Monday, October 29, 2018

Reformation


John 8: 31-36
10-26-14
Reformation Sunday

This is the day in the Lutheran Church
where we remember that on October 31, 1517,
Martin Luther took his 95 Theses,
basically 95 bullet-point arguments
against the church’s practice of selling indulgences,
or forgiveness of sins, for a price.

Martin Luther said he did this in order to start a conversation,
and indeed at the top, he invited anyone who couldn’t
debate him in person to do it by the mail.

Now, the Christian church at the time was not used to being
argued with publically and Martin Luther eventually found 
himself in quite a lot of trouble and the reluctant leader of a new denomination

We hold Luther dear to our hearts but history agrees,
with this act, and subsequent ones, that Luther changed
all of Christianity and that in turn changed the entire world.

Luther did this because he was a priest.
He saw the people of God being held in bondage.
They were putting more faith in money and in
religious leaders than they were in God and Jesus
He saw people who were in fear,
in constant fear for their eternal souls
and actually afraid of God.
They were not free.
  
Martin Luther discovered by reading the scriptures
that the gift of Jesus gospel was not rules, threats
special rituals, and judgment, but love.
Jesus came to tell us that God was love and God loved us.

The people were repeatedly held captive by
centuries of threats and scare tactics and spiritual blackmail,
and Martin Luther taught us that Jesus came to set us free.

Jesus has set us free.
Free from our pasts,
free from the constraints that others put on us.
Free from the dread of God’s wrath
Free from our fear of the unknown.

Luther taught us that the death and resurrection of Jesus
has once and for all freed us. Given us new life.

And with every event in our lives, with every new person
we talk to and meet, with everyone that we get
to talk about Jesus with, we learn this lesson anew.
And every generation hears it and understands it differently.
Every decade the church and it’s people adjust to a new reality
that the gospel is speaking to.

We are always being Reformed, always being transformed,
always being changed.
Even though we may think we’re old and we’ve heard it all before,
there is still always the opportunity for new life.

That is why we celebrate our New Members today.
Because they will come in with new ideas, new ways
of looking at things, new life.
And that is why we celebrate our confirmand.
It’s not just a good day for Isaac, and a good day for Gethsemane. 
It’s a good day for the whole church, and for the whole world,
because we are sending another person out into the world
to share the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Luther and his revelation of Jesus gospel of God’s love
to the church, ended up changing the whole world.
We, of course, live in a different time 500 years later,
but I believe that this message of God’s love
can still change the world.

After weeks like this, we might feel like the devil is winning.
We live in a world that is in bondage to violence,
and hate, and division, and hateful words that inspire division
and violence. And we will never free ourselves.
But I believe that Jesus word of love
for all people can free us.

Like Luther’s hymn says,
“Though hordes of devils fill the land
all threatening to devour us,
we tremble not unmoved we stand
they cannot overpower us.
This world’s prince may range,
in fierce war engaged.
He is doomed to fail.
God’s judgment must prevail.
One little word subdues him.”

That Word of love frees us,
and it will free the world one day.
And when Christ makes us free, we are free indeed.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Great in God's Kingdom: Saint Oscar Romero


Mark 10:35-45
October 21, 2018

The disciples seem to be learning a lot
of the same lessons here lately.
Lessons about exclusion, division, and power.

If you read chapters eight through ten
all together, it’s basically lessons about exclusion,
division, and power punctuated
by Jesus telling his disciples that he will be
rejected by the elders chief priests and scribes
arrested, killed, and then rise again.

Jesus does tells them this for the last time
right before the verses we read today
and this prompts James and John to  ask Jesus if he would
give them a couple of sweet cabinet appointments
once he gets his place in glory.

The disciples don’t seem to really grasp
what Jesus has been telling them about exclusion, division,
and obviously power and he takes
this last opportunity to explain to them
that power in this world is not the same
as power in God’s kingdom.

This is the last bit of advice like this
that  Jesus gives his friends, because
right after this they’re on their way
to Jerusalem where Jesus will be crucified.

Jesus tells them, in the world, the rulers rule it over them
and the great ones are tyrants over the people.
“But it is not so among you; whoever
wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
  
Greatness in this world comes from ruling
from being the strongest, over-powering,
having the strongest and best military
and having the most money.

But greatness in God’s kingdom comes through
serving, giving your life and power away for others.
That can bring Kingdom people in direct conflict
with the world sometimes,
and it can be uncomfortable, even deadly.

Like the war protesting priest, Daniel Berrigan once said,
“If you want to follow Jesus, You better look good on wood.“

The Roman Catholic Church has not been
without it’s own dependency on
this world’s power over the years,
but last Sunday it did something wonderful:
it made Arch Bishop Oscar Romero a saint.

Luther rejected the idea of honoring specific saints,
but the Catholic church sets aside people who
they feel are exceptional in their life and work
for the church and call them saints.
The process of choosing saints is  itself often shaded
by politics and corruption, but this was a good choice
in a lot of people’s estimation.

And after contemplating the scripture for this week,
I feel compelled to tell you about Bishop Romero.
October 14th, crowds in San Salvador
celebrate Oscar Romero's Sainthood

In the 70’s, Oscar Romero 
was  bishop of the
smallest rural diocese is El Salvador and
then he was appointed arch bishop
of all of El Salvador in 1977.

For many decades, 
El Salvador had been an oligarchy,
run by the rich elites. 
If you a wealthy land owner,
things in El Salvador were great, but if you
were one of the many regular people 
in El Salvador,
the situation was terrible.
Poverty and hunger was rampant,
schools and health care for people were abysmal
or non-existent, rents for farms were outrageous,
and poor people were taxed at a much higher rate
than rich people. And to keep all this in place,
corruption and voter suppression was rampant.

When Romero was appointed arch bishop
the ruling class were very happy.
Romero was known as a friend of the wealthy
land owners, and they assumed that the church
would do what it had always done,
support the status quo of the rich and powerful.
The church probably appointed him so he could do just that.

In January 1977, Carlos Romero (no relation)
was elected president through blatant fraud
and voter intimidation
and massive protests started in the country.

Security forces in San Salvador arrived on
the scene and opened fire on the crowd,
killing hundreds of people.
The president blamed communist forces
for the violence, declared a state of emergency
and suspended civil liberties in the countries.

The rich land owners always had organized
and funded paramilitary groups who
would keep the agrarian communities in control.

These groups were soon taken over control
by the Salvadoran Government and they were used
to put an end to any protest or anyone who organized together,
they killed many of union leaders, activists, teachers, students and priests
anyone suspected of sympathizing with the peasants.

Newly elected Arch Bishop Romero  still wanted to
stay out of the whole political fracas thinking
that the church should stay out of the politics.

But in March of 1977, Oscar Romero’s friend
Father Rutillo Grande was assassinated by
security forces in the village of peasants that he served.
The church requested that Bishop Romero to have the
funeral quietly in the small  province where
Rutillo Grande served, as to not bring attention to it.

But, against the wishes of the church,
Oscar Romero held the funeral at the
cathedral in San Salvador, the capital city.

People flooded into the mass from all over the country
and Romero spent the time afterwards
hearing stories of suffering from peasant farmers.
It was then that Oscar Romero was converted,
and changed his life and the role of the church in El Salvador.

He left his comfortable Bishop’s palace,
and lived in relative poverty with the people.
And he started to speak out against the
war, violence, and injustice happening
during his regular Sunday sermon which
was broadcast to all of El Salvador on the radio.

In 1979, things got complicated and
President Romero was deposed by
the Revolutionary Government Junta
a civilian military organization.
Fearing a communist take over,
the US backed the Junta’s forces with funds and weapons.
At its height, the US was giving them
over 1 million dollars every day.

This escalated the violence in the country
which was still aimed at peasants, farmers,
and any one who supported them.

In February 1980, against the wishes of the pope,
Arch Bishop Romero published an open letter to
President Jimmy Carter pleading with the US to stop
the military aid to the Salvadorian regime which was
bombing, raping, and massacring its citizens.
The letter was not responded to.

On March 23rd, in his regular Sunday sermon broadcast,
Romero called on Salvadoran soldiers
to defy the orders of the government and
obey God’s higher calling to stop carrying out
the government’s repression
and stop killing their brothers and sisters.

The next day, on March 24th,
he was presiding at a mass at a hospital for terminal cancer patients.
After he finished his sermon and stepped away
from the pulpit, Bishop Romero was shot and killed.
In 2009, the state of El Salvador finally
admitted their responsibility in his murder.

Less than a year later, a full civil war erupted
Possibly without Bishop Romero’s leadership
and repeated calls for non-violent resistance,

This war lasted for 12 years and
would end up kill in an estimated 75,000 El Salvadorans
most of them civilians,and leave many others missing, and tortured.
In a country the size of Connecticut with a population
of only 4 million, this was an enormous loss.

And while information given to the US media
was that most of the violence was caused by the
peasants and the supposed “Communist forces”
An impartial research team approved by
the UN estimated that 5% of the deaths and abuses were
caused by the guerrilla force, or the peasants
and 95% of the deaths and abuses were caused
by the US backed Salvadoran government forces.

Those of us who have been to El Salvador
can see that even though the war ended 20 years ago,
it’s still very present with the people there.
And even though he only worked three year with and
for the people, Oscar Romero‘s presence with the
country continues. His picture is everywhere.
  
During the war and after, he is seen as 
a source of strength and empowerment for the people,
the poor, the struggling and suffering.
Proof that God and the church did not
abandon them or forget about them.

Romero wrote:
A church that does not provoke any crisis, that preaches a gospel
that does not unsettle, that proclaims a work of God that does not
get under anyone’s skin, or a word of God that does not
touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed:
What kind of gospel is that?

Maybe we can see why it’s taken almost 40 years
for the Catholic Church to officially recognize
Oscar Romero for the extraordinary leader and martyr that he was.
He defied all his superiors in the church, and
he was seen by past popes as a “Marxist“.

It’s a controversial and complicated story and,
like every situation in real life,
sometimes the answers aren’t always clear.

But Romero did not advocate for one side or another.
He advocated for a stop to the violence and repression.
He advocated for justice and peace
which often feels disruptive to those who were
causing the oppression in the name of defense.

Romero called it the Violence of Love“
which feels like violence because it upsets
the status quo and the social order of things.
It is this love, he said, which left Jesus nailed to a cross.

Like Jesus says, in God’s kingdom
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Oscar Romero, among others, was a living
lesson of the leadership of God’s kingdom.
He stepped into the fray and advocated for the poor,
the oppressed, and he gave a voice to those who didn’t have a voice.
He showed the world what the church could be.
When given his power, he used it for the people
And for that, he drank the cup that Jesus drank.

Christ came to serve the world and paid for it on the cross.
it is in this cross, this suffering for others,
that we find our salvation.
It is in this gift that we find the Kingdom of God.




Monday, October 15, 2018

It's Hard Being Rich


Mark 10:17-31
October 14, 2018

So has anyone done this?
Camel and the Eye of a Needle
artist not found
followed all the commandments
AND given everything they 
had away to the poor?
Good, so we’re all in the 
same precarious position here.
Again, we don’t see many people
who think the bible should be interpreted
literally take this passage literally.

But this is a hard passage 
to hear for anyone
who is wanting to follow Jesus.
Could we do what Jesus asked 
if we were that man?
Most of us would not.
So people have found lots of 
ways around this
text over the years to make us more comfortable.

For instance people will say that this man
loved money and made it a priority over God,
and that’s what we shouldn’t do, we can keep it, just don’t love it.
But the story doesn’t say he loved money, he just had it.

Some people use it as the beginning of their stewardship program
so the answer is that we need to give away some to the church.
You can figure out the problems with that yourself.

And the most convincing one,
I’ve heard is that the eye of a needle isn’t really the eye of
a real needle, but a specific archway on a road
where you couldn’t get a camel through
without taking off their parcels and packages.
Thus we need to remove all our baggage, you can’t take it with you.
Which is really nifty, except there’s no proof
that there was any place called “the eye of the needle”
until about 200 years after Jesus story.

Lutherans have an interesting take on this story too,
basically the classic Lutheran interpretation says that what Jesus
commanded this man to do, giving everything away
is utterly impossible, so thankfully we have God to save us.

So the story is really about our inability to merit
our own salvation, we need to depend on God’s mercy.
So Jesus didn’t really mean for this man to give
everything away, he just wanted to show him
how he was unable to save himself.
So keep your wealth and rely on God’s mercy.
I actually have an old sermon reflecting this very reading.

While I still sincerely believe that we can’t save ourselves,
The dismissal of what Jesus actually said, is unsatisfying to me.
I see that Jesus cares a lot about money and wealth
and what we do with it, and how we use it.
And Jesus also cares a great deal about the poor.
And I don’t think these are words that we should
just override with a theology.

Also, all of these interpretations are very focused
on the rich man alone. Which is the opposite of what
I think Jesus was pointing to.

For the last few weeks in Mark, Jesus has been teaching the
disciples about not dividing people into them and us.
I think this lesson goes one further,
it is about how we are not divided,
but joined to one another.
  
Let me explain:
We have a wealthy man who comes up to Jesus.
How do they know he’s wealthy?
Maybe he has a reputation, maybe he’s dressed nicely, with the
first century equivalent of an expensive suit and a fancy watch.
It says he’s a faithful and God-fearing man
and he’s trying to do his very best by following the commandments.
And he comes to Jesus and kneels before him, 
so he is also a humble man, in spite of his wealth, 
he gives honor to Jesus.
The only thing that sets him apart is that he is rich.
And he’s worried about his eternal life for some reason,
we know that because he asks Jesus about it.

Jesus tells him to follow the commandments:
and he assures Jesus that he has.
He must be keeping track because I would
have to think about it for a while.

Then it says, Jesus looked at him and loved him.
Loved him. The story wants us to know that.
That Jesus wasn’t angry with him, or frustrated.
Jesus loved him.

And so Jesus told him the answer to his problem was
to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor
and follow Jesus.

When someone kneels at the feet of Jesus
it’s usually because they’re asking for healing.
Maybe this man is no different.
Maybe this man knows something’s wrong with him.
Even though he has everything that he’s supposed to want,
Something is wrong and he knows it.
  
How many times have we heard that these days?
How many times have we felt it.
With the rash of celebrity suicides,
Kate Sapde, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams,
people who we might think have everything we
would ever want: wealth, fame, a partner, family.
But still something is wrong.

And the U.S. is one of the most wealthy countries
but we also have the highest rate of
depression and anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse in the world.
We have lots of stuff, but that’s not the answer.

Yet when people look at poverty, and talk about poverty
and “less developed” countries and societies
we often spend time diagnosing their problems,
looking at them with pity, sometimes even scorn.
We wonder why they can’t keep up with us
we say how sad it is that they are the way they are.
As if there was a deficiency in their character,
Us and them.

But maybe there is another way to look at this picture.
Wealth does something to us that isn’t good.
Self-sufficiency changes us.
Having the ability to go out and purchase what
we need whenever we need it has given us
the illusion that we’ve gotten there alone,
That we’re on our own that we don’t really need
anything from anyone.  Asking for help is a weakness,
Including our salvation.

In this country, wealth and independence is valued
almost over all else.
The illusion of the self-made person of success consumes us.
Being an individual, standing out from the crowd,
not relying on anyone, the isolated, rugged
cowboy in a cabin with his family and his rifle,
alone is still sometimes the quintessential American image.

There is no wonder that we also have adopted
this individualistic understanding of our salvation.
I can be saved but my neighbor, that’s their business.
We can be saved by our own actions,
or by our belief, or by maintaining our own purity,
or even by our trust in Jesus to save us.
Just me and Jesus, or me and God, a one-person
elevator to heaven. Which seems fully contrary to
Jesus message when you take it as a whole.

And Jesus wants us to know the same thing
that he wanted that man to know:
Salvation will not achieved alone.
It is not just about me and God.
Jesus us saying that this man’s salvation,
and our salvation, is wrapped up inextricably
in the salvation of others, specifically the poor.

Jesus took a rich man, and made him realize
that he couldn’t work this out on his own 
like everything else in his life. 
His own salvation was inextricably wrapped up with the poor.
Those that he was probably ignoring,
that he didn’t know or understand,
maybe those that he even looked down on.
No wonder he went away grieving.

His salvation was not to be worked out alone,
in isolation, as a singular accomplishment.
It wasn’t just between him and Yahweh any more.
It was him and Yahweh and those poor people – Them.
This man needed this message, and we need this message.
because his wealth, like everyone’s wealth,
has made him think that he can do it alone.
His wealth has changed him, and ours has too.
The wealth of this country, this world,
has made us think that the less fortunate would be best 
pushed aside, that we don’t need them, 
or they’re just there to be used for our benefit, survival of the fittest.

But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that.
Many who are first will be last and the last will be first.
This world will not be saved, this country will not be great,
until we understand that the poorest, the weakest,
the sickest, the most vulnerable are not to be ignored or
overpowered or discarded. Until we realize that they are vital to us,
we will not come near to the Kingdom of God.
Notice that Jesus stops talking about personal eternal life
and he starts talking about the Kingdom of God.

“How hard will it be for those who have wealth
to enter the Kingdom of God!”

It would be better for us to cut it all off, or give it all away
just like those limbs and eyes we were cutting off
a couple of weeks ago.

Like that man that knelt at Jesus feet
Jesus loves us. No doubt.
But like that man, that love might be tinged with pity
and sadness for what we’ve become.
The wealth of this country and our self-reliance
has changed us, and has hidden the truth from us.

If we want to save ourselves alone, it is
as difficult as that camel going through the eye of a needle
if we go with God, all things are possible.
BUT if we go with God,
then all God’s children are coming with us too.