Putting Yourself Forward – Proverbs: 25:6-7

Psalm 112

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

Two startling revelations made it into the news this week: Kim Kardashian-West revealed that when she was younger she became addicted to fame and money and Miley Cyrus concluded that after seven years of marriage, she needed some “me time.”

While the cult of celebrity seems amplified by social media and internet click-bait, it is nothing new. Alexander the Great named over 70 cities after himself. Roman Emperor Octavian re-named himself Augustus and sculptors drew his favor by placing his image on statues of gods. His celebrity happened by design: Augustus demanded that he be worshiped as a god born of a virgin mother and destined to live forever.

Proverbs warns against seeking that kind of status, not only as a way of avoiding the inevitable embarrassment that happens when the mighty fall, but also as a way of building community through egalitarian relationships. So while it seems like a simple bit of conventional wisdom, our first lesson this week, placed in it’s fuller context is anything but conventional.  The conventional wisdom of the time was to align oneself closely with those with power, wealth, position or prestige.

I am particularly drawn to the study of the 16th century. Yes there was the upheaval created by Martin Luther and the reformers, but I am really fascinated by the Tudor dynasty, especially the reign of Henry VIII. Employing the same conventional wisdom Proverbs warns against, Hampton Court was filled with those attempting to gain entry into the king’s inner circle. Those that got his royal approval thought themselves on top of the world – at least until Henry changed his mind. Many of them found their way to the Tower, some found their heads on public display on the bridge.

Our passage from Proverbs, echoed in the instruction of Jesus in the gospel this week, is not about being exalted and getting the seat next to the celebrity. It is the unconventional wisdom of taking the lower seat, assuming the humble role, not playing the competitive game of climbing over others to get to the top. And just to put some icing on Jesus’ unconventional cake, he tells all those people competing to look important that when they host a banquet, they should invite the poor instead of – to use today’s language – the influencers.

Here is a bit of unconventional wisdom from 12th century Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides:

“When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a holiday, he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with God’s command, but rather the rejoicing of his own belly.”

Standing Up Straight – Luke 13:10-17

  • Isaiah 58:9b-14
  • Psalm 103:1-8
  • Hebrews 12:18-29 

Last week I departed from my usual preaching style to clarify some misrepresentations of a resolution from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee August 5-10. The resolution approved by the 900 member assembly and declared that the ELCA was a “Sanctuary Denomination.”

I particularly wanted to correct comments from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a large Baptist church in Dallas and a Fox News contributor. He appeared incredulous that a denomination would encourage its members to break the law.

First of all, Pastor Jeffress is wrong. There is nothing in the resolution that encourages anyone to break the law. If you would like to know more about it, go to: https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8004. There is also a link on that page to some talking points to help clarify what the resolution is and is not.

Having said that however, the church has a long history of civil disobedience when governments enact and enforce laws that are unjust. My first awareness of faith-based civil disobedience was the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s. People of faith very intentionally violated legal segregation, often facing violence, arrest and incarceration. If you wonder where they got such an idea, just take a look at this week’s gospel.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and a woman appears who has been bent over and unable to stand up straight for 18 years. She does not approach Jesus asking for anything, it is possible that in her condition she did not eve see him. No, Jesus saw her, went to her and put his hands on her.

If you’re keeping score at home, there are two big violations of the law. In Jesus time, a man was not allowed to touch a non-relative woman. Given that the woman is not named it is safe to assume that she is not a relative. But the greater violation has to do with Sabbath observance. The faithful are not to do any work on the Sabbath. The laws regarding Sabbath are pretty complicated and elaborate, but an official from the synagogue is quick to observe that healing a woman on the Sabbath counts as work.

Jesus points out the hypocrisy of being allowed to untie a beast of burden to get water on the Sabbath (depending upon the type of knot in the rope) but not being able to relieve a woman from a physical burden.

What I like the most about the story is that it defines the mission of the church: helping people to stand up straight. I was drawn to the church by the efforts of the faithful to see that everyone, regardless of race or gender was allowed to stand up straight and live as sons and daughters of Abraham.

Nobel and Pulitzer Prize laureate Toni Morrison died earlier this month at the age of 88. She taught English at Howard and Princeton universities and authored 11 novels and five children’s books. Here is a quote from a woman who always stood up straight:

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

Not Peace, But Division – Luke 12: 49-56

My father was an only child, but his father had four brothers and a sister so there was a crowd at family reunions. The one I remember most took place in the summer of 1964. I remember the date because that Sunday evening there was a rerun of the “Ed Sullivan Show” which featured the Beatles first U.S. television appearance.

I also remember it because family reunions were not a regular thing. This one was on my great aunt’s farm and inasmuch as I was just going on ten years old, I was blissfully unaware of some of the family dynamics. For reasons that remain a mystery to me to this day, my grandfather and his sister did not get along. As far as I know, there may have been other family reunions that we did not attend but for whatever reason this one was supposed to extend an olive branch.

It all started out well, cars and pick-up trucks loaded with people and coolers and casserole dishes rolled up to the home quarter and parked on the grass. People sat in various clusters of chairs and tables and umbrellas and a game of croquet ran continuously near the barn.

By the time the youngsters had gathered in the living room to watch Ed Sullivan introduce the Fab Four, the combination of heat, humidity, alcohol and too much food had taken a toll on the cordial détente of earlier in the day. Conversations ranged from politics to religion to whether rock and roll was the beginning of the end of decent society. Old conflicts rose from the depths. Everybody went home sweaty and sun burned and I cannot remember another family reunion.

So just what is up with Jesus’ comment, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” His only family reunion in the bible is in Mark’s gospel and it doesn’t go well. At first his brothers try to keep him from the crowd because they think he’s lost his mind and then later he denies being related to them.

One term I never used as a therapist was “dysfunctional family.” For one thing, its kind of a pejorative term. For another, we all come from families with dysfunction; it’s just a matter of degrees. I don’t think Jesus was really on a mission to divide families. On the other hand, he did call us to honesty. Like I said, I don’t know why my grandfather didn’t get along with his sister, maybe they didn’t even remember. Burying the truth however, never resolves conflict.

Here is some wisdom on families from Anne Lamott:

“I wish I’d known what I wrote to my grandson, Jax, in “Some Assembly Required,” that everyone goes through life thinking that he or she missed school on that one day in second grade when the wise Elder came and taught the kids the secret of life, of living to find your self and your own purpose and voice, instead of needing to become addicted to people-pleasing or domination. But that no one was there that day. Everyone is flailing through this life without an owner’s manual, with whatever modicum of grace and good humor we can manage.”

Fred and Jerry – Luke 12:32-40

  • Genesis 15: 1-6
  • Psalm 33: 12-22
  • Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
  • Luke 12: 32-40

43 years ago, one of the first classes I took in seminary was on the varieties of ways houses of faith communicated their message. I chose to focus on the use of television by comparing and mostly contrasting two rising stars of religious television.

The first was Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg Virginia and host of The Old Time Gospel Hour. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Falwell had campaigned against desegregation of schools and started his own all-white private schools as a ministry of the church. When I studied him, he has recently co-founded Liberty University and was increasing his visibility in politics through the Moral Majority.

The other person I studied was a skinny Presbyterian minister whose low-budget local children’s puppet show had been picked up by National Educational Television. His name, of course, was Fred Rogers.

The focus of my paper was had nothing to do with politics. Instead it was contrasting the way each of them connected with their audience. The Old Time Gospel Hour seemed like the kind of tent revival meetings I remembered happening in the summers in the rural town where we lived. Falwell’s church was portrayed as a “pro-life, pro-traditional family values, pro-American” bastion, and his preaching regularly railed against “secular-humanists” and what he called fake Christians, including then President Jimmy Carter.

The consistent theme of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was acceptance and inclusion. While it was not outwardly a religious program, unconditional love was at the forefront of every broadcast, with Rogers reminding his viewers at the end of each show, “I like you just the way you are.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I did in that paper was describe the theological chasm that has been widening ever since. I have examined and attempted to describe exactly what the chasm is but it has so many dimensions that a concise description has thus far eluded me.

Have you ever had the experience of trying to recall something and then it comes to you when you quit thinking about it?  That was what happened to me, and it was seeing a trailer for the new Tom Hanks film about Fred Rogers that reminded me that the answer has always been there: it is it scripture itself. “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Are we a community that sets boundaries for entrance and then points out the differences between us and them, or are we a community that removes boundaries and “Likes you just the way you are,” no matter how broken?

Just what is our treasure? More on this Sunday.

Here is a quote from “The World According to Mister Rogers.”

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one really is, that each of us has something no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Storing Up Treasure – Luke 12:13-21

I have been making preparations to retire this fall and one of the required steps was filling out a lot of paperwork regarding the pension plan that I have been a part of for over 37 years. So it was just a little ironic earlier this week when after finishing up the paperwork I took a look at the gospel – specifically Jesus’ warning to those who “store up treasures for themselves.” Gulp.

The setting of the story is a man in the crowd who asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute he has, presumably with his older brother. Luke does not give us specifics but in general when a man died, his estate was divided among male heirs but the eldest son was given two shares. It is worth noting that in the first century, nine out of ten people had a subsistence living. Even without knowing the details, it is safe to assume that the man was complaining about not getting his fair share.

Luke also does not tell us anything about what the man’s single share of the estate is, and maybe it doesn’t matter, but the fact that there even was an estate to divide put the man ahead of most. Thus, Jesus declares, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and then tells a story about a rich landowner.

The first and tenth commandments form a set of bookends for the other eight. “You shall have not other gods,” and, “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Isn’t all the other stuff just a question of breaking one or the other of those two? And if you can accomplish either the first or the tenth, have you not also accomplished the other? I ask those questions in full awareness of my own inability to consistently keep either one.

When I was young, my grandparents had a small cottage across the lake from industrialist Eli Lily. He began working in his grandfather’s pharmaceutical company while still a schoolboy and eventually became one of the richest men in the world. He was also a lifelong Episcopalian, and with his father and brother created the Lily Endowment, the largest philanthropic foundation in the world. In addition to the gifts given through the endowment, after his death it was discovered that Lily had given millions of dollars anonymously.

So what about my pension? Am I storing up treasures for myself? Honestly, the answer is “yes.” But look at the full sentence: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Those three words make all the difference.

Here are the “Seven Social Sins” from a sermon by Anglican priest Frederick Lewis Donaldson at Westminster Abbey in 1925:

“Wealth without work.
Pleasure without conscience.
Knowledge without character.
Commerce without morality.
Science without humanity.
Worship without sacrifice.
Politics without principle.”

 

Knowing and Not Knowing – Acts 3:12-19

You probably have heard the old saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” Consider one of my nieces in Canada. She has had some health concerns and was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. No one ever welcomes a cancer diagnosis, but she is in stage 2, and the prognosis is pretty good. She is facing some difficult days ahead because of the treatment, but her spirits are good now that she knows what she’s up against.

For the seven-week Easter season, our first lesson will come from the Book of Acts instead of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The lesson this week is the second of five sermons from Peter. The general theme of the sermons is that humanity kills but God defeats death. As an example, he reminds the crowd of their complicity in the death of Jesus, “I know that you acted in ignorance.”

I tried to picture Peter in one of my preaching classes in seminary. I’m guessing the professor might have suggested that calling one’s congregation ignorant is not a particularly good strategy. It turns out that Peter didn’t really call them ignorant, at least not in the insulting sense of the word. The Greek word for knowledge is “gnosis.” The prefix “a” means the absence of, so “agnosis” means “without knowledge” and is where we get the word agnostic. Ignorance does mean “without knowledge” but in our culture at least, it has a pejorative feel to it.

What Peter is actually saying to the crowd in regard to Jesus’ death is, “I know that you acted without knowledge.” Jump back in time to the crucifixion when Jesus pleads, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Acting without knowledge often has serious consequences. You may have read that the alleged shooter in the Parkland, Florida school shooting wants to donate his inheritance to his victims. Did he act “without knowledge?”

And that leads me to another word used in this lesson: repent. It does not really mean remorse. Metanoia means to change your mind. In fact the element of change is so important in the word, that it navigation, the word came to mean a change of course. It makes me think that Peter’s call to repentance might simply mean, change your mind from not knowing to knowing; be mindful because what you do really can make a difference.

Here’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln about changing his mind:

“I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them; but holding it a sound maxim, that it is better to be only sometimes right, than at all times wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”

 

Blinded by the Light – Matthew 17:1-9

When I was in my third year German class in high school, I had to read “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka in German. It was not cheerful stuff. To oversimplify, the novella is about a guy who wakes up to find he has been transformed into a human sized cockroach. Kafka himself was no bundle of joy: riddled with anxiety, guilt and obsessive thoughts of being repulsive to others it is not a reach to suggest that “The Metamorphosis” was somewhat autobiographical.

Biblically, the word metamorphosis is translated as “transfigured.” The last Sunday of the season of Epiphany is Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany is a little odd in that it can be as short as 4 Sundays and as long as 9 (including Transfiguration Sunday). The word “epiphany” can mean appearance, unveiling or disclosure and the stories of the season are ways in which Jesus’ identity and purpose are revealed.

Not surprisingly, Epiphany begins and ends with a bright light – the first act of creation in the book of Genesis. It also begins with a voice from heaven declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Throughout the season the stories shed light on who Jesus is. Some get it, others don’t. Some get it one minute and then seem clueless the next.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus experiences a metamorphosis that is nothing like the one in Kafka’s novella. Matthew writes that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, a reference to Moses’ face when he came down from the mountain. Matthew Mark and Luke write that his clothes became “dazzling white.” But it wasn’t just Jesus. Elijah and Moses, representing the Prophets and the Law appeared with him.

On the other hand, just because something is illuminated does not imply that there is full understanding. The “inner three” of Peter James and John get up close and personal with the Divine but they will fall asleep when Jesus needs them in the Garden and Peter’s denial is an abandonment second only to that of Judas.

They know who Jesus is, but they do not yet understand what Jesus will do.

 

Here is a quote from “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” by Marcus Borg:

“The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it — as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word “Jesus”. Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables. Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection — the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being.”

Rejoice and be Glad . . . and Rip Your Eye Out – Matthew 5:21-37

For the last few weeks, the gospel lesson has been what we have come to call The Sermon on the Mount. When I was in seminary we had to preach in front of our peers, the faculty and be recorded on videotape. Then we got reviewed and evaluated complete with the video replay. It was kind of like having an autopsy while you were still alive.

Reading the entire Sermon on the Mount at one time, I have wondered how Jesus would have made out in my preaching class. “You started out on a very positive note with all of that ‘blessed are the poor’ stuff but I am unclear why it is you got so negative with that stuff about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands.” “So I am a little confused: are you saying the law is good or that we are forgiven our violations of the law?” “You have an annoying habit of stroking your beard, it is very distracting.”

The role of the prophet was not to predict the future but to challenge and provoke with a warning of the consequences if things do not change. What Jesus seems to be doing in the Sermon on the Mount is to lull the people into a comfortable place with the beatitudes, and then, as my campus pastor said many years ago, “stick the knife in and twist.”

In the language of Poker, Jesus seems to be saying, “I’ll see you the law, and I will raise you an even higher standard.” Back to my preaching class, I can hear the faculty ask, “Where is the good news in this?”

It’s a good question. Jesus does not debunk the merit of keeping the law, but he points out that the law is all about external things: don’t covet your neighbors goods, don’t lie about them, don’t murder them. What Jesus is suggesting, using the hyperbole of eye plucking and hand chopping, is that living in the kingdom of God is also about internal things: the things that you desire, the values you hold yourself to in order to bring the kingdom to our present reality.

And there just is no way to soften that or making it any easier to swallow. Jesus challenges his followers to more than just keep the law, but to strive for a different kind of kingdom; an upside down kind of kingdom where grace, mercy, justice and peace are the desires of our heart.

 

Here’s the chorus from “What Kind of World Do You Want” by John OndrasiK

What kind of world do you want, think anything

Let’s start at the start, build a masterpiece

Be careful what you wish for, history starts now.

Mishpat, Chesed or Just Kill Something? – Micah 6:1-8

Contrary to your favorite, millionaire televangelist, prophecy has nothing whatsoever to do with predicting the future. John Dominic Crossan illustrated the point by warning that you shouldn’t pitch your tent in the middle of I-10 because you might get run over by a truck. Now, if you do so, and you get run over by a truck, did he predict the future? Take it a step further, when you got run over by the truck was God punishing you, or was getting run over by a truck the natural consequence of pitching a tent in the middle of I-10.

Prophets are not soothsayers. They are social critics. They tell the truth to people who do not want to hear it, especially when it is ugly truth (and really, isn’t it often ugly)? Prophets provoke and challenge and yes, even warn that there may be serious consequences if there isn’t a change of course.

French born philosopher and historian Rene Girard, who died last fall at his home near Stanford University at the age of 91, was the father of a school of philosophy known as mimetic theory. Simply put, we learn what we want and what we want to do by imitating what we see others do. Pitching a tent in the middle of I-10 looks like a grand idea when we see others doing it.

Girard ties conflict to two or more people wanting what another has. Since rivalry often leads to violence, societies developed ways to channel or even make sacred their rivalries and tendency toward violence. Enter sacrificial religious systems. The conflict between us is placed on an arbitrary victim who is then removed brutally thus easing the tension in the system. The relief is temporary at best and the ritual must be repeated.

Frequently, the sacrificial victims were human children. Ancient Judaism, like most world religions was not immune from what Girard would come to call the “Scapegoat Mechanism,” and the ban on child sacrifice in Leviticus is taken as evidence that it may once have been the practice. Nonetheless, sacrifice is a bloody business.

Writing around seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, Micah was not shy about criticizing the way things were. The people had lost their grounding and the wealthy were exploiting the poor. It was like pitching a tent in the middle of I-10 and there was no way it was going to end well.

Micah also challenged the temple system of sacrifice that allowed the wealthy to make very showy burnt offerings while the poor were more or less excluded from worship. He invited the people to practice instead two things: mishpat and chesed. Neither one of them translates neatly into English but mishpat is more or less justice or right judgment (both translations conjure up our legal system which really diminishes the word). Chesed is more or less loving kindness or steadfast love.

The problem with the English is that is kind of romanticizes Micah 6:8 into the kind of thing you might find needlepointed on a dishtowel. “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” It’s kind of like when my friend would tell his 5 kids, “Fight nice.” Mishpat and Chesed are hard things. Much harder than buying a goat to be sacrificed at the temple, and that is the whole point. Micah railed against an easy spirituality that could be bought off for the right price. Those who walk humbly with God do mishpat and chesed, and they are pretty easy to spot.

 

Here is a quote from Nobel Prize Laureate and 2nd Secretary General of the United Nation Dag Hammarskjold from his book, “Markings.”

“It is not we who seek the Way, but the Way which seeks us. That is why you are faithful to it, even while you stand waiting, so long as you are prepared, and act the moment you are confronted by its demands.”

 

Blue Christmas – Matthew 11:2-11

PastorSteveI was living in Canada in the fall of 1977 when both Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby died in August and October respectively. As December approached that year, someone commented that we could have neither a Blue Christmas nor a White Christmas.

This is a time of year when the culture tells you to be merry. Houses are decorated, office parties and social events abound, television fills itself with Christmas specials both young and old, and I anticipate hearing a young James Stewart shout, “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!”

For many, the manufactured cheer of the season cannot overcome a sense of loss. Perhaps someone is missing this year, perhaps there is an illness clouding the merriment, perhaps a change in economic status is dimming the lights, and the feeling of the blues makes us feel like we have failed Christmas.

Last week, we heard from a confidently defiant John shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord!” This week, we jump ahead a few chapters to find John in prison questioning who Jesus is. Confidence has turned to doubt and hope may be out of reach.

We get very focused on that stable in Bethlehem; the angels and the shepherds sing together. When the baby grows into a man under the thumb of Roman domination, doubt and despair replace the triumphant songs. Jesus is not a victorious conqueror. Instead, Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” who does not wipe away sadness but instead accompanies us through it.

Hope can be defiant, but it can also be elusive. We’re dong something different this year. On Wednesday, December 21 we are having a “Blue Christmas.” No, it has nothing to do with Elvis. December 21st is the longest night of the year, and we will gather to seek healing through the sharing of grief, loss and disappointment. It will be a time to step away from the hurry of the season, to gather quietly, to sing together, to light candles and together to find some solace and hope. The service will begin at 7:00. Our friend, Pastor Steve Holm will be our preacher. I hope you can join us.

 

Here is the poem, I Will Light Candles this Christmas by educator Howard Thurman who served as dean of the chapel at both Howard University and Boston University:

I will light Candles this Christmas;

Candles of joy despite all sadness,

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,

Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all the year long.

 

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