Monday, October 31, 2016

Reformation Day, 2016

Today is Reformation Day.  It is also Halloween.  Both happen on the same day.  Halloween is when people dress up in costumes and have parties and when kids ask for candy while entertaining others in their costumes.

Reformation Day celebrates the event that happened 499 years ago today, when Martin Luther decided that he could no longer be silent but he had to announce to everyone what he really thought about the practices of his employer (the Roman Catholic Church).  So, on October 31, 1517 he nailed a piece of paper onto the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany.  It listed 95 things that he thought were wrong within the life and practice of the church he served as a priest.  The one that many people remember and recognize has to do with the selling of indulgences.  That was a thing that has been instituted so that people could buy a way for their deceased relatives to spend less time in Purgatory.  The church had convinced many that if they gave more money to the church then their dead relatives would not spend as much time waiting to go to Heaven.

Martin Luther bristled at the idea that money could buy religious favor.  He read the New Testament and came up with the idea that salvation cannot be bought.  It is a gift from God given freely.  If it could be bought, then only the wealthy could be saved but if it is given away by God to whoever asks, then it shows that God is a gracious and loving God, not one that demanded money in exchange for eternal favors.

Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the door of the castle church and then waited for the reaction from the authorities.  Those came quickly along with death threats against him.  Speaking out against authority often results in trouble for those who speak out.  Luther had to live much of his life in hiding and had to defend himself at a trial where he faced many accusations.  Eventually he was able to marry and have children and live in a sense of peace.  He eventually translated the Bible from Latin to German so that the common person in Germany could read it (thanks to the invention of the printing press that happened during the same time period.)

Today, we remember Luther and the other reformers who brought about the Reformation through the courage they had to act on their conscience despite what others may say or do.   They faced persecution and hardship but they taught as they believed and today the Protestant movement is alive and well and very diverse, thanks to their testimony.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Self-Righteousness vs. Humility

Many years ago I worked with a fellow pastor on a large church staff.  He was the senior pastor and I was an associate pastor, one of about four who were supposed to assist him in doing his job.  He came to this church after serving several other large church positions.  We had heard good things about him, how he prayed with people who had concerns and urged participation in spiritual endeavors.  All the staff were excited to receive him as the new senior pastor, after having served under a somewhat wimpy pastor who read his sermons weekly in a very dry, monotone manner.

The day came for the arrival of the new senior pastor and we all lined up, as if we were the Von Trapp kids waiting for our father to give us his orders for the day and, after being greeted by the new senior pastor and sent on our way, we regrouped and began to talk about our new boss.  Everyone wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt but we all had feelings about meeting him that we could not describe.  Was he genuine in his actions and attitudes toward us or was it all just a facade that covered up for something else?

Over the period of the next months and years we would discover that this man had few social skills and knew very little about how to approach the staff who worked for him or even the church members whom he served.  He had a pompous air about him that came out in the way he talked, dressed, carried himself, and directed others in what to do.  We came to hate attending staff meetings because invariably this man would direct his hidden wrath toward one or more members of the staff during this meetings which could go on for a long time.

Soon, the work environment had changed where there were small groups talking here and there and the sense of unity that we had experienced earlier had been dissolved.  One day the senior pastor asked me to come into his office to visit with him.  I dreaded this invitation because we had had two previous encounters which had not be pleasant.  On this day, though, he seemed a bit subdued.  I sat down in the chair across from him and he sat behind his desk.  He began to talk about his time there and then asked me, "How do you have such a good relationship with the staff?  I have seen you among others and you seem to relate to them well.  How can I relate to them as you do?"  I answered and, I am not making this up--he wrote down the words I told him.  I said, "Just be yourself."  He said, "Just be myself?"  I replied, "Of course, who else could you be."  He paused and wrote on the pad he had in front of him, "Be" and his name.  I was nonplussed.  I could not believe that a grown man who was the senior pastor of this large church had to write himself a reminder to be himself.

You see, who he was was not someone to emulate.  He was full of pride and self-righteousness, very confident in his history of being a good "church manager" but he was not someone who was easy to get to know. He would never let his guard down so that others could truly know the real person who was him, deep down inside.  To do so would have been a terrible threat to him.

The passage from Luke for this Sunday features a story that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector who went to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee told God how good he was and how valuable he was to God.  The Tax Collector hung his head and begged God for forgiveness.  He could not even look up when he considered what a sinner he was.  Jesus said that the Tax Collector went away "justified" because of his humility.

Being "full of yourself" is something we encounter daily in the world in which we live.  We see politicians, city and state leaders, and even a pastor now and then who are "full of themselves."
They think that the way they are and present themselves is the same way the rest of us act.  They cannot see that their self-absorption is so far out of line with the norm that it is ridiculous.  Every once in while when we meet up with such people, we secretly wish that life would take them down a notch or two so they can see themselves a bit more like other see them.  Perhaps their ego is their guise that they use for cover from accepting the real person that they are.  Maybe they are actually very insecure and that outward covering is their protection from considering the way they really would like to be.  Maybe they are like that senior pastor who asked me how I could get along with others on the staff and when I said, "Just be yourself" he had no idea what I meant.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Never Giving Up on Justice

There is a small little parable in Luke 18 where Jesus teaches his disciples about the necessity to pray always and not give up.  He uses two characters in his story who represent the most powerful and the least powerful persons in Hebrew society in his day---a judge and a widow.  The judge held the most power because with his word he could order someone to do something and bring about justice in situations where it was desperately needed.  The widow was the least powerful person in society because her merit, worth, and stand in the community was always connected to a man.  Her husband, her son, or some other male relative determined her income and her status.  So, when a woman lost her husband and if she had no other male relative to speak up for her, then she was dependent on society for her living and few would come to her aid if she were in distress. 

So, Jesus tells a story about a widow who asked a judge to free her from oppression by another in society. At first, the judge refused to listen to her but she returned again and again until finally he gave in, not because of his fondness for the widow or her cause but because she bothered him too much.  He was wearied by her asking for the same thing over and over again so he finally gave her what she wanted just to get rid of her. 

Jesus concludes the parable by telling his disciples never to give up but to pray constantly and ask God for what they would need.  He tells them that God "will quickly grant justice" to those who ask.  Then, he concludes by asking the question, "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"  A strange question perhaps but one that asks us, "Do we give up when we pray and work for justice to be done in the world or do we continue to ask and work and make something happen that will bring about justice in our broken world?" 

I have written to my senators and congressmen about issues only to receive a form letter reply which stated that they were glad to hear from me but it made little difference what I said.  They were going to do what they wanted regardless of what I said.  I tossed the letter in the trash and said, "Oh well, I  tried."  What would it take for me or you to not stop with writing a letter and instead get on a plane or train or bus and go to Washington or Austin to speak directly to our representatives and let them know we are serious about what we wrote to them about?  Why do we give up when we receive an answer that shoots down our ideas by someone we have elected?  Why do we not speak truth to power as Jesus did?  Perhaps we have been convinced by someone that "you can't fight city hall." 

Jesus was teaching his disciples that he would fight city hall and Caesar and anyone else he needed in order to bring about what he believed in for the world he would die for.  He gave his life for what he believed in and rose again to bring about a new life for all.  Today, we risk little of the harm that Jesus did when we speak up for our beliefs but we are hesitant to do so because we avoid conflict.  Perhaps it is time to pray and work for justice to be done in our world if we truly believe that the prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" is possible.  Heaven on earth may not exist today but God's Kingdom will come one day in the future.  Will we do our part to make earth a bit more heavenly in our lifetimes? 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

God of the Exile

My wife and I just returned from a two week vacation in eastern Canada where we visited Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.  This is our fifth visit to that region and our third time to stay at a wonderful cottage on the Bay of Fundy.  For a week we relaxed and had coffee on the porch while watching the tide come in go out, making the little fishing boats in the cove rise and fall with the tide while the seabirds flew and squawked and entertained us.  Who knew that it could be so relaxing just to watch water and nature?

We also explored the region, visiting places we had discovered on earlier trips to the area and finding new ones.  One place we enjoy visiting is called Grand Pre, Nova Scotia.  It is in the Annapolis Valley where they grow a tremendous amount of apples and grapes and where many wineries have popped up over the past few years.  Grand Pre is also the home to the Acadian Visitor Centre where one can learn about the legacy and history of the Acadian people who came from France in the 1600s to settle the land and who were expelled by the British in 1755.  Visiting the museum and seeing the dioramas that depict the events of the history of the Acadian people is informative and interesting but it is also a bit heartbreaking.

The Acadian people worked hard to improve land that was  not livable by building a system of dykes and walls that drained the land of its water and they were able to make the land fertile to grow much to support their colony.  They built villages and churches and schools and created a wonderful place in which to have children and live peaceably.  Then, in the early 1700s, the British and French fought for control of this part of Canada and the British eventually won.  They felt threatened  by the Acadian people because of their ties to France and demanded that they sign a loyalty oath to the British government and the King.  The Acadians obeyed and signed the oath even though some objected.  That was not enough for the British military, however.  They decided to make the Acadians leave the area so they confiscated their land and loaded them all on ships, as they watched the soldiers burn their villages and all they had created in that good land.

Families were often divided in the shuffle or boarding the ships.  Some ships left to return the residents to France resulting in two shipwrecks that killed many of the Acadians.  Other ships left to put them out in the British colonies, only to have the British citizens who lived there not accepting them so those Acadians began the long and dangerous journey to go to the only place on the North American continent still in firm control of the French--Louisiana!  These brave people traveled by horse and wagon, walked, and even went by boat to go to the place where they thought they could feel accepted and free.  When they reached Louisiana, they found others who spoke their language and who understood their plight.  They found land and settled in the lowlands again, this time in hot and swampy lands rather than cold and marshy lands.  These people eventually became Cajuns, a corruption of the word "Acadian" and today their descendants live in south Louisiana and are proud of their heritage.

I think about these brave Acadians each time we visit Nova Scotia and when we have gone to the deportation site on the beach on the Bay of Fundy, I can use my imagination to picture those poor souls who were forced to leave the land they had worked so hard to create.  They became exiles as they watched their burning villages go up in smoke.  They had no idea where they would land or where their new home would be.  They were outcasts longing to find acceptance, peace, and home once again.

Exile comes to all of us during our lifetimes.  Sometimes it is physical exile as we leave one address and move to another.  At other times it is the exile of illness or job loss or death or a loved one or economic disaster or rejection by those whom we had trusted to be our friends.  The exile we experience places us in a state of distress that leaves us confused and feeling alone.  We may wonder if anyone truly understands us or what we are feeling as we go through these experiences.

Our scripture texts for this week describe three scenes of exile.  Jeremiah writes to those exiles in Babylonian captivity encouraging them to have good lives, to marry and build houses and find meaning while they are away from the home they long to return to.  Jesus ministers to 10 lepers, outcasts and exiles from society, and he brings healing to their lives.  One leper returns to give thanks for his healing, and he is a Samaritan, an exile in the eyes of the Jews at that time.  Paul writes to his friend Timothy, encouraging him to be a good pastor to those in the church where he serves, a house church that no doubt was feeling stress because of the persecution of Christians in their time.  These secret worshipers were exiles in the Roman land in which they lived because they could not admit that they were Christians or they would face persecution and possible death.

God speaks and is revealed in these three passages as the God of the Exile, the one who cares for those whom others cannot care about.  God is the God of those poor Jews who were forced from their homes by the Babylonians as they, much like the Acadians, watched their city being burned as they marched toward uncertainty.  God is the God of those lepers and all who are ill, whose days are numbered, whose health is their stigma, and especially for those unaccepted by society who may also be ill.  God is the God of those who are persecuted because of their faith tradition, regardless of what it may be.  There is only one God who is God and Father of us all.

We will think about this God who accepts and heals and cares for the outcast this Sunday during worship.  We will give thanks to the God who loves us and takes us in when no one else will.  We will rejoice in God's love and grace and praise God's majesty.  Will you join us on this Sunday in God's House?