, but it means being deeply and authentically human, and recognizing, with the sincerest of regard, the humanity of others.  Yes, the life of sainthood is one in which, we become so gripped by the hope of the resurrection, so utterly convinced that Christ, the author of creation and goal of human history, will finally conquer with his gentle and merciful reign, we fall so deeply in love with this vision that we cannot help but lose ourselves in this grace and hope, and extend it to others.  Do we die? Yes, yes, we do, and that fact is terrible, the final affront to our supposed self-reliance.  But thing are hardly what they appear to be.  For we believe in the Holy Spirit,  Indeed, we pray with St. Julian of Norwich that God would “teach us to believe by (God’s) grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all matter of things shall be well.”  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sunday, Oct. 31, 23010

Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

31  Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;  32  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  33  They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free'?"  34  Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  35  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.  36  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

Now, in theory, as a Lutheran pastor, I should be incredibly excited about today, and to be sure, I cannot help but feel that way.  For us Lutheran types, today is sort of a company appreciation day, where we revel in our identity as Lutheran Christians. We have donned the red pariments at the altar, we have joined in the wonderful defiance of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and we have here read some of the texts that formed the foundation for the Protestant Reformation as a theological movement.  But, I must begin with something of a confession; I am actually more excited about this coming Wednesday, November the 3rd.  Why you ask?  Well, because this coming Wednesday marks the ends of political ad season, and I might just be looking forward to that day more than the voting day that precedes it.   And while one could rightly harp on these political ads for their cynicism and grotesque meanness, that is not what bothers me the most about them.  Instead, what is so troubling, it seems, is the way that they capture this notion of freedom.  These ads, you see, regardless of the candidate and party that they advertise, share this one, basic principle: they want us to believe that we are better off without the other guy or without the other woman.  Genuine freedom means purging ourselves of those with whom we disagree.  Indeed, freedom, that most central American virtue, is often defined, in these ads, as a freedom from, freedom from the tyranny of other’s opinions, freedom from the needs of others. These ads would have us believe that our freedom is entirely dependent on the election of the right person and the passing of the right legislation.  Freedom becomes the way we beat up on those with whom we disagree, and ensure that nothing will stand in our way of determining our own futures, especially not those who disagree with our politics.  Yes, indeed, dear people, I am looking forward to this coming Wednesday.
And the most central issue is how this word “freedom” is defined.  For Christians, freedom can never be used in the same way as these political ads.  No, the freedom that Christ gives us, the freedom that alone is able to place us on secure ground, that freedom is of entirely different sort, and it is this difference that accounts for the disagreement that Jesus has with the religious establishment in today’s Gospel text.  Typical of John’s telling of the Jesus story, Jesus and the leaders of the Temple seem to be having a conversation in which they forgot to first define their terms, and studying the Temple Keepers’ response is indeed an exercise in looking at how human estrangement from God manifests itself.  These religious leaders immediately bristle at the suggestion that they need something more than they already have by virtue of their political and religious status in the community.  Jesus seems to answer a question that the religious leaders do not realize that they need to ask.  They are not aware of their bondage to sin, assuming that their national identity ensured God’s favor, and so there is no need for another sort of freedom.  Really, their question: “what do you mean by saying ‘you will be made free?’” is a question regarding their current situation.  What do you mean, Jesus, that we need to be made free? To whom or to what, are we currently addicted or enslaved?   Now, there is an obvious blindness in the religious leaders’ answer: the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon and under Roman occupation as they are having this discussion.  This is a pretty selective reading of Israel’s history and current socio-political status, but even that is peripheral to the decisive point.  The Pharisees, addicted to their own status, privilege and self-serving notions of freedom, are so deeply estranged from God that they can no longer recognize their estrangement as such.  They are so completely and totally immersed in their own narratives of power and prestige that they are blinded to their need for God’s mercy, for Christ’s freedom.  They do not even know how to ask the right question.
I dare say that we should not treat the Temple leaders with smugness or conceit, as though we would do any better.  Indeed, their blindness and estrangement is, terrifyingly enough, ours, as well.  So engrossed can we become in the stories that swirl around us, stories that suggest that our ultimate freedom is a result of our politics, or our race and culture, our wealth or our zip codes, or whatever else, so enchanting are these stories that we need God’s word not just to free us, but to first show us our own addictions to the ways we try and build a life apart from the living God.  We need this Jesus to break apart our myths of self-sufficiency and reckon us as righteous in a way that we cannot, no matter our sophistication or correct opinions,  do for ourselves.  We need a freedom that does not separate us from the world that God sung into being, and a freedom that cannot be used to distance ourselves from those whose opinions we find offensive.   We need a freedom that will name us as daughters and sons of the Most High and will do the same for the ones we would name as enemies. 
Dearly beloved, we can be thankful that Jesus refuses the Temple Leaders’ suggestion that they are not in need of the freedom that He alone can bring.  For it is not enough for this Jesus to merely describe the divine freedom that He embodies.  Rather, He has come to enact this freedom in our lives, and to write the eternity of his love on our hearts.  He has come in our midst, and through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, he comes here to create the faith that results in genuine freedom.  The sort of freedom in which we can break with the trauma and brokenness of the past, knowing that Christ’s death and resurrection have returned us to the God for whom we were created all along, the sort of freedom in which we recognize that God, in Christ, is full of compassion and care, and has taken the consequences of our rebellion and estrangement into God’s own life, and rewards us not with what we deserve for the ways we say “no” to God, but rather has given us a  home in the vast and open spaces between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We need the sort of freedom that claimed Martin Luther in the 16th Century and instigated a cultural and religious revolution based on this one simple fact: the grace of God, effective through faith, cannot be contained or controlled by any human entity, be it religious, social or economic. 
And this is the freedom of Christ who daily greets us with the good news of his truth and beauty.  Having endured humanity’s estrangement from God and its consequences, this Christ will never leave you, never forsake you.  Ah yes, in a word, you shall never be free of Him.   He and the freedom he brings, a freedom we will soon take into our bodies, will abide with you from this point until you lay down in your graves, and this Christ will shepherd you into eternity where you will meet the light and glory of your beloved Father.  And so we are indeed claimed by Christ and his freedom, but this freedom is not so that we may escape one another, this is not freedom as evasion.  Rather, in the words of that old German monk whose faith we today celebrate: “ from faith thus flows forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.” May it be ever so among us. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sunday, Oct 24, 2010

“The Pharisee’s Desperation”
Rev. Justin Nickel
October 24, 2010

Luke 18:9-14

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  10  "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'  13  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  14  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

Well, as many of you know, I am a devout fan of rock and roll music, and one couldn’t possibly make that claim without having at least a passing interest in the Beatles, and one of their tunes, “Getting Better,” seems an appropriate place to begin this Sunday.  Now fear not, I have no intention of singing to you all, but the chorus of “Getting Better” goes like this “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/it’s getting better all the time.”  The optimism of this sentiment, along with the undeniably catchy jangle of the melody presents a pretty persuasive argument.  I mean, honestly, who could argue against this sort of glossy positivity as an entirely life affirming world-view? Yes, it would take a healthy dose of cynicism to suggest that this should not be our goal for the way we encounter the world, even if we are not feeling this optimism in the present moment.   For who wouldn’t want the world to be this way, on a course of constant and steady progress, heading towards more comfort and more stability?  I dare say that this sort of thing is essentially our default mode as people living in this time and place.  There is nothing more seductive than this myth of progress, be it in our politics, our economic lives or our religious and psychological lives, as we constantly search out a more true and real version of ourselves.
Now, it is certainly the case that our lives ebb and flow and some periods are more full of peace and contentment than others, and I am not here to dispute that or disrupt the joy that we feel during such times.  However, I would like to suggest that this myth of progress, when applied to our spiritual lives, is particularly poisonous and leads us not towards our God and neighbors, but away from them, isolating us in the coldness of our own supposed piety and virtue.  God’s mercy becomes that which we must buy off with our good deeds, and our neighbors are of value insofar as they can be used in our quest towards spiritual perfection, but this seems to be what the text is arguing against.  For really, this story that Jesus tells to those who believed that their relationship with God allowed them to look down on others, is not a story about what we can accomplish of our own accord, but rather the limits of our abilities, and our spiritual talents.  Yes, there is a way to turn this text into a performance of our own religious sentiments, but such a reading is little more than a cul-de-sac.  For, if we come to this parable asking what we can do, we will, in all likelihood, come away from today’s text saying prayers of thanksgiving that we are not like the Pharisee, that we are sufficiently humble and therefore have done the necessary work to position ourselves in the wide spectrum of God’s mercy.    This, dearly beloved, is what we might begin to call a wrong reading of the text.
Which begs the question, I suppose, what then, can be called a “right” reading of the text?  Well, it seems to me that the answer to that question lies not in what separates the Pharisee and the tax collector, but rather what unites them.  They both go to the Temple in search of God’s mercy and kindness, and it seems to me that they both make this plea with a certain desperation.  This is easy enough to see in the case of the tax collector.  He, with bowed head and bruised breast, will not even look to the heavens, lest his gaze draw the attention of God’s anger, nor will he enter the Temple, for fear that he will taint the place where God dwells with his sin.   He is acutely aware of the space that stands between him and the God of infinite holiness and this awareness, this desperation,  leads him to one action, throwing himself on the mercy of God.
Conversely, the Pharisee’s desperation takes a slightly different form.  His, one might say, is a desperation that is still in development, and avoiding the crisis that comes with genuine honesty remains his central goal.  In the end, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector in terms of their need for God’s mercy, but the Pharisee will do anything to avoid that fact.  To open up, to make himself vulnerable to the fact that, in spite of his best efforts, including fasting and tithing, he still cannot climb a ladder to God’s mercy, well that is just too frightening.  That his spiritual health is not improving through these efforts and that he might not be in as much control as he wants to believe, well that is a thought to be suppressed at any and all costs.   He wants, it seems, to believe that God is rewarding him for all that he has done and continues to do, and the only way to ensure that is to point out the differences not between him and God, but between him and others, between him and thieves, rogues, those who cheat on their spouses, and finally the tax collector whose loud groans he can hear in the distance.  This space that the Pharisee is carving out, though, does not end there, nor can it.  No, instead, because he cannot bear a God who does not leave him in control, the Pharisee will finally attempt to sever that relationship as well, praying not to God, but to his own good deeds, for this is the where all his trust is finally placed. All this in an attempt to avoid this one central fact, we need God, and we need God desperately.  
And it is not that Pharisee was performing the wrong task where the tax collector had figured out that actively being humble was what prompted God’s mercy.  No, this is not a story that ends with that neat, little take-away.  Instead, what grounds this story is the same realities that ground our story, our need for a merciful God.  A God whose love reaches over our notions of progress and greets us right in the middle of our lives, and a God who will not be the reward for the way we perform in our lives, be it at work, at home or in the context of our relationship to God.    Really, what we need is a God who surrounds us in our desperation, our worry, and our concern.  We, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, like the priest and the grifter, need a God whose presence is constant, even and especially when our living seems to consist of  little more than just getting through each day.  We need a God whose love is present in the morning, when the alarm goes off too soon and we are questioning whether or not it is even worth it to begin yet another exhausting day.  Indeed, we need a God who will go to the cross on our behalves, so that we may know for certain that there is no place, no life circumstance, which will ever separate us from the love of God.Yes, a God who is there when we must admit that it is not getting better.
So come, dearly beloved, and bask in the mercy of God that is always present, always active, in the lives of desperate and honest sinners like me and you.  Please know this, that while it may not always be getting better, God’s love, poured for you in the broken and resurrected body of Jesus Christ, will always be waiting to greet and surround you. And this love and forgiveness that grants pardon to the sinner and comfort to the broken-hearted does not depend on your spiritual improvement.  The bar for next week will not be set a little bit higher. No progress reports are required.  Instead, this mercy that knits together the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the con man and the pious, well, this is simply the way that God operates, freely and recklessly tossing around mercy and pardon so that we may be freed of our need to construct a self that God will love without condition, requirement or stipulation.  For, in the love of Jesus Christ, God already does.  Amen.   

Sunday, Oct, 17, 2010

“People of the Limp”
by Rev. Justin Nickel
Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010

Genesis 32:22-31

22  The same night (Jacob) got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  23  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  24  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  25  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  26  Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."  27  So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."  28  Then the man  said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,  for you have striven with God and with humans,  and have prevailed."  29  Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.  30  So Jacob called the place Peniel,  saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."  31  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

One of my starkest memories from childhood involves sitting in the large Sunday school room at the west end of St. John’s Lutheran Church, the light pouring in through stained glass windows and the slightly sour smell of the room providing an unexpected comfort.  We would gather there, as children, to sing songs led by my mother and to close in prayer.  Now the prayer time always felt like it was on the verge of spinning entirely out of control. After offering an introductory word of thanksgiving, my mother would ask us what we would like to pray for, and it was in the asking of that question that the danger existed.  For we as children, delightfully free of filters or concern about social convention, would pray for just about anything, though I remember that the welfare of various pets always seemed a central concern.
Now there is a temptation here to wax sentimental about situations like this, especially when the gentle care of one’s mother is involved, to say nothing of the adorable and unexpected things that come out of the mouths of babes.  However, this sort of sentimentality, no matter its goodness and nobility, is not the reason we have brought up such a story, in fact, quite the opposite.  Rather, I think that what is instructive in this brief anecdote is the intensely honest concern with which these children prayed.  There was not a process by which one assessed what was appropriate to reveal to God in prayer.  Instead, the needs of this little community of faith were voiced with an unvarnished honesty.  I mean, from the vantage point of adulthood, with all its seriousness and concern, there is something undoubtedly precious about a child praying for her dog, but from the perspective of that same child, one wonders if there could a more candid and vulnerable petition.
It is this same honesty, this same vulnerability in the life of prayer, that makes our first reading so incredible.  If we learn anything from Jacob, it is that our encounters with God are not tame, tidy affairs, nor should we expect them to be so.   We meet Jacob, that legendary scoundrel of the Old Testament,  as he is returning home to his brother Esau, the one from whom he stole the family fortune, if you will recall the story.  He is rightly terrified that his brother will kill him, and so with impressive cunning and calculation, he sends processions of gifts ahead of himself to both appease his brother and gauge Esau’s level of anger.  It is, one must admit, a pretty brilliant plan.  If Esau is persuaded by the gifts, then Jacob can make his return home without the fear of losing his life.  If Esau’s anger still consumes him and he lashes out in violence, then Jacob will have fair warning and enough time to make a hasty escape.
So with his household out in front of him, Jacob, with his fear as his only companion, is startled out of his sleep by God who begins a wrestling match with him, and how deep this match actually is.  There is an incredible intimacy that is here occurring between God and Jacob, one that probably makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. For when this divine stranger asks Jacob what his name is, there is more going on here than mere identification.  Instead, because the name Jacob in Hebrew also means “trickster” or “over-reacher” to which we might add schemer, the God with whom Jacob is now in an intimate struggle has asked for Jacob to confess all that he is, all that he has done, including cheating his brother and his father-in-law.  This is God asking “who are you, really, who are you?”  What is remarkable, then, is that Jacob has the out and out audacity to, in the midst of this struggle with God, to ask for a blessing, even as he is being asked this most profound question about what his life really means.   The blessing that Jacob receives is not delivered apart from the struggle, from the pain, of striving with God and with humanity.  And just what, then, is meant by this word “striving?”  Perhaps we can say that this striving is an act of honestly reckoning with one’s past, present and future, of gathering all that one is, all that one fears, all that one wishes to be and throwing that whole mess into one’s relationship with God. Jacob, you see, while by no means a paragon of virtue or ethical behavior, has incredible courage in his relationship to God, and far from being reprimanded for this courage, far from God telling Jacob that it is inappropriate for him to ask for such a blessing, God grants Jacob the blessing for which he has been striving. 
But this is, without a doubt, a costly endeavor for Jacob.  By the time that the day breaks, Jacob will be blessed, true enough, but he will also be exhausted and wounded, his bruised and tender hip a testimony to what it means to be in relationship with the living God.  Yes, Jacob has been blessed, and that blessing comes to him through a struggle with the God whose love is a dangerous and mysterious force. Yes, the blessing and the wound are inseparable, and both are delivered by the God who encounters Jacob as he really exists. One could even say that the blessing which Jacob receives is a sort of death, though not a death for its own end, but rather a death that gives way to the new life that results from this divine confrontation.  For Jacob does not leave this struggle the same man; he has quite literally undergone an ordeal that changes his life’s trajectory, and part of that trajectory is realizing what will and will not be revealed.  God you see, does not grant Jacob the whole of his request.  In spite of the excruciating intimacy of this encounter, God will not reveal the whole of God’s being to Jacob, regardless of Jacob’s request.  And maybe, just maybe, this is the first lesson that Jacob is to learn.  That what has occurred in this encounter is of more significance than Jacob’s specific request being granted.  For Jacob, what God has already done is enough.
While it would probably be fair to say that none of us have had a spiritual experience of this intensity, Jacob’s encounter, nonetheless, provides a sort blue print for the course our own prayer lives may take. Yes, we often come to the act of prayer assuming that we must offer to God some idealized version of ourselves, ignoring our pains and fears, our brokenness and our anger, but that sort of prayer is, if I may be so bold, unbiblical. For genuine prayer to the God of Scripture is an act of relationship in which God responds to our lives as they actually are, including all the pain and messiness that surrounds us. Genuine prayer is an act of giving our whole selves to the God who appears in the most unlikely of places, be it the sleeplessness of a lonely night or on a cross outside the city limits.  Because this God, in Jesus Christ, has taken the estrangement and brokenness of this old world into God’s own being, we need not fear bringing our whole selves to God.  I dare say that is precisely what God wants of us in prayer.   Indeed, prayer, in the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki is “not the place for pretended piety; prayer is the place for getting down to brass tacks.”  And when we come to this God in prayer, we can expect to be confronted in a way similar to Jacob; we will be blessed, but that blessing might just come as a wound to our pride or our despair, as a fatal blow to our myths of self-sufficiency.  We might not receive an exact or immediate response to our request, but we will most assuredly be given the presence of the God who can sustain us until all questions are answered.  Yes, we will probably walk away limping, and that, dearly beloved, is a blessing.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Sunday, Oct 10, 2010

“A Leper’s Faith”

Rev. Justin Nickel

October 10, 2010

Luke 17:11-19

11  On the way to Jerusalem Jesus  was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  12  As he entered a village, ten lepers  approached him. Keeping their distance,  13  they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"  14  When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.  15  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  16  He prostrated himself at Jesus'  feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.  17  Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  18  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"  19  Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

The unyielding routine of it all must have eventually gotten to him.  I mean, day after day, week after week, perhaps even year after year, sitting and waiting for something that was probably never going to happen, but at least the hope that it could get better was better than giving himself over to despair entirely.  That kind of unrelenting sameness can grind a person down until there is nothing left, and his was a battle against the hopelessness that everywhere threatened him.   Here he was, exiled in his own community, set apart by a disease that allowed others to call him impure, cursed.  His disease had quite literally moved him to the very edges of communal life, and any interaction he had with others, with his neighbors, his loved ones or even strangers was too brief and too sterile to be called human.  And oh, the suspicion with which they stared at him.  The pastor had long since stopped visiting him, having declared him unclean and not fit for life amongst the pure. To avoid him was to avoid God’s anger and judgment, realities that he now wore on his body.   Indeed, he was one that others did not want to touch or smell, lest the stench of his disease stain them, as well. Somewhere along the line he had stopped being human and was now only a leper, a thing to be pitied, but ultimately avoided.
            And so he did what all the exiled and forgotten do, he found ways to survive and friends who shared in his walking damnation.  They gathered at soup kitchens and in alley ways, and together, they found ways to ensure a tomorrow.  They stood on street corners with signs and worked as day laborers.  They slept in shelters and on park benches, and ate food prepared by those who seemed both frightened and fascinated by them.  They, the ten of them together, counted on the charity of strangers who thought them unclean, and what a tenuous existence that was. Yes, they, from time to time, took advantage of those who tried to help them, and about that, he had some regrets. He had cheated and hustled, he lied and told stories, but his survival was at stake, and how much that same struggle for survival was beginning to weigh on him.  The exhaustion was even beneath his bones now, and, at some point, laying this whole mess down might be the only escape.  The world had simply turned too cold. 
            Had he heard rumors of this man?  Well, of course he had, who hadn’t?  There were stories that seemed entirely too good to be true, rumors of healing the sick and recovery of sight, but he never took it all that seriously.  They began to sound too much like the local boy done good sort of thing, and he had an inherent mistrust of that kind of folk lore.  Stories have a way of getting out of control, and he learned a long time ago that unfounded hope was entirely lethal.  It never occurred to him, though, that this Jesus fellow might be returning this way, after all, everyone who actually gets out of Galilee tends to remain as far away as possible.  Galilee was a place for the crude and the uneducated, the desperate and the impious, an outpost for the riff-raff and those who have to scrap together a living. There was no culture, no university, and if one had the good fortune of leaving for the bright lights of Jerusalem with its sophistication, its lawyers and its temple, there was very little reason to return.
            And even he was surprised by what he did when he saw Jesus walking by.  For a brief moment, he gave himself to hope. How strange that old sensation felt, having lived for so long without it.  Maybe, just maybe, some of those stories had in fact been true, and perhaps his cynicism was premature.  So he, along with the other nine, began asking for, well, they weren’t entirely sure of what they wanted this man to do.  Shouting for mercy across the divide of their disease, he was not even sure that he expected a response.  So when the word came to go back and find a priest, they all looked at each other with a mixture of unbelief and the beginnings of joy.  If this Jesus was telling them to go see a priest, well that could really one mean one thing: they were, in some way and at some point about to be cleansed of their disease.  Finally, finally the drought was coming to a close. That this moment, this moment that had often carried him to sleep at night, that this maybe, just maybe, actually might be happening was too much to comprehend all at once. His thoughts sped out in front of him. He could once again try to find work, he could find his wife, assuming she had not moved on, and tell her with genuine conviction that he was a changed man.  Yes, his body would be a testimony to that fact.  He could return to worship and be invited to parties.  He could, once again, be human.
            When he recalled the encounter later amidst the easy comfort of family and friends, he did not really remember turning back around and running towards Jesus.  The way he would tell it, he saw that he had a patch of clean skin and the next moment, Jesus was telling him to get up, to rise, to be resurrected.  He was unable to recite, with any real precision, the praise of God that thundered from his mouth as he realized what had happened.  For, in that moment, he had found himself in a mercy that claimed his voice, his body, his whole being.  His song, was in some sense, not even his own.  What he could remember though, with alarming clarity, was the encounter that happened next, for it was so bizarre, so entirely unexpected that he would come to later regard it as his second birth, the day on which he was yanked out of the grave. 
            For when this Jesus told him that his faith (faith he did not realize he had been given until that moment), had made him well, had made him whole, had in fact saved him, Jesus was indeed speaking of something added to his cleansing.  No, this was not simply Jesus reflecting on what he had done for all ten of them, but was speaking about whatever had drawn this man back to Jesus’ feet.  The man could only speak of that force, that presence, that Holy Spirit by approximation and metaphor, but he knew, as certain as he knew anything, that it was God.  It was God’s Holy Spirit that had cleansed him, and God’s Holy Spirit that had drawn him back to the source of all healing, this eccentric man, Jesus.  It was God’s Holy Spirit that graced him with the vision to see his flesh had been cleansed by God en-fleshed, and it was the Spirit who gave him the song of praise that spontaneously erupted from his lips.  Indeed, it was the Spirit that gave him back to Jesus; it was the Spirit who saved him.
And it is this same Spirit, the Spirit of love, mercy and holiness that delivers us to the source of our cleansing, as well.  The same Spirit that claimed our ancestor in faith, some unknown leper, and a foreigner at that, that is the same Spirit who gathers us together in this place and once again carries us to God’s mercy. It is God’s Holy Spirit, moving in this body and in these sacraments that gives us the gift of faith and hope in the God whose love extends to the margins where the lowly and mourning gather.   It is the Spirit that resurrects us from the stale fear that separates us from our neighbors and gives us the courage to help those who we would probably rather ignore.  Indeed, it is God’s Holy Spirit that gives us the faith of the leper.  Thanks be to God, amen.