Sunday, August 29, 2010


Proverbs 25:6-7
Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, "Come up here,"
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7–14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

A Message from the Pastor
As I read the texts for this Sunday and considered a message I might bring, I found myself struggling with them, especially the gospel reading for today.

When we read these texts, literally – and many people do that – we might think these texts to be highly irrelevant. The first part of the gospel story of Jesus has people jostling for position at seats of honor at the dinner. First of all, I don’t think you would find many of us having dinners of that size, except maybe a wedding dinner. And at such events, we know how the pecking order, or hierarchy, is arranged. Oh yes, there may be a couple of people who are upset where they are placed, but normally its no big deal. It’s difficult for us to put ourselves in that position. Furthermore, when we read Jesus’ suggestion that we humble ourselves to be rewarded, it sounds like “works righteous,” in other words, if you do this, then this will happen. That’s contradictory to the doctrine of justification which says we are justified by faith through grace. Luther said that if we do something in order to get to heaven, we’ll probably end up in hell. Also, it might encourage false humility. We think to ourselves that if we act humble, we can be exalted. We all know people like that, including ourselves.

As far as the other part of Jesus’ comments, I know of no one who has intentionally invited the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind into their homes. It just doesn’t happen. Furthermore, this again sounds like “works righteousness.” We can expect to get to heaven, if we take Jesus’ words literally.

I don’t think Jesus meant what he said in a literal way. I begin to understand the meaning of this gospel text when I hear and embrace the first sentence of the second reading, “Let mutual love continue.” For that’s who and what God is all about, as demonstrated by Jesus and the cross. When we look at all of scripture and follow God’s interaction with humanity through history, the story comes to its peak with the crucifixion of Jesus. We read about God’s love throughout history and then we find it demonstrated at and on the cross. God’s love is poured out through Jesus as he humbly submits to death on the cross. God’s love is poured out as God raises Jesus from death. We also hear Jesus say,”Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind,” and,”Love one another as I have loved you.”

With that in mind, we find that the operative word for these texts for today is humility. It is our humility that allows us to demonstrate a love that is slightly similar to Jesus’ love. It is in humility that we are to express an unconditional love, a sacrificial love, and/or an understanding love. Yet, in that love we do not become door mats. We know who we are and whose we are. We also know that life is about God, not about us. It is not about you. It is not about me, it is not about Cross of Grace, it is not about the ELCA. Life is about God, and with that understanding we are able to develop some humility that shapes our demonstration of love.

In our humility, we are able to accept life on life’s terms. In our humility, we are able to demonstrate hospitality. In our humility, we are able to lead a sacrificial life. In our humility we are able to stand with those in bondage and those who have been abused.

In another book, I read a definition of humility. “Absolute humility (which is not humanly possible) would consist of a state of complete freedom from self, freedom from all the claims that my defects of character (also known as sin) now lay so heavily upon me. Perfect humility (which is not humanly possible) would be full willingness, in all times and places, to find and to do the will of God.” (I added the words in parentheses.)

If we accept that definition, it can develop two problems. First of all, if you are like me, you want to be perfect. Therefore, you beat yourself up when you are not perfect. Otherwise, you realize you cannot be perfect so you tell yourself, “Why try?”

In all of Jesus’ comments, as he talks about discipleship, I think he realizes we are not perfect. He is asking for progress, not perfection.

I have personally observed that progress. I witnessed it at last week’s retreat.

Nancy Christensen observed that what we said, as we wrestled with how God is leading us, is that we don’t want to just serve the community. We want to live in and with the community, that we are part of the community. For example, as we discussed the reality that the southern part of Washington County has a 60% poverty level, one person reminded us that many of them don’t think that they’re poor and that we need to honor and respect where they are as we serve them and they serve us.

During the discussion we talked about “growing” the community of faith. One person asked who that included, since all of us there were “lily white.” Does it include people of color, the poor, the blind, the crippled, and the lame, along with brothers, friends, neighbors, and the rich? Does it include such people as the undocumented immigrants and gays and Lesbians? The answer was loud and clear, it includes all people.

In our humility, mutual love continues. In our humility, we are genuinely hospitable. And who knows, we may be entertaining angels unaware.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Luke 12:49-56
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

A Message from the Pastor
Every now and then, I will ask people what their favorite Bible verses are. Not surprisingly many people will cite John 3:16, the Bible in a nutshell – “For God so loved the world . . . . . Others might mention Psalm 23. Then there are the verses from Jesus’ discourse in the upper room from the Gospel of John: In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you.” Or, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Some people cite comments by Paul from Romans, “Neither life or death, or anything else, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.” Personally, one of my favorite verses is, “All things happen for good who love God and are called to his purpose.”

I have yet to find one person who has as their favorite verse, “Do you think that I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I say, but rather division.” Not one person has identified that verse as the favorite. And, I can understand why. Jesus’ comment does not exactly evoke warm fuzzies, give comfort, or provide a positive atmosphere. Furthermore, when we remember the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the second chapter, which is the nativity story, it begins by the angels saying to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.” Jesus isn’t talking about peace here, is he? Is this counter to other Biblical comments?

Let’s remember what happened according to the Gospel of Luke’s story of Jesus’ ministry. Just before his transfiguration, Jesus is with his disciples and tells them that they must die to self, pick up their cross daily and follow him, and lose their lives for the sake of the gospel. That isn’t exactly a positive statement. That statement doesn’t give one warm fuzzies either. Who wants to lose their ego? Who wants to give up the way they live?

Then, after the transfiguration, the author of Luke says that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem.” No one was going to deter him from his mission in Jerusalem, namely to die on the cross. And as we follow the story of Jesus after he “set his face,” we find him challenging many customs, ways of living, and value systems. His comments and demeanor would cause division, or, one might say, conflict.

Let’s consider something else. In the first three gospels, Jesus’ mission is to proclaim that the reign of God is drawing near, to change our way of thinking and believe. That’s different. That can cause conflict. After all, the “kingdom” of this world operates out of power and control. When we think about Jesus’ proclamations, we realize that one of the criteria of the reign of God is humility. They are opposed to one another. Remember the verse from our second reading today. Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfector of our faith, in joy endured the cross and the shame that went with it.

When we are in the world, we are seeking what is right and what is wrong. Furthermore, those with the most ”toys” on the table, those with the most authority, those who speak the loudest, or those who can debate the best have the power and the control to determine what is right and what is wrong. In the reign of God, we seek the truth. Remember? Jesus said, “I am the truth.” When we speak the truth we can cause division; we can cause conflict.

Let me share with you a brief personal experience. When I had been in treatment a few days, something came to my attention. For more years than I could remember, I wrestled with whether it was right or wrong for me to drink. The truth was that I could not drink and live. Truth can bring a totally different perspective.

To help us understand more about the nature of conflict, let me share with you a little about its dynamics. At its lowest level, conflict is seen as a problem. Problems always arise because people see things from different perspectives and do not like the issues or circumstances that have arisen. The next level up is disagreement. This is when people voice their personal perspectives on problems that have arisen and see it differently from one another. The next level is when we choose sides. We talk with people who agree with our perspective. We avoid those who do not. Those who do not, respond in a similar manner. At the next level we have an organizational fight. In organized meetings, or otherwise, the discussion becomes heated. At level five, the conflict becomes intractable. No one remembers or cares about the issue any more. They just know they disagree. Finally, at level six the participants become apathetic. No one cares.

What’s interesting is that at level one or two, there is an opportunity to wrestle with the conflict, and a desire to seek the truth, rather than use power and control to determine what’s right. However, at level three Jesus, who is the truth, is longer present. This happens when sides are chosen. The issue becomes, “who is right and who is wrong,” and Jesus fades from being among us. (Remember, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them?)

However, there is a paradox to all this, as we consider Jesus saying that he creates division. While I was at seminary, I would talk, from time-to-time, with the director of Lutheran Family Services of South Carolina. One time he mentioned to me that there are the three “C’s” of relationships, be they individual or corporate. They are communication, commitment, and conflict. Yes, conflict is necessary for good relationships. Just think about those times you have been in conflict with people close to you. It is during those times that you have the possibility at arriving at a greater understanding of the other person. Of course, this occurs when Jesus is in our midst as we seek the truth, rather than be right.

Yes, it is the truth that Jesus came to bring division, not peace. However, when we seek the pioneer and perfector of our faith, division, or conflict, can turn into peace.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

“What’s It All About”

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

Colossians 3:1–11
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things — anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

A Message from the Pastor
Well, the first reading for today has some words that we might not understand using today’s language. Let me read Ecclesiastes from The Message, by Eugene Peterson, written in contemporary language.

“Smoke, nothing but smoke. (That’s what the Quester says.) There’s nothing to anything – it’s all smoke.”

“Call me “the Quester.” I’ve been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I looked most carefully into everything, searched out all that is done on this earth. And let me tell you, there’s not much to write home about. God hasn’t made it easy for us. I’ve seen it all and it’s nothing but smoke – smoke , and spitting into the wind.”

Then the author talks about all he has done, which is not part of our text for today. “Oh, I did great things: built houses, planted vineyards, designed gardens and parks, . . . made pools of water, . . . I bought slaves, male and female, . . . then I acquired large herds and flocks, . . . I piled up silver and gold, . . . I gathered a chorus of singers to entertain me with song, and -- most exquisite of all pleasures -- voluptuous maidens for my bed.”

“And I hated everything I’d accomplished and accumulated on this earth. I can’t take it with me – no, I have to leave it to whoever comes after me. Whether they’re worthy or worthless -- and who’s to tell? – they’ll take over the earthly results of my intense thinking and hard work. Smoke.”

“That’s when I called it quits, gave up on anything that could be hoped for on this earth. What’s the point of working your fingers to the bone if you hand over what you worked for to someone who never lifted a finger for it? Smoke, that’s what it is. A bad business from start to finish. So what do you get from a life of hard labor? Pain and grief from dawn to dusk. Never a decent night’s rest. Nothing but smoke.”

Now that guy had an attitude!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt and thought that way before. I’ve looked at what’s happened and attempted to look into the future, and I have to ask myself, “What’s it all about?’ In fact as I read this text, I heard myself singing (for you older folks), “What’s it all about, Alfie?” I see what has gone on and I look into the future and none of it seems very bright. I wonder if it’s worth it when I look at what I’ve done and speculated what I could look forward to.

The “Quester’s” problem was that he knew death would come and there was nothing he could do about it.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable had somewhat the same challenge, only from a different perspective. He didn’t think about death and it’s impact. He saw all that he had accumulated and wanted to wallow in luxury. There is a saying, “Eat, drink, be merry, and then you die.” He didn’t add the last part to what he thought. He didn’t want to just add buildings to keep his crops, grain, and goods. He was going to tear them all down and build new ones so he and everybody else could look at how much he had.

Jesus used this parable to talk about greed and the need for worldly possessions. I could take up a great share of this message by talking about that. However, I think there is also another issue that is more basic. This issue was in common for “the Quester” and the rich man. They wanted to be in control. The “Quester knew he was not in control of death. The rich man didn’t think about death and thought he control the enjoyment of all that he accumulated and be able to show it off to all around him.

I moved to Charleston, SC two years into my recovery. I selected a new sponsor. He believed in the Twelve Steps and had me begin at the beginning. He asked me to identify all that I was unable to control. Well, I knew I was powerless over alcohol. There was no doubt that my life was unmanageable, and still is. But then I began to think about all I could not control. I could not control my wife. I could not control my employer. I could not control my employees. I could not control my children. I could not control the culture. Virtually, I could not control anything.

I realized that there was one thing I could control by giving up control. I could, through the Holy Spirit, make a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God. I could be responsive by letting God lead my life. You see, the opposite of control is love. Through the Holy Spirit, I could be open to develop a loving, personal relationship with God and have God lead and guide me. I finally understood what it’s all about. Life is not about me. It’s about God.

That’s what can happen, as suggested by the second reading for today. It all begins with baptism. It all begins when we are washed in the waters of baptism. The author of Colossians commented that we have died and are hidden with Christ in God. That’s baptismal talk. Paul said, in Romans, that when we are baptized, we are baptized into a death like Christ and raised to a new life in Christ. When we are baptized, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives within us.

When there is a love relationship with God, things change. The old ways that are cited in the second reading fade away. We begin to lose the worldly interest, including greed and the desire for worldly possessions. We begin to lose our anger, wrath, resentments, and other worldly responses to live. We begin to experience the fruit of the Spirit – peace, patience, joy, generosity, gentleness, and self-control.

We begin to understand what it means to be with Christ in God. And when we begin to experience that, we begin to recognize that the reign of God is drawing near. With that, we find ourselves getting out of ourselves and come to recognize that life is all about God.

Death is no longer a controlling factor. For in our life in Christ, the fear of death or the denial of death is taken away.

We can understand “What it’s all about.”