Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reformation Sunday - October 25, 2009 (John 8:31-38)

It is the season of the attack ad. Granted, this year isn’t as bad as last year, but in this race for the governorship of Virginia, battleground state that we are, the attack ads are blossoming and blooming all around us. I am counting the days until I can watch television or listen to the radio or answer the telephone without having to suffer through one of them. I heard them as early as last spring, and they will get even more frequent as we run up to the election a week from Tuesday. The experts say that attack ads, those political messages that rail against some aspect of their opponent’s record are actually effective in swaying voters, which is why we can’t seem to have an election without them. Rather than speaking directly to their own strengths, the Republicans attack the Democrats and the Democrats attack the Republicans, and cheap-shot-makers like me attack them both. Somewhere along the way, the truth of the message gets muddied a little.

It occurs to me that Reformation Sunday often becomes little more than an attack ad. We stand up each year on the last Sunday in October and remember that we’re Protestant—that, by golly, we’re Lutheran—and we lob attack ads against the abuses of Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago. We stand up and sing several rounds of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and give thanks that Martin Luther—political mastermind that he was—had the guts back in the sixteenth century to nail his original 95 “Attack Ads” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. We often do this, and we do it proudly, but somewhere along the way, the truth of our message gets muddied a little.

If celebrating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which effectively began on October 31, 1517, is about anything, it is about staying on-message. It is about telling the truth and making that truth as clear as possible. More like a positive, upbeat political ad that doesn’t attack another but instead touts the strengths and virtues of its own candidate, calling to mind the Protestant Reformation should help us tell the truth about the gospel, the truth about the church, and, tying it all together, the truth about God and God’s faithfulness. That was always Martin Luther’s original intent: to tell the truth about the gospel. Although he made some pretty inflammatory remarks about the Pope, and a few other church practices at the time at the core his was a message about staying on-message. He was simply pointing out that with which the Church catholic—including each and every one of its little congregations—had always, to some degree, struggled. Namely, it is too easy for the church to get its own proclamation muddled.

And what is the truth about the gospel? That is the crux of the discussion that Jesus is having with this group of people in this morning’s gospel text. This group of people is “the Jews who had believed in him.” These are people who were interested in listening to what Jesus had to say and were possibly even contemplating becoming his followers, but whose understanding was that their relationship with God was based on their history, their ancestry. They assumed they enjoyed certain status with God because they were people of God’s covenant. They pointed to people in their past like Abraham, noting that God had chosen their ancestors long ago and made them free. (They also claim that they’ve never been slaves to anyone, but I guess they’re conveniently forgetting that time in Egypt). They are confused, in any case, that Jesus is saying that in order to become free they would need to continue in his word and thereby become his disciples.

One of the truths that Jesus is trying to explain to them is that everyone is a sinner. The brokenness of sin is something that affects everyone equally. No person or group of people—not even the descendants of Abraham—has escaped the power of sinfulness. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” That means everyone in creation—regardless of whether they have dutifully tried to follow the commandments, regardless of whether they have a covenant with God—has become captive to sin. Sin has been described in many ways. Luther described sin as “humankind being curved in on itself,” convinced of the idea that we can be separate from God and go our own way, set like stone into the pursuit of our own needs. One particularly deceptive and hurtful quality of sinfulness is the habit of thinking we can, in some way, earn our way into God’s favor. We fall into the trap of thinking we can do enough good deeds or pray enough or go to church enough to make God smile on us. And this is the type of false information that Jesus comes to abolish. Jesus tells the truth: there is no “enough” of anything on our part. Ever. All of us still fall short.

But the other part of the truth, which is the one Martin Luther said that the church must really get right, is that Jesus, alone, is “enough.” “If the Son makes you free,” Jesus tells those who had believed in him, “then you will be free indeed.” The truth that makes us free is that God has decided to do something about the world’s brokenness even when we cannot. Jesus, God’s Son, has been given to reconcile creation to God, to straighten out humankind’s inward curvature, to suffer the full brunt of what evil can do and still only respond in love. It is something we could never do. It is something we could never deserve. But yet in Jesus, out of God’s pure grace, the bonds of that evil are broken once and for all. When we look at Jesus, when we look at the cross, we realize God truly loves us and has claimed us. Not when we look at ourselves. As Karl Barth said, a Swiss theologian who stood up to the Nazi regime in Germany, “God does not love us because we are lovable. God loves us because God is love” (Church Dogmatics, IV/2).

This is the truth that sets us free because it releases us from the lie that we are lovable for any other reason, be that our good deeds or, as in the case of the people talking with Jesus, a certain historical line we’ve been born into. This is the truth that sets us free because it breaks us from the bonds of stubborn self-will and self-determination—as freeing as those pathways may sometimes seem—and sets us back on the track of the self-giving ways Jesus lays down before us.

By far the favorite game in the Martin household right now is called, “I-I-I’m Gonna Getcha.” Laura, our 17-month old, is especially fanatic about it. The way the game works is she starts walking either away from us into another room or towards something she’s not supposed to play with, like electrical cords or the top of the stairs. As soon as she starts away, I come up behind her and say, ‘I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” and then pick her up underneath her arms and set her back down in a safe direction. She actually thinks it’s hilarious and starts to giggle. So she immediately does it again: she turns around and starts off in the wrong, unsafe direction. So I chase after her and repeat, “I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” and pick her up again. This will go on and on until I’ve finally had enough and I just pick her up and hold her for awhile and let her know the game is over. I suppose when I do this I’m hoping that at some point she’ll realize that it’s pointless to crawl away because there’s nowhere I’m not willing to follow her to. I’m always going to go het her and turn her back around, and in doing so, I’m actually setting her free. Sure, she has the free will to wander where she wants, into danger, but the point where she is truly most free is when she’s living and growing and walking in the ways her parents hope to set out for her.

So it is with God’s relationship to us through Christ. There is no place we can wander where he will not follow, and, through his gracious forgiveness, attempt to set us back on the path that is truly freeing. And this is the truth that the church must always be very careful in proclaiming. It is the truth that should be the basis for any reform in the church, and it was the motive behind Martin Luther’s attempts at reformation in the sixteenth century.

If, for example, we become a community of faith that feels more like a clique, we won’t stay on message about that truth. We will feel more like a social club that excludes people. If we become lax in our practice and embodiment of confession and forgiveness, it will, again, be difficult to stay on-message about the truth. Instead we would send the message that God doesn’t really care about our brokenness, or that the health of human community isn’t that important. If we are tempted to make the church just another type of volunteer organization that does service projects for the community, then we could forget that we are, in fact, primarily a community of sinners who have been chased down by Jesus and put back on the right track. For if the Church—Lutheran or otherwise—does not stay on-message with this truth, who will?

Way down in the holler behind the congregation I served in Pittsburgh, along a road prone to flooding during rainstorms, stood a ramshackle building that called itself the Bellevue Chapel. I never met anyone who attended there, and I never saw much happening there when I passed by. One week, however, I noticed they had hung a huge sign across the top of the door. It stayed there for awhile. In big, bold, red letters it said, “Sinners only.”

That, in a nutshell, is the message of the Reformation, the message of a church that always should be reforming. On this day and every day, let us not send out the Lutheran attack ads, pointing a finger of condemnation to others around us. Instead, in the pattern of Martin Luther, let us remember the truth: this place is for sinners. Sinners only, prone to floods of grace. And it is here—at the font, at the altar, in the words of Scripture—where God says “I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” us and sets us free.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23B] - October 11, 2009 (Mark 10:17-31)

Introducing Jesus’ new program this morning: No Disciple Left Behind. It’s a comprehensive new plan to make sure everyone inherits eternal life. No Disciple Left Behind: just a series of tests for which we need to prepare, some rules to memorize, then squeeze through the eye of a needle like a camel and you’re good to go! No Disciple Left Behind! Its concept sounds quite ingenious, but of course, it’s not without controversy. No one really knows yet if it will accomplish its goals. The results of its implementation aren’t yet in, but it hasn’t stopped some from studying diligently just for the exams, like a batch of high school juniors who invest, like I once did, in books on how to ace the SAT.

Take, for example, this rich young man in Mark’s lesson this morning. He’s pretty sure he’s got it covered. He approaches Jesus, the instructor, with fresh apple in hand in order to make the best impression. “What must I do, Good Teacher, to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asks as he bows himself into the dusty ground in a overdone gesture of obedience and respect. This is a bottom-line question; no partial credit. What are the basic requirements? The man is clearly successful, given his material wealth, so he is likely accustomed to figuring out exactly what he needs to know to accomplish his goals. A perfect pupil for No Disciple Left Behind, in fact.

Jesus does not seem initially impressed, but checks the man’s homework nonetheless, rattling off the Ten Commandments one-by-one. Discovering that the man has been following them like a good student since essentially what are his kindergarten days, Jesus then does something interesting. He looks the young man straight in the eye, and, in an act of sincere affection and approval, grabs him by both shoulders and informs him he may progress to the next level of the program. In fact, it is the last element and test of No Disciple Left Behind: “Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and begin to follow me.” Eternal life, after all, involves following the Lord of life, and for Jesus’ disciples, that will involve cutting ties to all that would hold one back from moving from place to place to spread the news.

Shocked and dejected, the young man returns to his seat in utter grief. This he cannot imagine. Remember, I had mentioned it is a controversial program. Many reach this point in discipleship and have a similar reaction.

I remember a comic strip that my ethics professor had posted to his office door at seminary. In the first frame, a man stood waist-deep in a pool of water, facing a preacher who was about to immerse him. The preacher says to him, “Now Mr. Jones, when I baptize you, everything that goes under the water becomes the Lord’s.” In the next frame, Mr. Jones is completely underwater for his baptism…except for one hand that clutches his wallet in the air.

However, before anyone has time to process this encounter between Jesus and the young man, before anyone sees a chance to run after the young man to say, “No wait! Don’t go away! Jesus might just have been speaking metaphorically here! Maybe he doesn’t mean you really have to renounce your earthly possessions!” Jesus explains the significance of the young man’s sorrowful response. The man went away dejected because he knew he would be giving up a lot.

As it turns out, in No Disciple Left Behind, each disciple must leave much behind. Each disciple must leave house and home, family and fields, wealth and well-being in order to follow. Each disciple will grapple with poverty in the face of plenty, lack in the face of luxury. Inheriting eternal life will be no cupcake class. And for those who happen to cling too tightly, it may prove to be a no-can-do. It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle. And the teacher does not mean that metaphorically. He’s being serious.

One of the problems for the disciples here, which accounts for their befuddlement, is that in the first-century religious mindset, wealth was a sign of God’s favor, of being the Good Teacher’s pet, if you will. Poverty, by contrast, was not seen as something to be chosen but rather as an affliction for not having learned enough or not having acted lawful enough. The disciples likely see this young man approach Jesus and think, here’s finally an example of someone who has it made! He knows the law, he’s respectful of Jesus, he’s got evidence of earthly blessing—proof that he can succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of first-century Israel. God has blessed him!

However, when they hear Jesus explain that riches and possessions can make it more difficult for one to enter God’s kingdom, they have to completely reorganize the way God is working in their midst. “Who then can be saved?” they ask, bewildered, disoriented, as if all the answers to the exam have suddenly been changed at the last minute. And, forgetting their most recent lesson in which Jesus explained the kingdom is given to children—those who can’t do anything for themselves—the disciples ask “Who then can do the things to inherit eternal life?” All of them, like us, so focused on the doing, attaining, holding on, squeezing through…never really aware of the losing, the letting go, the receiving.

I think everyone who follows Jesus realizes some sacrifices are involved somewhere along the line. We consider our yearly pledges to the church, figuring out how much of our “hard-earned money” we should sacrifice for the work of the Lord. Our personal and family schedules, especially at this time of the year, blossom and grow with so many commitments, and occasionally we decide to cancel a commitment made to sports or entertainment in favor of attending a meeting at church or volunteering at a charity or sitting with a friend in need. We consider the sacrifices of reputation and popularity we sometimes make when we take a stand to speak for justice and truth in the name of the gospel.

But, if you’re like me, you realize there are many more instances where we shrink back from the sacrifices involved in following Jesus. We, like the young man, walk away, pondering what we would be giving up rather than thinking about what we could be gaining. We, like the man in the comic strip, try to hold much more of ourselves above the surface of the water.

Wealth—in money or possessions—is particularly dangerous in this regard, and Jesus knows it. It’s not that wealth or possessions, in and of themselves, are bad, but they can make it difficult for people who have them to receive and appreciate God’s rule. Those who are wealthy are not vulnerable in the way that poor folk are. Those who are wealthy have the means to control their surroundings and their earthly destinies in ways that underprivileged folk can’t, and, ironically, can be more out of touch with how much of this blessed life is determined by God’s grace. Furthermore, wealth can also blind us to our true needs of human community, based in love and forgiveness. And, because of its power to corrupt the administration of justice, wealth can make us blind and unfeeling to the basic needs of others’.

I heard the wife of a missionary once talk about the time she and her husband were getting ready to go overseas for the first time to serve in Tanzania. They were only allowed to take a certain amount of poundage with them, and so before she even saw where they were going, she had to pare down their worldly goods, not only because the shipping costs were so great, but because they would be serving people who didn’t have much, and being rich in possessions could alienate them from those they served. When she was finished packing, she said everything they had ever owned in their 25 years of marriage was condensed down to 20 small cardboard boxes. She told how she stood there and stared at them on her lawn and just cried—20 cardboard boxes after 25 years and 4 children—shocked that this particular call of Jesus would cause her family to sacrifice so many things that they loved.

Yet, in No Disciple Left Behind, it’s not just the Tanzanian missionaries and those who consider themselves rich who must let loose and pack light. The call is made upon all of us, to every disciple, wealthy and poor alike, It’s for those who’ve studied for the tests since kindergarten, and those who are just getting started. It is for the thoroughly committed disciple and the one who stands at the edge, reluctant. It is a call to relinquish our grip on those things which would hold us back from freely following Jesus.

In letting loose and leaving behind we may eventually learn that we’re gaining much more. We may just come to see that being submerged in God’s kingdom is about far more than what we’re giving up, and that it includes a blessed variety of receiving and winning.

Though the hardship of such a life will surely come, disciples learn they receive in the communion of Jesus a new wealth. Following Jesus grants a new kind of wealth where disciples are freed to share what they have with each other for the good of the world, where they no longer view things as “mine” and “yours” but rather as “ours” or as “God’s.” They see the possibilities that are opened to the whole world through a life shared in Christ Jesus where all our gifts are brought together to help establish his kingdom on earth. It is a new kind of family where those who have been claimed in baptism may see each other as real brother and sister.

And, to get us there, Christ lays hold of us in deep affection, looking deep into our eyes, he bids us to follow by leaving everything behind. All of it. As 20th-century theologian C.S. Lewis puts it, “[Jesus says] Not just a branch here or a branch there. I will have the whole tree down. [And in it’s place,] I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself” (Mere Christianity, HarperCollins 2001, pg 196).

It’s all a part of No Disciple Left Behind, this comprehensive new idea to make sure everyone inherits eternal life. Yes, it is highly controversial. Will it succeed? That’s the question. For mortals—like for the camel squeezing himself through the needles’ eye—the chances aren’t looking so good. If it were up to us, we’d fail, exam after exam. But for God, who is its author and architect, all things are possible. For God, whose Son is the great High Priest who passes through the heavens for us, all things are possible. For God, especially experienced here in the light of Easter morning, all things are possible. No Disciple Left Behind!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr