Monday, August 29, 2016

Romans 1:1-7 Salutations and Greetings

One of the authors of one of the commentaries I consulted said it best when describing the book of Romans.  I will paraphrase what he said to avoid wordiness.  Basically, he said that when the ancient readers first heard Paul’s letters being read, they would have had quite a few head scratching moments because the theological arguments and implications were so deep.  Today’s readers, the commentator said, are not much different.  We, like those ancient readers often scratch our heads in bewilderment as we try to read through the book of Romans and grasp its heady theology and philosophy.  It’s not an easy read.

However, on the flip side, this book has been extremely influential throughout history.  Many great pillars of faith–those who have managed to wrap their heads around the message of this book–have had their lives completely and totally transformed by the message included in its pages.  Not the least of these is the namesake of our church–Martin Luther.  I confess to you that there are parts of this book that I still do not fully grasp, so as I begin this sermon series, please know that I will be learning as you learn.  Hopefully you and I will experience some of the same awakenings and transformations others have experienced as they encountered the powerful, transformational message included in these pages.

We begin today with the greeting and salutation.  These seven verses are jammed packed with a ton of loaded language, and if you gloss over them–as we often tend to do, we miss a whole lot.  Paul opens this letter by proclaiming his credentials, offering a brief summary of what this letter will entail, and finally by bestowing grace and peace upon the readers.

Paul is writing to a church that he has never personally encountered.  He knows no one there.  He does not know the dynamics of the church or who its main leaders are, so he begins the book of Romans by offering up his credentials.  Now, I am pretty sure that the people of Rome had heard of Paul by this time.  Paul was a monumental figure in the early church ranked right alongside the 12 disciples who were Jesus’ hand-picked followers.

Paul had begun his life as an extraordinary Jew.  He was a Pharisee and by his own account, “blameless under the law.”  That means, Paul claimed that he had not broken any of the commandments–at least in his understanding.  He had been taught under a famous Rabbi, and he had tremendous zeal for following the Jewish faith.  His zeal was so consuming for the Jewish faith that when this upstart religion called “Followers of the Way” arose–we know this religion now as Christianity–Paul did everything in his power to squash it.  He participated in the arrest, persecution, and even murder of Christians, and he sincerely believed he was doing God’s work in the process.

During one of his forays to arrest and persecute Christians in Damascus, Paul encountered the risen Jesus.  The experience struck him blind before he was finally healed by a disciple.  And Paul was dramatically transformed.  The one who first persecuted the church now became one of its greatest missionaries.  Inspired by his encounter with Jesus, Paul traveled throughout the Roman empire starting churches and proclaiming the gospel.  The one who used to persecute the church became persecuted, but so deep was his experience of Jesus, he never stopped preaching the Word.  As Paul traveled, he often corresponded with the churches he started, and some of the letters of that correspondence were considered so important and noteworthy that they began being shared and passed from congregation to congregation.  We have several of these letters included in the New Testament.  Hence, as I said before, it is highly probable that the church in Rome knew of Paul, but they did not know him.

Therefore, Paul takes a few moments to establish his credentials before the Roman church, but he does so in a very interesting fashion.  He begins with the words, “Paul, a slave or servant of Jesus Christ.”  The readers of this book would have taken notice at these words because Paul was also a Roman citizen.  As a Roman citizen, he would have had certain rights and freedoms, but Paul claims none of those.  Instead, he claims a life of servanthood; a life of bondage; a life of submission to a crucified, Jewish Messiah.  By calling himself a servant or slave, Paul shows that he is not here to lord anything over the Roman church.  He is speaking as an equal, but an equal with a very, very important calling.

For Paul describes himself as an apostle called by God and set apart for the gospel of God.  Paul’s apostleship is not his apostleship, and the message he brings is not his message.  The apostleship and the message are from God.  Period.  This is an astounding claim–a claim of major authority.  Paul is not speaking on his own behalf, but on behalf of God.  What Paul is about to say in this letter should be understood as coming from God Himself–it is that important.  This letter is not primarily about us.  It is not primarily about our hopes and dreams.  Our hopes and dreams are certainly bound to this letter, but this letter is not about them. It is primarily about God.  It is primarily good news.

Paul condenses that good news into the next several verses, and we will unpack all of this as we go through the book of Romans in the coming months.  For now, let’s revisit the word, “gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, “

It is important to note that the gospel is about Jesus–‘his Son.’  The gospel isn’t about you.  The gospel isn’t advice to be followed.  The gospel isn’t about our church, our denomination, our lifestyle.  The gospel is about what God has accomplished through Jesus.  Sometimes, I think we forget this.  Sometimes, I think we get caught up in all the trappings of a society which seems to focus on our actions–the “what have you done for me lately–syndrome.  What can your church do for me?  What can you do for me?  Why should I come be with you?  Why should I worship?  The tendency is to give a laundry list of all the things that we are doing and how this will help you in your life.  The best response you can give to any of these questions is: Jesus.  What can your church do for me?  Jesus.  What can you do for me?  Jesus.  Why should I come be with you?  Jesus.  Why should I worship?  Jesus.  It’s all about Jesus.  And if someone asks, “Well, what does Jesus have to do with all of that?”  Then, you can say, “Go talk to our pastor.”  That’s a joke, by the way.  Hopefully, by the end of this sermon series, you will be able to respond to that question because Jesus has everything to do with it.

For the good news of Jesus is deeply rooted in God’s work in the world.  Paul announces that as well when he points to what is contained in the Old Testament.  Paul says that God has been working up to this moment in history all throughout his engagement with the people of Israel.  The promise is rooted deeply in their story, and the revelation of God in the Old Testament is pointing to the revelation of God in Jesus.  You cannot separate what God has done in the past from what God has accomplished in Jesus.  All the lines merge together in Him.

And Jesus is fully human–descended from the line of David and born of the flesh.  Hence, Christianity does not worship a God who is removed from the human experience.  Jesus knows what it means to hunger, thirst, laugh, cry, dance, celebrate, suffer, and die.  This God knows what it means to be fully human, but He is also fully divine.  He is the declared Son of God who was raised from the dead–conquering sin, death, evil, and promising us the transformation eternal life brings.

Through this human and divine Jesus, we have received grace.  This is absolutely key to understanding the book of Romans.  This is absolutely key in understanding the heart of Christianity.  We have received grace.  We will elaborate this much more fully as we go through this sermon series, but let me just touch on it here.  Grace means that we are forgiven without compromising God’s justice.  Grace means that we are sinful beings who deserve punishment and death, but through Christ’s actions in his life and death, we are forgiven.  But we are not forgiven without great cost.  The forgiveness of our sins, of our rebellion is paid by God–by Jesus in his suffering and death on the cross.  Again, we will delve into this deeply in the coming weeks, but it is so central to the understanding of this book.  Christ died for us when we were still sinners; unrepentant; and enemies to God.  The fact that Christ would die for us while we were and are in such a state is truly amazing and a reason for the pronouncement that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

Again, to remind, this is good news.  It is not advice.  It is not something that can be lived out.  It can only be told.  But this news has an effect.  This news does something to those who hear, and that effect is obedience.  In a very real way, Paul is announcing to the church at Rome that there is an new Kingdom emerging.  The head of this new Kingdom is not Caesar but Jesus.  Jesus is the rightful King who has emerged from death to life and is gathering the world unto Himself.

And Jesus seeks our obedience.  This is where the rubber hits the road for many in our society today because many do not see Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  Many respect Jesus tremendously as a great moral teacher.  They admire His call to love everyone including one’s enemies.  They admire his admonishments to care for the poor and needy.  But they are not willing to submit to Him as King and Lord of their lives.  Too often, we are not desiring to submit to Him in our lives.  We want to control our own destinies, or we submit to the false gods of wealth, prosperity, property, sex, justice, knowledge, science, technology, race, ethnicity, identity, or what have you.  The Christian is called to walk away from all of these things and submit to Jesus.  Another way to put this is: the Christian life is lived when you do not put your ultimate trust in anything–even good things–except Jesus.

And through Jesus and Jesus alone, you will receive grace and peace.  It is my prayer that as we begin this sermon series traveling through the book of Romans that each and every one of us may hear the Gospel anew; that we may have it touch our hearts deeply and profoundly; that we, like so many before, may be transformed by this message; and that we may become obedient to the true King of kings–Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Hanging with the Wrong Crowd

What is your test for deciding who you will and will not hang out with?

Don’t pretend that you don’t have one.  We all do.  It’s part of our nature.  How can I say such a thing?

Well, let me make a view observations, and let’s see if you have ever seen or done these things.

Have you ever been in a store just walking up and down the aisles and seen someone you know but don’t want to talk to, and then started looking absentmindedly at all the items on the shelf–hoping that the other person won’t notice you–or if they do see that you are obviously engrossed and not able to talk?  Ever done that one?

Have you ever purposely skipped a party, church, or social gathering because someone you know might be invited or come to that same event?

Have you refused to purchase a red and white shirt or a gold and black shirt because of the proximity to a certain town?

Here’s one that I used to do at my previous congregation.  Every month we did nursing home services, and there was one particular resident who I did not care to visit with.  Every time we went in to give her communion, she would go through a laundry list of everything that was wrong with her.  One time, she even showed me pictures they took during her colonoscopy.  After several months of this, I would approach her room on padded feet; I would crack open the door ever so slightly in hopes that she was asleep; I would do it as silently as possible because if even the slightest squeak happened, this lady would wake up and see me.  If I managed to crack the door and see that she was asleep, I would happily walk on to the next church member.  Hence a revelation of one of my tests as to whether or not I want to hang out with someone: I don’t like someone who constantly seeks attention by talking about how bad they have it.

But, as bad as that might sound, I’ve also been on the receiving end of such tests.  Years ago, when I was a senior in seminary, I preached at a little country church in Rosebud, TX.  It just so happened that one Sunday, they were having a pot luck, and my wife and I were asked to join.  We were also invited, as guests, to head to the front of the line.  We did, and we sat down at one of the tables there.  Interestingly enough, all of the other tables filled up first, and then the table at which Dawna and I sat started to fill up.  However, it filled up at the place farthest from us first, until the folks who went through the pot-luck line last ended up taking the seats closest to us.  We were definitely the outsiders there.

And the question becomes, do you ever get from being an outsider to an insider?  In some places, the answer is unequivocally no.  I remember being at Crossroads one day a couple of years ago sitting and shooting the breeze with Bonnie and some of the customers.  I was listening to a conversation behind me where one of the old timers from here made the comment about another person, “I don’t know why he thinks he has any say around here.  He’s only lived here for 25 years.”  You know, I had heard that such things were said in some places, but that was actually the first time I had ever heard it.

What is normally behind such comments is–you are not like me.  Between you and me are certain social norms, and unless those norms are removed–in other words, unless you become like me, then we cannot be considered on an equal plane.  At the extreme, these divisions can cause all kinds of conflict.  The media highlights those extremes: Republicans versus Democrats; male versus female; black versus white; homosexual versus heterosexual; liberal versus conservative; rich versus poor.  And in the extremes of these movements, you are not welcome if you share another view.  In fact, oftentimes you are escorted out of the room; out of the venue; shouted down; even threatened with violence.

The question fast becomes: can we ever achieve some semblance of a peaceful and respectful society if we hold onto such divisions?  Can we make place for the other if we become so entrenched in our own positions that we avoid people because they do not live up to our standards?

Let’s see what the Gospel has to say to this as we look at this next story from the book of Mark chapter 2.

This text begins with Jesus moving out from the house in Capernaum where he had just established that He had the power to forgive sins, and teaching crowds by the Sea of Galilee.  As Jesus travels, He comes across Levi sitting in his tax booth–now, the actual word in Greek is toll booth.  While traveling from one part of the country into another, there were certain tolls that needed to be paid much like the tolls we pay on toll roads today.  There were no electronic passes that you put on your car to drive back then, and the toll system was set up in quite a different way.  You see, to get a job monitoring a toll booth, you told the government how much revenue you would provide for them.  The government granted you the job based upon how much you said you could make for them.  Then, not only would you charge enough to pay the government back, you would also tack on your own fees to pad your own bank account.  This led to a system which was ripe with fraud, and toll collectors were absolutely despised.

How much were they despised?  Let me quote to you Mark Edwards in his commentary.  I personally think this is priceless, “The Mishna and Talmud [Two commentaries on the first five books of the Bible–...register scathing judgements of tax collectors, lumping them together with thieves and murderers.  A Jew who collected taxes was disqualified as a judge or witness in court, expelled from the synagogue, and a cause of disgrace to his family.  The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean.  Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery.”

How would you like that job?  Most of us might not appreciate the social stigma associated with such a job, but these jobs were actually in high demand because it was a quick and easy way to get rich.  Levi had such a job, and was probably doing quite well.  Though despised by many in society, he was well off, so it is actually quite surprising that when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Levi simply got up and went.

What makes this so surprising is the fact that Levi has a government job.  You see, Simon, Andrew, James and John could always go back to fishing if following Jesus doesn’t work out.  Levi will not be able to return to his.  Someone else will take the position, so Levi is giving up quite a bit to follow Jesus.  But he is going to go out with a bang.

The scene quickly shifts to a dinner celebration where Levi and his associates have joined Jesus and the disciples.  As they feast together, the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’

The scribes of the Pharisees are very much put off by what they see.  Jesus has made a name for himself proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God; He has healed the sick; and He has shown authority to forgive sins.  Why in the world would he associate with toll collectors and others who were considered sinners?

Robert Guelich says it very well when he writes:

From the standpoint of the Pharisees, Jesus was doing that which was ritually defiling through disregard for the laws concerning table fellowship and clean and unclean foods.  Neusner has pointed out the importance of those concerns among the Pharisees before A.D. 70.  Part of the concern grows out of fear that one not only will be ritually defiled but also be morally contaminated by such company.  Eating with someone had special connotations.  “It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life.”  Eating together created a special bond or fellowship through the eating of the broken bread over which the host had spoken the blessing.  Therefore, guests were selected very carefully.

In the scribes’ eyes, Jesus was not being selective enough about who he kept company with.  Jesus was defiling Himself by being around those who were corrupt, deceitful, sinful.  They were scandalized by what they saw Jesus doing.

Jesus retorts with a common saying nearly everyone agreed upon, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  This is actually a profound statement of Jesus’ purpose as the Messiah.  It’s a profound statement about the Kingdom of God.

First, let me quote William Lane as he adds an important detail about what Jesus was doing, “The expression used in Ch. 2:15, “they reclined at table together with Jesus,” suggests that Jesus–the Messiah–and not Levi, was the host at this festive meal.  When this is understood, the interest of the entire pericope centers on the significance of Messiah eating with sinners.  The specific reference in verse 17 to Jesus’ call of sinners to the Kingdom suggests that the basis of table-fellowship was messianic forgiveness, and the meal itself was an anticipation of the messianic banquet.  When Jesus broke bread with the outcasts, Messiah ate with them at his table and extended to them fellowship with God.”

The Messiah was extending fellowship with God toward tax collectors and sinners.  However, this in and of itself wasn’t a huge deal.  Most Jews agreed that God wanted fellowship with sinners.  God wanted sinners to follow Him.  That wasn’t an issue, but something else really was.  And what was that something else?

We return to what Mark Edwards says in this extended quote:

But what exactly was it about Jesus’ association with such people that offended them?... Their opposition is the more explainable on the ground that reform was not the fundamental assumption of Jesus’ ministry, as it had been for John the Baptizer, for instance.  There is no word in the call to Levi and in the dinner with sinners about repentance.  Repentance, in fact, is curiously absent from Jesus’ proclamation in Mark.  The scandal of this story is that Jesus does not make moral repentance a precondition of his love and acceptance.  Rather, Jesus loves and accepts tax collectors and sinners as they are.  If they forsake their evil and amend their lives, they do so...not in order to gain Jesus’ favor but because Jesus has loved them as sinners...The fact that Jesus can be found in the company of people such as Levi reminds us of the difference between his mission and that of the scribes.  They come to enlighten; he comes to redeem.  Given that mission, it is as senseless for Jesus to shun tax collectors and sinners as for a doctor to shun the sick.  The grace of God extends to and overcomes the worst forms of human depravity.

Do you see the radical nature of God’s grace here?  Do you see the radical nature of what Jesus does here?  Do you see how this flies in the face of what we normally practice when it comes to our associations with others?  The scribes and the Pharisees would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act.  It was assumed that God would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act.  It is assumed by many of us that we will not associate with another until they agree with us.  But Jesus does the exact opposite.  He sits down in fellowship with unrepentant sinners; calls them into a relationship with Him; and then watches the transformation occur.  It’s completely and totally backwards according to the world’s standards.

But in reality it is the only way God can have fellowship with us. For there is no way we can completely clean up our act.  The scribes and the Pharisees show this in their own self-righteousness.  They believe that people can cure themselves.  They believe that people can become righteous before God on their own.  And because righteousness–to them–is a self-help project, they hold others in contempt.  And when you hold someone else in contempt, are you practicing genuine love and compassion?

If our relationship with God is up to us, then we will inevitably become self-righteous.  But if our relationship is dependent solely upon God’s grace, then no one is allowed to boast.  No one has the right to be contemptuous.  No one has the right to shun another because that other fails to live up to certain expectations.  You don’t live up to those expectations either!!  The scribes need Jesus just as much as those toll collectors and sinners need Jesus!!  Oh, and we know that Jesus will also dine with those scribes and Pharisees in His ministry.  Jesus will fellowship with them as He held fellowship with Levi and the other toll collectors and sinners.  God’s grace is to be extended to all.  And our sinfulness will indeed rub off on Jesus.  He will become tainted with our hatred, our self-righteousness, our discontent, our desire to draw lines and avoid people who do not agree with us.  He will take all of these things upon Himself and put them to death with Him on the cross.  He will become sin who knew no sin so that we can be forgiven.  It is He who hosts the heavenly banquet; who welcomes all not based upon what we do but based upon what He has done.

And when you realize that you are at the banquet not because of who you are but in spite of who you are...

When you realize that your place at the table was not earned by you but given to you...

When you realize that Jesus has invited others who are not like you; who desperately need His love just like you need His love...

You realize that the heavenly banquet is made up of people who are not like you, and you have the opportunity to show a different reality “on earth as it is in heaven.”  You realize that the love of God in Jesus Christ provides a tremendous basis and foundation to overcome differences that arise.  You and the other are both sinners; Jesus has sought both of you out; and Jesus has redeemed you both through His death on the cross which revealed the nature of the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

If you focus on what God has done for you and for those who are not like you, then you will not shun the other; you will have compassion and understanding, and you will work toward peace.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The ELCA Sexism Study

This weekend, my bishop invited those of us on our synod's leadership Facebook page to consider studying the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's proposed social statement Faith, Sexism, Justice.  I confess that in the past, I haven't given these statements much time, energy, or effort.  They tend to be rather bland, written in such a broad fashion that produces as little controversy as possible, and passed despite any particular criticism which may or may not surface.

But this one was a bit different for me.

Recently, I was introduced to the "Factual Feminist": Christina Hoff Sommers.  After watching more than a few of her YouTube videos and reading two of her books: Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys, I felt myself overwhelmed and astounded at discovering the root of much of the ideology driving those in power in my denomination.  I also discovered much factual information that I had never been exposed to in all my years of study.  To say I was disappointed in the current state of affairs in my denomination would be an understatement--the release of the Faith, Sexism, Justice draft only added to that disappointment.

I took time to read through the entire document, and I would encourage readers to do the same.  Module one lays out some of the governing assumptions in this draft including the idea of systemic sexism.  To quote:
It can be difficult to talk about, let alone grasp that there is a system or set of powerful invisible “forces” that connect to or set in motion individual incidents. It can be quite a challenge to accept that individual incidents involve multiple causes of: a) personal responsibility and b) social and religious beliefs and c) policy, laws, rules or common practices. Yet, if you step back, it becomes clear that something more than individual choices is needed to explain what’s going on in our society.
And further:
This is what the task force has come to realize; that is, the members believe there are systemic connections in U.S. culture that harm women in many ways. It is only when these many connections are recognized that one can explain the whole story adequately. Some of the concepts used in this study to describe these forces or systems include SEXISM, PATRIARCHY, and sexual and gender harassment. (Throughout this study, terms identified in capitalized bold will be found in the glossary.)  It is important to stress that everyone, men and women, participates in and is affected by these and can contribute to them.
So, what examples of sexism, patriarchy, and gender harassment are used throughout the study?  Personal illustrations include: feeling singled out because of unfairness in enforcing dress codes at school; comments about giving birth and assumed gender roles; being questioned about one's sexuality; a congregation's vote to call a pastor being undermined by those questioning her ability to hold the pastoral office and be a mother.  Other examples of sexism include: gender stereotypes; objectification of women's bodies, particularly in the media; the majority of eating disorders affecting women; politicizing reproductive rights; the wage gap; expectations of care giving; gender-based violence including sexual harassment, rape, and assault.

Add everything up, and you have a patriarchy which seeks to oppress women:
A patriarchal SOCIAL SYSTEM is dominated largely by the voice and authority of men. A patriarchal social system is centered on males; the world is portrayed with men as the main actors in life and reflects their ideas and values. Patriarchy is supported through means of power and control, such as sexual discrimination and gender inequality.

Now, it might be entertaining to address each of these issues one by one, but others have already done this.  What I want to call into question is the worldview of those who have perpetuated this one-sided Sexism study on the larger church.  For I believe their worldview is absolutely warped beyond imagination and does not reflect the reality of the current U.S. society.

I am of the opinion that any study or statement should describe reality as it is. Any study or statement of sexism should be a balanced ordeal reflecting the reality of the world in which it addresses. This study's one sided reflection of reality is very troubling especially since it leaves out some important evidence regarding men.  How well do men fare under this so-called patriarchal system intended to keep them in power and control?

Undisputed facts:

95% of those in prison are men.
90% of work related deaths are men.
75% of suicides are men.
60%-70% of homeless are men.
Only 40% of bachelor degrees go to men.
Only 40% of masters degrees go to men.
48% of doctorate degrees go to men.
Young girls do far better in school than young boys.
Women live five years longer than men.
Women pay less for auto insurance.
Women pay less for life insurance. (Balanced by the fact they pay more for health insurance.)

Women are better educated, less likely to be injured or killed on a job, less likely to kill themselves, less likely to end up in jail, and live longer than men. (Hardly a pinnacle of male dominance in this "patriarchy.") Women have gender studies and all manner of organizations specifically geared to their issues (with hardly any for men). Media coverage for women's health issues soars with even the NFL devoting a month to breast cancer awareness--there is nothing comparable to men's health issues.  Luckily, we have plenty of commercials for ED, though.  (Okay, perhaps that was a bit over the top...)

These facts are hardly representative of a patriarchy.  They are hardly representative of oppression of women.  In fact, if these numbers represented women, there would be alarm bells ringing all over the place!!!  But there are not.  Not even close, and the question of, "Why?" must be asked.

I am sure that there are many factors, but I will focus on just one: the ideology introduced by Marxism of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic.  This worldview permeates much of the leadership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and it has a blinding effect.  It virtuizes the "oppressed" and demonizes the "oppressor."  It leads to confirmation bias and a willingness to seek out any example to confirm one's position including warping the facts on studies and using dubious methodology to enhance one's position.  Truth is thrust aside so that the worldview is not damaged.

Take for instance sexual assault.  Please watch the following two videos:

Sexual assault on campus is a reality, but it is not a culture.  The statistics used to bolster this assertion are false, but you would never know that if you didn't take the time to actually dig into the studies as Dr. Sommers has.  It is a willful distortion of reality.

The reality of our world is that there indeed is sexism, but sexism isn't a one way street.  The facts provided above show unequivocally that men face some truly oppressive issues in the current system--as do women. 

There is a rich irony that Faith, Sexism, Justice quotes Martin Luther's famous statement about a theology of the cross versus a theology of glory, "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is."  While the study in no way calls the evils perpetuated against women good, it does not call reality what it actually is.  It falsely asserts that there is a patriarchy and then omits evidence which shatters that claim.

If the ELCA wishes to do a study on sexism that includes the realities faced by men and women in this society, then I will gladly jump in with both feet with my congregation; however, if the ELCA wishes to perpetuate myth, then I will say to it as I said to my bishop, "Until the ELCA decides to describe reality better and gets away from wonky statistics, I won't be using this study any time soon in my congregation."

(I highly doubt that any criticism I give to this study will have any impact what-so-ever.  Whenever you challenge such things, as I did, you receive quite the backlash as facts are not engaged, and you are simply labeled misogynist, ignorant, or privileged.  No matter.  The truth is the truth.  The facts are the facts.  My denomination continues its rapid decline, and one can argue it is deserved as it carries a particular agenda which is not rooted and grounded in the Gospel--a Gospel which says yes, we live in a world where all are fallen; all are oppressed; all are oppressors; all face sexism, racism, hatred, and the like.  And the answer is the cross: Jesus who died for sinners in whom we find our identity.  Through Him WE GIVE UP our gender, our sexuality, our ethnicity and become clothed with Him.  This is not what the pundits within the ELCA preach.  Instead they proclaim: hold onto your identity; hold onto your sexuality; hold onto your gender; hold onto your ethnicity because this makes you authentic.  God loves you just the way you are.  In reality, God loves you in spite of who you are.  This was the radical nature of the Gospel.)

Monday, August 8, 2016

From the Head to the Heart

 It is an undisputed fact that the majority of people in the United States believe in God or a higher power of some sorts.  I believe the last figures I saw were roughly in the area of 87-90 percent.  It’s really quite an astounding figure given the rapid advances in science and technology, and it is also quite interesting given that many scholars and pundits once believed that religious belief would eventually go the way of the dinosaur as science exerted itself as the true path to knowledge.  But belief in God hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaur partially because science has run into its own limitations and partially because, I think, there is a deep seeded desire in humanity to long for our creator.  One of these is provable; the other, not so much, but I will say that I am not the only person who thinks we have an innate longing for God.  Folks who are much smarter than I have said as much.

 But regardless of the why, there is the definite fact that most people believe in God; however, not everyone adheres to a religious belief.  Not everyone belongs to a particular religion.  Not everyone attends worship.  Oftentimes a person’s faith remains highly individualistic and very private.  Face it, when we walk around society, for the most part you cannot tell the difference between someone who believes and someone who doesn’t believe.

 The reason for this, I think, is that we have defined faith as something we simply believe.  It is a certain type of knowledge.  I can intellectually come to the understanding that there is a God, but if that thought simply stays in my head, then it oftentimes doesn’t make much of a difference in my life.  Recently, I have had several talks with a man who has struggled with whether or not God exists.  After a couple of talks and presenting him with a book that I have found helpful, he agreed that the preponderance of the evidence points toward the existence of God.  However, he told me bluntly, “It hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference in my life.” 

 I responded, “That’s because it’s all up in your head.  It hasn’t gotten down into your heart yet.”
 He then asked, “How does that happen?”

 And that, my friends, is the ultimate question, isn’t it?  That, my friends, is the difference between people who simply believe in God and people who actively worship God and live for God.  For the two of these are not the same.  One sees faith as an intellectual assertion and the other sees faith as a lived out relationship, and one of these is much, much more prevalent than the other.  One of these is intellectual, and the other is transformational.  So, how does one move from intellect to true transformation?  I think our lesson from the book of Mark this morning gives us some insight.

 This short snippet is actually jam packed with lessons of who Jesus is; what He is here to do; and the nature of what truly is transformative.  It begins with the gospel writer telling us that Jesus has returned home to Capernaum.  He is in a house, and the majority of the commentators I consulted believe this is Peter or Andrew’s house.  Jesus has been preaching around the countryside, and is looking to rest.  However, his message has proved popular, and soon a large crowd gathers around the house to hear Jesus proclaim the Word.

 While most of us might think it impressive that Jesus draws such a large number of people, the crowd actually becomes a hindrance in this case.  In fact, throughout the book of Mark, the crowd almost universally is a barrier to people trying to find healing from the Master.  Mark Edwards picks up on this in his commentary with these brilliant words, “Being part of the crowd around Jesus is not the same as being a disciple of Jesus.  The crowd stands and observes; disciples must commit themselves to action...”  In this particular instance, the four men carrying their friend are acting as disciples, for they take drastic action to get their friend to Jesus.  They climb up on the roof of the house and dig a hole through the roof.

 Walter Wessel describes the house in this way, “In order to understand the action these verses describe, it is necessary to visualize the layout of a typical Palestinian peasant’s house.  It was usually a small one-room structure with a flat roof.  Access to the roof was by means of an outside stairway.  The roof itself was usually made of wooden beams with thatch and compacted earth in order to shed the rain.  Sometimes tiles were laid between the beams and the thatch and earth placed over them.”

 So, these four men, carry their friend to the roof, remove the tiles, dig through the thatch and dirt, and make a way for their friend.  They will stop at nothing to get their friend to Jesus.  And there is no way possible that Jesus didn’t notice this.  It is highly probable that dirt rained down upon His head as these men tore through the roof.  He was showered with dirt and debris, and then the paralytic is lowered down and laid at his feet.  Mark tells us that Jesus first observed the faith of these men. 

Now, before we get into what Jesus does next, let me make the clear distinction of what faith means here.  Faith is not an intellectual belief.  It is much more than that.  Faith here is something that compels action.  It is something down deep within these men.  It is something which leads them to place their ultimate trust, not in themselves; not in the scribes or the chief priests; not in doctors or healers; but in Jesus.

 Again, Mark Edwards cuts through our feeble notions of intellectual faith when he writes the following, “If an opening to Jesus cannot be found, one must be made.  That is a description of faith: it will remove any obstacle–even a roof if necessary–to get to Jesus.  The first mention of faith in (the book of) Mark significantly links it with acting rather than with knowing or feeling.  We know nothing of the beliefs of the four friends of the paralytic except that they take action, including circumventing crowds and removing roofs to ensure their charge is brought to Jesus.  Faith is first and foremost not knowledge about Jesus but active trust that Jesus is sufficient for one’s deepest and most heartfelt needs.”

 Faith is first and foremost not knowledge about Jesus but active trust that Jesus is sufficient for one’s deepest and most heartfelt needs.

 Again, this ties directly to the remarks I made at the beginning of this sermon–this marks the difference between someone who believes there is a God and those who deeply trust God and walk with a true transformation in their lives.  For oftentimes, those who believe in God do not put their trust in Him.  It is human nature to trust in things that we can see and control.  It is human nature to trust ourselves to achieve what we want and desire.  We trust our knowledge, our checkbooks, our ability to work, our looks, our government, our doctors, our lawyers, our gender, our sexuality, our ethnicity, our heritage, in money, in possessions, in the church, in people, in science, in technology, and in a whole host of other things.  But true faith recognizes these things as barriers.  They actually prevent us from living our lives in radical trust in God.  And the reason we seem to lack peace and assurance in our lives is that all of these other things we put our trust into will let us down.  None of these things can fully satisfy us.  None of these things is perfect.  None of these things can ultimately be sufficient for our deepest and most heartfelt needs.  So, again that begs the question: how can we move from depending upon ourselves; from depending on all those other things to a radical dependence upon God?  Let’s continue with the story.

 When Jesus sees the paralytic laying at His feet, He does something rather odd.  He does NOT say, “Friend, I have compassion for you.  Get up and walk.”  No.  Those aren’t the first words out of Jesus’ mouth.  Instead, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Why would Jesus say this?  It doesn’t seem like the man needs forgiveness.  It seems like he needs healing.  Why not jump straight to the healing? 

 I think it has something to do with the reaction of the scribes.  Immediately after Jesus pronounces forgiveness, the scribes get angry.  They say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?  This is blasphemy.”

 The reason the scribes say this is because of the thread that runs strongly through the Old Testament; a thread that said: the reason a person becomes sick, paralyzed, or has anything bad happen to them is a result of that person’s sin.  So, if a person did something wrong–broke a commandment, failed to offer a sacrifice, or what have you–then God would strike them with a malady.  God would put that person under His curse.  Because of this view, the scribes believed that the paralyzed man was under God’s curse.  They believed he was suffering as a consequence of his sin.  No man could remove that curse.  No man could bring that kind of forgiveness.  Only God could.  Jesus is putting Himself as God’s spoke’s person, and that was completely and utterly disrespectful for a man to do.

 But Jesus knew the hearts of the scribes, and He knew this was a teachable moment.  Jesus turns to the scribes and asks, “Which is easier: to say your sins are forgiven or rise, take up your mat and walk?”  In reality the easiest thing to say was, “Your sins are forgiven.”  This actually could not be verified immediately.  No one could tell if God had indeed forgiven a person’s sin, so it was easy to say but hard to verify.  On the other hand, to say, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk,” was to take a troublesome risk.  If you were to say this, it could not easily be verified.  If you were to say this and the person were not able to walk, then you would revealed as a fraud.  You would be shown to have no blessing or authorization of God.  And in reality, neither of these things are easy at all.  Both of these things are impossible for humans.  But both are quite easy for God.

 Jesus brings this straight forward to the crowd when He then says, “But so that you will know that the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins on earth,” turning toward the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, take up your mat and go home.”  And the man did.  Jesus shows that He indeed has both the power of forgiveness and the power to heal.  And everyone went away praising God and saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”

 Now, what hadn’t the crowd seen before?  What cause them to rejoice so much?  From their perspective, they had never seen a man remove God’s curse from one who was afflicted.  They had never seen a man remove God’s punishment from someone who had sinned.  Such a thing was unheard of.  Jesus became the one who forgave, cured, and restored to wholeness.

 Let me quote William Lane here, “It was not [and is not] God’s intention that man should live with the pressure of death upon him.  Sickness, disease and death are the consequence of the sinful condition of all men.  Consequently every healing is a driving back of death and an invasion of the providence of sin.  That is why it is appropriate for Jesus to proclaim the remission of sins....Jesus’ pronouncement of pardon is the recognition that man can be genuinely whole only when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.”

 Only can we be truly whole when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.  We will not find wholeness; we will not find peace; we will not find fulfillment until we understand how we have been forgiven of our sins.  Our trust of God will not become a heart thing until we understand what Christ has done in removing the curse of sin through the cross.  And this is not something we can accomplish on our own.

 The paralytic could not come to Jesus on his own.  His friends had to take him, but his friends could only get him so far.  They could not heal his paralyzed legs.  They could not forgive his sins.  They could not restore his relationship with God or with his body.  Only Jesus could.  Only Jesus could make that happen, and they trusted Jesus to accomplish that.  They did not trust themselves.  And Jesus made it happen.  Jesus removed the curse of sin and restored the paralytic to wholeness–body and soul.  It was an act of sheer grace.  What could not be accomplished by themselves; what could not be accomplished by any human being was accomplished by God and God alone. 

 Faith moves from being a head thing–an intellectual process–to a heart thing, to transformation when we put our trust in what Jesus has done and not what we do.  It’s when we drive through anything and everything that seeks to keep us from Him.  It’s when we acknowledge our sinfulness, our need for forgiveness, our need to be made whole that God will move us from our head into our heart–will show us the true level of His mercy–the true level of His love.  When in our brokenness, we are laid at the feet of Jesus; when we hear Him say, “Your sins are forgiven.”; when we hear Him say, “Be made whole”; when we experience this sheer grace even before uttering a single word, this changes the way we look at the world; it changes our hearts; it changes our minds; it changes our actions. 

 Christianity says: your life will not be changed until you can begin to grasp the mystery of grace–the mystery of being loved while broken–the mystery of being loved when you don’t deserve it–the mystery of being forgiven by the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the son into the world not to condemn you but to save you.  Amen.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Follow Him

(A word of note: This was not the final form of the sermon delivered this past Sunday.  The gist of the final product is included below, but there were some significant changes as I was led to deliver the sermon quite differently.)

 For the majority of our lives, we are constantly having to prove ourselves, and we have developed a system that uses rewards to ensure that we work hard at proving ourselves.  What do I mean by that?

 Well, think about how our lives generally operate, especially when we enter into school.  There are certain things society deems important for us to know, so we develop a grading system.  If you study and work hard, you get higher rewards–higher grades.  To prove that you are ready to advance in learning, you must reach a certain standard, and if you do not, then you are required to repeat a class or a grade.  Once you manage to prove yourself in the advancement of basic knowledge, you move into specialized knowledge.  Once again, you have to prove that you can master a set of knowledge and its application.  You either head to a trade school or to college.  Once again, the same set of rules apply.  Master the knowledge and you will be rewarded with grades according to how well you have learned.  If you prove yourself capable in these areas, then it is usually time to apply for a job.

 The job process is once again where you must prove yourself to your employer.  You must convince a person or a group of people that you have the personality and capability of handling a job.  You produce a resume.  You show your knowledge of a given subject.  You call in others who can vouch for you.  If you do a good job of proving yourself to an employer, you are hired.  But the process of proving yourself does not stop there.  You must then prove yourself as you work.  You must be able to accomplish the tasks of your job. The reward is your paycheck.  For if you do not prove yourself and produce, you can easily be fired.  And, if you are at a company where you are reviewed on a yearly basis, you know that this is again, you having to prove yourself that you are worthy of a raise or worthy to stay on for another year.

 Sometimes, this process even trickles its way into our families.  Oftentimes we are unconsciously proving to our family members that we still love them.  We strive to receive affirmation from our parents, grand-parents, children, and grand-children.  The reward is the affection they give to us; the respect they give to us; perhaps as we grow older, the time they share with us when they are not working.  What I am saying now, is that even when you might retire from working, there are still places where you must prove yourself.

 You must prove that you can still see well enough to drive a car.  You must prove that you have insurance to have your car inspected.  You must prove that you have enough finances to obtain a loan.  If you move into some areas of our state and nation, you must prove that you care for the land and the community in order to be accepted by the “locals.”  And even then, you will not necessarily be accepted even if you have lived in that place and cared for it for 20 years or more.  Over and over you must prove yourself in order to receive rewards.  This is the world we live in, and it is costly.

 Over and over, we have to invest ourselves: our time, our talent, and money to prove ourselves.  We have to pay registration fees.  We have to pay for our education.  We have to use up time that we could have spent with family and friends to earn our way and further our knowledge.  We have to constantly sacrifice ourselves to hopefully earn that reward at the end of the day.  And if something happens that we don’t achieve the reward; if we are somehow unable to prove ourselves; the effects on our psyche’s can be devastating.  We see this over and over again particularly in sports when an athlete’s body begins to age and fade and no matter what they have done in the past; not matter how big of a star they have been; no matter how many championships they have won; they are summarily cut, benched, or excluded from the team.  No longer able to prove themselves, they sometimes spiral into depression because they sense that they no longer have value.

 I took a little bit of time to set this up because I want to starkly contrast the way the world works with the way that Christianity works.  The two are vastly different, and this becomes blatantly apparent in our Gospel lesson today from the book of Mark.

 This is a very short text about Jesus calling the first disciples, and without understanding the historical situation, one is left with the idea that this is really no big deal.  Jesus walks up to some fishermen, says, “Follow me,” and they follow Jesus.  It’s over and done with in a matter of moments.  But this is just what we see on the surface.  There is much, much more going on.

 For you see, Jesus is unlike any other Rabbi of his day.  In almost every instance that we know of, in order to follow a Rabbi, you had to undergo a rigorous application process.  You had to prove yourself.  You had to approach a Rabbi and inquire as to whether he was accepting student.  You had to pass that Rabbi’s entrance exam which would be to see whether or not you knew the Jewish Bible backwards and forwards.  For instance, the Rabbi might begin a sentence from Leviticus 20, and you were expected to finish that sentence.  Then, you might be asked what it meant.  If you passed the Rabbi’s examination and proved that you were capable of learning from him, then he may accept you as a student.

 We see no such examination from Jesus.  The first disciples do not approach Jesus; rather Jesus approaches them!  This was unheard of!  And it could be one of the reasons Peter, Andrew, James and John leave their nets immediately and follow Jesus.  This was something new.  This was something extraordinary–a rabbi calling his students and not vice versa!  A rabbi calling students without having them prove themselves!  And rabbis usually took only the best of the best of the best to be their students.  They certainly didn’t take fishermen.  This was a huge honor being bestowed upon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

 But the honor did not come without cost.  Let me first quote renowned scholar N.T. Wright:

 We have no idea how many generations the Zebedee family had been fishing on the sea of Galilee, but it was quite likely a lot more than four.  In that country and culture, as in many countries and cultures to this day, a small family business can be handed on not only through generations but through centuries.

 Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into, do you understand just how earth shattering this little story was and is.  Leave everything you’ve known, all your security, your family (and family solidarity was hugely important in that culture), and follow Jesus.

 So, following Jesus would be to walk away from your family and your job security.  But that’s not it.

 According to the New Interpreter’s Bible:

 To the ancient reader, the summons to follow Jesus–i.e. to become a disciple–was an extraordinary disruption in a person’s life.  It might even have seemed offensive.  If the labor of the sons was critical to the fishing enterprise in which the two families were engaged, then such a departure might appear to put the welfare of the whole family at risk. 

 So, following Jesus might cause quite a bit of anger to be produced within one’s family.  And it would certainly impact Peter, Andrew, James, and John’s pocket books.  I mean, these individuals weren’t poverty stricken.  There is every indication these folks were pretty well off.  Peter could afford a house where he took care of his mother-in-law.  James and John had servants working with them–poor people did not have servants.  When these disciples left their nets, it was a costly decision.  What could make them walk away in this fashion?  What could make them walk away from lives which were labor intensive but at least provided a pretty good income and manner of living?

 “Come with me and I will begin to make you fishers of men.”

   What was it about this statement that caused Peter, Andrew, James and John to walk away from everything they had ever known; ever trusted; ever invested in?  Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says about this.

 ...Jesus is the unqualified subject of the call.  As he passes along the shore and sees two pairs of brothers, he issues a summons, “Come, follow me.”  On this particular point, Jesus was a very different leader from the rabbis and scribes of Judaism.  There are no rabbinical stories analogous to the calling of disciples, for rabbis did not consummate the teacher-student relationship by the summons, “Follow me.”  Unlike the decisive call that comes from Jesus, entry into rabbinical school depended on the initiative of the aspiring student, not the call of the rabbi.  The personal prominence that Jesus assumes in the call of the four fishermen is highly unusual in Jewish tradition as a whole.  The chief allegiance of rabbinic students was to the Torah rather than to a particular rabbi.

 Let me repeat that last sentence again.  The chief allegiance of rabbinic students was to the Torah–the Jewish Bible–rather than to a particular rabbi.  Jesus wasn’t inviting the disciples to follow the Law.  He was inviting the disciples to follow Him–trust Him–trust that God was doing something through Him.  Little did they know exactly what was happening.  They certainly didn’t know that Jesus was the Son of God at this point, so there must have been something that absolutely grasped them and compelled them to follow Jesus. There must have been something in His demeanor; His call that grasped their hearts and inspired them to take such a risk.  We may never know what it was exactly that grasped them, but we can know the power that grasps us.

 For you see, Jesus still calls to you and I and says, “Follow me.”  He still asks us to become His disciples, and to this day, there is still no qualifying exam.  There is still no need to prove ourselves.  There is no series of hoops to jump through to make ourselves worthy to be a disciple.  The price of our proving has already been paid, but it was not paid by us.  It was paid by Jesus.

 Christianity unequivocally says that we could never prove ourselves worthy enough to be a disciple.  Christianity unequivocally says we cannot know the Bible well enough.  We cannot follow God’s commands perfectly enough.  We would fail miserably if it were up to us.  One example I hope will suffice although I could offer many.  Let’s say you want to be a disciple of Jesus.  Let’s say you want this position tremendously.  Let’s say you are willing to do whatever it takes to be a disciple.  You will put in countless hours of Bible study.  You will attend college and seminary.  You will devote yourself to doing good works and acts of kindness.  You will never cuss; never get angry; never get drunk.  You will promote justice and peace.  You will seek harmony within the church and pray without ceasing.  And here is the kicker; you actually accomplish it.  You actually manage to do these things.  Surely you are qualified to be a disciple.  Surely you have proven yourself worthy of a position as a disciple.  You have dedicated your life to achieving this position.  You are good, right? 

Wrong.  You may wonder how.  Here’s how.  You are striving to achieve the position of a disciple.  You are doing all of these things to become a disciple.  You are therefore doing them because it is something you want.  You are doing it for yourself.  You are not doing it for God and His glory.  You are acting selfishly.  This is not in accord with God’s will.  Selfishness is so dominant a force in our hearts that it often goes unnoticed by us.

 But it does not go unnoticed by God.  He knows we need a change of heart in order to be effective disciples.  He knows that deep down we must have our hearts turned to him instead of toward ourselves.  And how does a heart change?  How does a heart aspire for something other than its own self interest?

 The answer is when it is filled with love for another.  The answer is when it is filled with love for God.  And God knows He cannot force you to love Him.  God knows He cannot legislate your love.  He has to effectually earn it, and so he does this by dying for you.  He does this by loving you when you don’t deserve it.  He does it by dying for you while you are caught up in your self-interest.  He does it on the cross.

 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

 The cross is God’s call to the world, “Follow me.”  It is His invitation to you and me to leave behind all that we once trusted and to put our trust in Him.  And it will be costly–leave no doubt about that.  It will change the way you live, but you will find yourself experiencing freedom.  You will sense deep down that your self worth is no longer governed by the rewards society promises.  You will sense deep down that you no longer have to prove yourself to anyone and everyone.  You will know that you are deeply loved and accepted by the author and Creator of the universe.  Your trust will be in Him and Him alone.  This is the reality of discipleship.  This is the reality of following Jesus.  Amen.