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.