Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Change is an Invitation to Holy Ground

Fall has always been my favorite time of year.  For most of my life, the leaves have transformed from lush green to the colorful landscape of a Bob Ross classic.  The temperature has declined, as I am relieved from oppressive summer heat and humidity.  Winter closes in, making me anxious for the love-hate relationship of possible snow.  Fall also means the holidays, which is a perfect excuse for my family and friends to travel the extra mile to unite in love and food.  For me, the experience of fall has always been my normal.

I do not know what the seasons look or feel like in Jacksonville yet, but my gut says to brace myself for a change.  This fall, the leaves may not change, the family may not all gather together, the temperature may not drop, and I am sad to think it may not lead to snow.  But that doesn’t make love fall any less.

A dear professor always taught us that “change is an invitation to Holy Ground.”  Every adjustment in the midst of change, for better or worse, is an opportunity to walk, reflect, and ultimately grow.   God is with us in the midst of change, walking with us step-by-step on Holy Ground, inviting us to trust, grow, and transform.  When we walk on Holy Ground, we can’t help but grow—grow in relationship, grow in self, and grow in faith. 

When Moses died and the Israelites stood on the precipice of a long-anticipated destination, God commissioned Joshua.  Joshua became a change in both leadership and direction as the Israelites left the wilderness and crossed the Jordan River into their new change of address.  God commanded Joshua to “be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

This fall Sarah and I will welcome a change—a change of address, a change of family and friends, a change to a new job.  A change in our new “normal.”   As scary or exciting as it may be, we take great comfort in knowing that we do not experience this change alone.  St. Mark’s has undergone an extended journey of change the last few years.  Friends and family have come and gone.  Programs have thrived and died.  Hopes have been marked by fears, and uncertainty has caused self-reflection.

Sisters, brothers, siblings, just as dead leaves make way for fresh buds, and cooler temperatures ultimately give new life to old soil, change brings about growth and transformation.  From the crucifixion of Jesus came new life in the form of resurrection.  Death was overcome with life, and the life-giving promise of hope, grace, and love.   Like Joshua and Israelites crossing the Jordan, Mary and the disciples left the tomb that day on Holy Ground, transformed for the better.  Change is an invitation to walk with God and neighbor on Holy Ground, to learn more about ourselves, one another, and God’s call for us.  To experience a re-birth.  To be reformed.  We will always experience change, but as we change know that in the Spirit change yields growth.  And God-willing, we will always continue to grow.

So in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead, be strong and courageous.  Do not be frightened or dismayed.  For the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.

Sarah and I are blessed to call St. Mark's JAX our new family and our new home.

Originally Posted in the November, 2017 Messenger for St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Jacksonville, Florida. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reformation Sermon - 10.29.2017

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.’ 33They 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. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. 36So if the Son makes you free you will be free indeed.

We made it! 
500 years since a good German monk nailed 95 Theses for discuss on a church door in Wittenburg
Germany.  500 years of theological debate, church tradition, denominational union, division, union, and division.  500 years of the Gospel of Christ being debated, discussed, discerned all under the Thesis of freedom and salvation.  500 years, some of which were marked by trial and persecution, even dismissals of whole populations solely on their theological interpretations and religious beliefs.  500 years, the most recent of which have been dedicated to intentional bible study, Sunday school lesson, videos, movies, joint celebrations, and ongoing festivities. 

And for some, today might feel like a sigh of relief.  The reformation, a religious and theological movement fueled by 95 articles of debate that were posted on a church door by a less than humble and penitent monk.  500 years leads us to today, a commemoration of that occasion, an anniversary of the reformation. 500 years.  We’ve made it.  

It might necessarily follow then that we be clear about what it is that we are commemorating today.  Certainly we aren’t celebrating a global fraction of the church, a 16th century full of divisive and painful theological debate.  Certainly, Luther wouldn’t want us to celebrate Luther himself… he’d likely be disgusted by a major denomination of Christianity being named after his life and work.

Luther’s intent was Never to divide the church.  Rather, Luther set out to spark debate, disturb the norms and practices of an age old religion, to question, understand, challenge, and ultimately reform the ways in which everyday citizens interacted and experienced the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Push the intersection of the holy and the secular, so much so that two no longer cross but rather run in tandem.  Faith informing daily life, and life interpreting faith. Luther encouraged theological engagement.  He enabled everyday members of the body of Christ to discuss matters of faith empowering them to embody the doctrines, confessions, and articles by which their lives were formed.  

And above all of these not-so-small efforts, Luther demanded that Jesus Christ, God’s abundant action of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness,  be the foundation of all we say and do. 

Sure his efforts lead to a legacy of messy generations or more of religious division and debate, but at the heart of the reformation was the understanding of faith.  How are we justified.  How is faith in Jesus Christ related to my life. What does it mean to be saved, or to have faith. What makes us free, and what does it mean to be free?

The discussions and debates of the reformation were focused on and motivated by matters of faith.  And today as we commemorate the reformation, not necessarily for its theological and religious contributions, we do so as a reminder that God is always reforming God’s church, a celebration that 500 years later we continue in the name of Jesus with the gift and opportunity to discuss and live out our faith.

To spark debate, disturb the norms and practices of age old religions, to question, understand, challenge, to proclaim, witness, teach, preach, and ultimately reform the ways in which we, the body of Christ interact and experience the Gospel of Jesus Christ! 
And to that, may we always be reforming.

In the gospel according to John today, Jesus is in the midst of an increasingly hostile conversation with chief priests, scribes and pharisees. So hostile in fact that chapter 8 starts with the scribes and pharisees parading a woman caught in the act of adultery to the temple and as they prepare to stone her they question Jesus about the law of Moses. 

By the end of the chapter, Jesus is made the target of the stones as he rushes out of the temple.  At the heart of their heated debate is the question of faith and freedom.  What or who do they have faith in, and what does it mean to be free.  

The jewish authority at that time were already weary of Jesus and his following.  So in an opportunity to entrap him or embarrass him the authorities cite the law of Moses, which gives them permission to stone her, and Jesus says “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  One by one they left, convicted by their own sins, and Jesus releases the woman instructing her not to sin again.
For Jesus, it is a matter of faith and freedom.  The Jewish authorities, who to their defense were faithful, dedicated, and committed followers of the law, but they were also enslaved to their tradition.  So caught up in following the law of Moses to its perfection that they weren’t able to see the fault of their own commitment.  They worshipped their worship.  They regarded themselves above other, as religious authorities, putting their faith in their worship, practice, and ability to live by the law.  They were enslaved to their own tradition and doctrine, sharing and repeating the traditions in the strictest sense. And perhaps, they were in great need of reform.
God has always been a reformer.  Challenging God’s people to experience the insane and unconditional abundance of God’s grace, mercy, and love.  Pushing God’s people to stretch their understanding of God’s generosity and inclusiveness. God formed creation good, and continues each and everyday to enable reformation within us, until all might one day come to believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic kingdom of God.

This confrontation leads to today’s text, in which Jesus once again presents the matter of faith and freedom.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  But Jesus, what you do mean!?  We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.  What do you mean ‘you will be made free?’”  

Now, we can acknowledge the irony of them pleading that as descendants they’ve never been slave to anyone… if you’ll recall the generations of slavery in Egypt.  But that’s besides the point, because Jesus is not talking about political or social enslavement.  Jesus is not referring indebtedness or slavery to anyone or anything. Rather Jesus is preaching about casting the first stone.  “Very Truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; but the son, the one who offers freedom has a place there forever.  So if the son makes you free, and he will and does, then you will be free indeed.”

Now let me be clear here, before moving on that it is not my intention to compare Martin Luther and the church of his day to Jesus and his encounter with the Pharisees. 

In Jesus Christ, the son of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world, all who believe are granted freedom not from political or social enslavement, but rather freedom from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus’ death and resurrection is what frees them, and us.  Not our works, or strictest adherence to the law, but rather Christ crucified and risen.  Freedom to live out faith boldly.  Freedom to spark debate, disturb the norms and practices of age old religions, to question the laws, to understand its convictions, to challenge practices, to proclaim good news and anyone anywhere anytime, to witness to God’s forgiveness, to teach and preach the way of truth and light.  Freedom ultimately to always be reforming the ways in which the body of Christ, those who believe, interact and experience daily the Gospel of Jesus Christ! 

Friends, on the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation, we might consider what our freedom in Christ really means. How are we living out our freedom?  How do the doctrines, confessions, practices, articles of faith in this place form and reform the way we live each and every day? 

After all, if our belief in Christ means that we are freed to live out our faith in the boldest way possible, shouldn’t we be living out our faith in the boldest way possible?   

Freed in Christ not to just regurgitate, recite the articles and creeds and confessions, but to live the breathing, transforming, and reforming gospel message into every moment of our God given lives.  If we don’t practice God’s gift forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, love of neighbor, grace, mercy, and justice then can we really understand these freedoms? For example when we reach across the aisle of divide to confront someone whom we have wronged and confess our sins, we can experience the freedom of God’s grace. 

When we advocate for poor and oppressed, or give a home to struggling families through Family Promise, or when we petition and protest for basic human rights, we can begin to understand the freedom of God’s justice. 

When we dare to raise our voice for the protection of refugees, immigrants, dreamers Or challenge the systems of power and oppression We might experience peace, And the freedom of God’s transforming power.

When we stand firm with our LGBTQIA siblings, and all persons who face oppression or persecution  due to sex, race, color, gender, we might begin to know the power and freedom of God’s reconciliation.  

When we mourn by candlelight vigil with the countless family, friends, and strangers who have been affected by senseless acts of terror or devastated by natural disaster we begin to understand the freedom and power of God’s healing.

In the silence of our hearts when we confess to God all that we have done and left undone, things seen and unseen, we learn of God’s freedom in forgiveness.

This is the power of God’s freedom in our faith, And one of the core arguments for Luther. That faith be can be experienced and lived out by all, anywhere, anytime.  That the norms and practices of religion aren’t reserved for a select few, nor are they strictly cranial practices.

Rather, in baptism God transforms us from slaves to sin to Children of God.  God names us and claims us, seals us with the Spirit and marks us with the cross of Christ, freeing us to serve God and serve one another.  To daily interact with and experience to power of Christ in our neighbors. 

Friends, Let this freedom in Christ be not a conviction but an affirmation, that the work we do in the world is not in effort to achieve anything, but rather it is because of who and whose we are.   We are children of God.  Freed by the truth, the resurrected Jesus Christ. And in Christ Jesus, the son who sets us free, we are gifted an unconditional freedom to live our faith.  

So today, the commemoration of the reformation, these last 500 years, yah we made it.  But let’s be clear that the last 500 years of God reforming the church mean nothing if we don’t continue to grow, learn, understand, challenge, debate, love, forgive, advocate, and reform in the name of Jesus the Christ. God is always at work reforming, and God-willing are too.