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Monday, November 20, 2017

November 19, 2017 - Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost - God's Slave?

In the Parable of the Talents I am used to the Greek word δοῦλος (doulos) being translated as servant or bond-servant rather than the word slave as it appeared in our worship bulletin. That word complicates how I read this parable.

As a reader of Martin Luther I immediately recalled his 1520 tract On the Freedom of the Christian.

The tract begins with two seemingly contradictory propositions:
A Christian is an utterly free man, lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is an utterly dutiful man, servant of all, subject to all.

I was on call at work this Sunday and did not attend Sunday worship, following a certain duty to work when I would have been at worship otherwise.

Is the servant or bond-servant a euphemistic translation? the word slave fundamentally changes this parable for me in that it is hard for me to recognize the man going on a journey as the God whose voice I know. Thinking of all men as slaves to God changes my perspective.  I ask myself, "Do I belong to God as a slave or do I belong to God in a different way?. Am I utterly free or utterly dutiful, both or neither?".

Then other questions come to mind. This man gives his slaves different amounts of money depending on their ability without instruction. Are these slaves rightfully judged by the work they do? Are they judged in the end merely by the money they bring in? Doesn't this actually confirm the the slave's initial fears about his master? The man seems to demonstrate the qualities the slave feared. The man is hard and also reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he scattered no seed.

This is not the voice of God of relationship that I recognize. Don't misunderstand me. There is no temptation to ignore this parable in my mind or imagine that the true meaning was lost in some translation. I await God's relationship voice to speak through this parable to my heart.

Perhaps this man is not a stand-in for God but rather illustrates worldly power as it is made manifest. Is the one talent slave instead judged based on his perceptions of his master? Does the slave's fear of his master ultimately determine whether his wicked and if he gets cast into outer darkness? Is outer darkness truly eternal damnation?

Currently the challenge for me is to ponder how I belong to God and what freedom means to me and if what I feel and think about the answers are compatible or not.

Monday, November 13, 2017

November 12, 2017 - Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost - Worship at King of Kings

I volunteered for a synod visitation project this week and, as a result, worshipped at King of Kings today rather than Creator.

They apparently change worship formats during a given month to "mix it up" and do something different. This worship was contained an Interactive Sermon. Instead of a sermon about the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids the children present were given flashlights rather than oil lamps and to shine them on scrolls that were hidden around the sanctuary.

They brought them back up to the front and looked at what was drawn inside the scrolls. The images all where a person might see God. They portrayed acts of kindness, forgiveness, service. caring for the earth, caring for others among others.

There were obviously similarities and differences in how Creator and King of Kings worship. The sanctuary at King of Kings is a more intimate space with a large wooden relief of Jesus behind the altar.  Primary instrument was organ rather than piano. Choir had more members.

Similarities are both Creator and King Of Kings being Reconciling In Christ congregations. Both are engaged in Social Justice projects which were subtly reflected in the prayers, words and music presented this Sunday.

In talking with the congregation members it was clear our two congregations faced many of the same challenges and opportunities. There was a good exchange of ideas and approaches which made me thankful for the chance to be a part of the King of Kings visitation.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

November 5, 2017 - All Saints Day - Blest Be The Tie That Binds

We didn't sing the familiar hymn Blest Be The Tie That Binds for All Saints Day worship this Sunday but the words floated through me as I listened to Pastor Ray's sermon.

He preached that when we use the word blessed many often associate a gift God has given, material comfort, health, perhaps security in life. Pastor Ray pointed out that Jesus is not using blessed with this association in today's Gospel Matthew 5:1-12. According to Pastor Ray in this gospel Jesus blesses people prone to be overlooked in this world.

Which brings us to the question, is Jesus giving blessings to the overlooked or is he drawing attention to blessings they already have?

The overlooked, the true and the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers and the persecuted are all involved in relationship to a larger community. Perhaps Jesus is also acknowledging the blessing of the ties we share. The kingdom of God dwells in those ties.

Pastor Ray referenced Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth in Schindler's List and Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in the plot of the film. He laid out the story of how Schindler tries to persuade the SS second Lieutenant how true power is the ability to show mercy rather than in killing someone but, as Pastor Ray explained, it did not "take".

This is not surprising. Oskar Schindler develops deep human relationship with his Jewish workforce. The ring they give him has the Talmudic quotation: "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.". This attests to that relationship in a special way. There is the recognition that the fact other lives may be lost does not alter what can be done saving the world life by life.

Pastor Ray preached about how easy it is to read Matthew 5:1-12 as a set of moral targets - what a good person should be - meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers but that reading doesn't quite work for mourning and being persecuted. Even more dangerously, read this way in can become a way to excuse ourselves. We will not be perfect. God does not ask us to make a utopia of this world. Again, the ring in Schindler's List focuses on this directly. It pulls Schindler from excuses and roots him back in relationship, as is shown in his reaction. The kingdom of God can and does exist now.
Photo by Ron Houser

We offered a prayer of remembrance and lit candles for all the saints we remembered and of every age. As I watched the faces of those who went up to light a candle I could see the solemn honor they felt for those they were memorializing in the simple act. It felt like a great witnessing. and I remembered many of the saints in my life.

Creator has don many things in the past but simply lighting candles provided a beautiful expression of what many of us felt at that moment.

Monday, October 30, 2017

October 29, 2017 - Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost - Reformation - Creator's 2017 Confirmation and "Living Wet"

Pastor Ray challenged us in his sermon to "live wet" (by remembering our baptism) and went on to detail what that means in celebrating and affirming our faith.

Jesus teaches in today's Gospel lesson that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin but "to continue (Greek, meno, literally, abide, dwell, or tabernacle) in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free."

Altar with Banners and Baptismal Font
Living wet, living the gospel is about continuing... remembering who we are and is not about believing the right words. The Judeans who believed him the Gospel records answer back to this "We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone." Jesus is teaching about abiding in relationship and they respond by falling back on their history and birth rite.

Particularly in this time where crowds chanting "blood and soil" in America are defended under a blanket statement a presidential observation that "there are very fine people on both sides", this may serve as a potent reminder of an ongoing importance of The Reformation in the 500th anniversary commemoration of its beginning.

According to Martin Luther as Christians we are simultaneously free from all things -- that is, no one can determine our future with God -- and yet bound in service to all persons -- committed to their wellbeing and advancement. In the history I was taught in school the Reformation was all about the 95 Theses and Luther's criticism of the selling of indulgences.

Pastor Ray brought up the first thesis in his preaching and that guides attention to the first five:

1.When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2.This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
3.Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.
4.The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
5.The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.


The emphasis, perhaps, should be more on relationship than indulgences. The theses lay out new understandings of Christian relationships with the Pope, clergy and with each other that we are still trying to perfect today.

The sermon today reaffirmed the constant need to understand that we are all created in the image of God, a truth to contradict the lies of all economic, racial, sexual, "purity" and work-based valuations that are placed on all of us. It also affirmed  salvation is about community restoration of relationships, and not just the individual. Yet if this becomes another tribal identity to adopt nothing has progressed spiritually. There should be a constant refining of this move away from new, tribal understandings of relationship with God based on how we identify ourselves.

Jacob, Aidan, Meiling and Kai
Christian freedom then is not from freedom as American society understands freedom based on self-reliance and independence, however important that political freedom may be. Instead this is a freedom to be in relationship with God and each other because of a call that we are created for these relationships and we cannot be free apart from them.

Today we also celebrated the Affirmation of Baptism of Jacob, Aidan, Meiling and Kai with the Profession of Faith, Affirmation and Laying on of Hands. They read their Faith Statements to the congregation. After the service there was a Harvest Party / Chili Cook-off fundraiser for the youth.

Today my prayer is that we continue to refine our understanding of life in the way and that we keep our eyes on the truth we know that sets us free.

Monday, October 23, 2017

October 22, 2017 - Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost - Made in God's Image

Sunday Worship and the Adult Forum can summarize or consolidate a week's worth of thinking about what being a Christian and following God means.

First, some background on what I focused on this past week might be helpful. After the Rob Bell Adult Forum my wife Mary searched for information about Rob Bell. She watched a documentary called The Real Roots of the Emerging Church to gain  a better understanding of Emerging Christianity, which she understands plays a big part of Creator's community life, as evidenced in our Convergence membership.

In her wisdom Mary watched this apologetic for a more fundamentalist or "traditional" view of Christianity, and rather than focus on their criticisms she instead outlined their categories and descriptions of their observations and views of the Emerging Church. The documentary attempts to steer clear of personal attacks on individuals and target their teachings. They do not succeed but the more important takeaway is their charge of the "bad theology" in what they call the movement's apostasy.

My first inclination is to simply invoke a rubber-and-glue reversal,  to label theirs as the "bad theology" but I'll delve deeper. They outline their reasons for judging this to be a product of postmodern epistemological error. They start with claims where "fact" and "truth" are used interchangeably.  They understand the Emerging Church to be an outgrowth of a postmodern perception of the world.

The narrator states "At the heart of postmodern errors is a rejection of truth as universal and absolute, as unchanging and knowable. Christians base their faith upon the fact that God has spoken through his son Jesus Christ.  Thus language must be capable of conveying truth." Then their author Eric Ludy proclaims, "Christianity is very clear in its historical roots that we find our moorings and our basis on the fact the Bible is fact. Our experiences are not our lead instrument. Postmodernism uses experience as the lead instrument and sticks fact in the background".

I personally hold a faith that the Bible conveys truth in a unique way, but not on the "fact that the Bible is fact". I don't agree historically that Christians would all accept this. I believe, as many adherents to an Emerging Church view likely do, that scriptural language is capable of conveying truth and does this above and beyond fact. To give one example, Jesus mostly used parables for his teaching. Parables illustrate spiritual truths without relying on "factual" accounts. Does that mean nothing in the Bible can be read as factual? Obviously not and I do not feel there is a slippery slope in thinking the Biblical truth is not based on "the fact the Bible is fact".

As a Lutheran, and more broadly as a Protestant, I currently have the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in mind. The historical impact of the Reformation was undeniable. Yet scripture did not change (although access via translation did change), historical "facts" did not change, God's nature did not change. Some men's understanding of now God is manifest in the world changed based on how scriptures were understood.

Karen Armstrong has written a book titled A History of God. In reading this book there is a sense of new revelations man makes about God. Historically God can be seen and understood as a tribal God. Scripture, when looked at from that perspective, conveys something very different. To say God never changes and so our understanding of God cannot change does not bear up to close scrutiny for me.

There are even Bible passages that describe this spiritual evolution, Romans 8:19-22: "The whole creation is eagerly waiting for the full revelation of the children of God. . . . From the beginning until now, the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth." 

Defining deconstruction as a tool that makes all truth claims subjective puzzles me as an English major. Objective fact is supported by evidence. Deconstruction is a poor tool to refute factual evidence. That said, is "bad theology" behind this documentary? I will say the arguments so far do not convince me today.

Back to this Sunday's Worship, Pastor Ray used a compact mirror during the Children's Talk and had them look into the mirror and asked them what they saw. This was to physically illustrate for them the word for Εἰκὼν in the Gospel reading, which Pastor Ray pointed out could be translated as image instead of head as printed in the bulletin. Pastor Ray tied this to associations with God and image in Genesis.

This is also an example of where the all-encompassing claims the documentary made on "facts" and "truth" confuses rather than clarifies. Genesis reads man is created in the image of God. Does this establish the "fact" that God has a physical body like man's? Looking at an image of someone the mirror, should this be described as looking at an image of God? If a coin has an image of an emperor with the inscription God or Son of God is that inscription accurate?

Thinking of everything in the Bible as factual will not lead to an answer for any of those questions.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

October 15, 2017 - Pastor Ray's Installation Service

This was the afternoon for Pastor Ray's Installation Service. Many attendees made noteworthy efforts to be there just based on geographical distance and I touched base with many people I had not seen for a long while and met several for the first time.

I have attended other pastoral installations and a bishop installation.  Each was a unique event. However, until today, I did not realize that pastors select their own readings for their installation service. Knowing that gave me the feeling this service provided a privileged perspective into Pastor Ray both as an individual  his ministry

Musically Matt, Shirley, Tini,  myself, Kim, Valentine at various times led the music. Leading with the number of pastors that were there who were all strong singers dramatically changed the dynamics of leading when compared to a standard Sunday service. I found myself hearing different deliveries at different times which helped me explore new approaches to familiar songs, very much like singing at Synod Assemblies in the past.

The new music for the congregation was just as intriguing. In Christ Alone came across like a pledge or promise and many did know this song even though it has not been part of worship at Creator before (the choir did sing it as part of a medley in a 2015 special music program). Creator is familiar with Tim Hughes' Beautiful One as a Praise Song. God of Justice evoked a quiet but similar sense of personal revelation about a discovered relationship with God   

Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Susan, gave the sermon and she began by talking about how Creator could throw a party, referring to Pastor Dayle's January 10, 2016 Retirement Party. January 10th was the day when this current blog started. Given today's blog on today's Parable of the Great Banquet, it also felt appropriate and that there was another chapter closing and a new one opening. Creator is a congregation that celebrates milestones and there was a reception today after the service where the hospitality was evident.

In many different moments the congregation and Pastor Ray demonstrated this was a strong beginning to Pastor Ray's ministry here at Creator.

October 15, 2017 - Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Accepting God's Invitation to the Extraordinary Banquet

On first encounter Eva's emotional response to a merciful and gracious God (rather than the vindictive God of her past that she gave us on October 1st) appears misplaced when Jesus teaches this parable is what the kingdom of heaven is like. I wrote last week that God does not share the beliefs of the chief priests and scribes. Perhaps I need to examine this more. Does God, in fact, put wretches to a miserable death, and will lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Does Jesus truly teach us that the kingdom of God is like the king here who prepares a wedding banquet for his son, invites "worthy" people to his party and ends up killing everyone who refuses the invitation and burns their city?

Yes, those invited seized, mistreated and killed the king's slaves. Yet it is odd to hear about the king's reaction retaliatory violence comes from Jesus the Jesus in my heart. Jesus taught that "All who live by the sword will die by the sword."?

Also, the king here acts directly from human authority, which is not God's default way of wielding power as I see affirmed in scripture. The king commands a guest be bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." because the guest is not wearing the right clothes to the banquet. Do I deny an outer darkness exists because I am uncomfortable with the outer darkness? No.

Given this should I worry about cosmic or kingdom of heaven consequences if I am not properly dressed for this afternoon's reception after Pastor Ray's installation?

Possibly.

Today I see this as a cautionary parable regarding Jesus' teaching on the kingdom of heaven. After all, he tells this parable at the time to those who reject his overall teaching and misunderstand God's grace in favor of life as it is normally lived and judged. In other words Jesus was telling this to people like me, to people like us.

Reading the parable again there are hard-to-focus-on details due to my understanding of how this world and daily life works. However, let me try to focus on them.

First of all, the king obviously starts off in a celebratory mood. The initial guests are invited to the banquet and the king becomes angry when the invitations are first ignored and ultimately, forcefully refused.

I recognize we read parables with expectations. When Jesus teaches us about the kingdom of heaven we look for explanations or clues to make his teaching of the kingdom fit with our comprehension. As I laid out at the beginning, this parable challenges my understanding of the kingdom of heaven and God. So I am faced with the parable as an invitation to the kingdom of God and I'm faced with the same decision as those first invitees. Can I wholeheartedly accept a good news invitation to the kingdom of heaven that comes from God's grace?

To do so might receive a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven here and now. I have, at times, known that foretaste. If not, which is by far easier thing to do and often my normal state, I ignore and reject the invitation and must rely on God's help to not resort to seizing, mistreating or killing the invitation's messengers. Why would I not accept the good news? A sense of identity, fear, shame and inadequacy are all contributing factors

Ignoring or rejecting this invitation, however innocently or forcefully, in daily life may be par for the course in the world. This is a parable that explores the pursuit of different choices which lead to different consequences regarding the kingdom of heaven. Refusing the invitation leads to death. Whether I understand what that death means in this parable, it is clear that accepting God's invitation is a better spiritual choice.

After the initial guests are dealt with, spreading inviting both "the good and the bad" is familiar Jesus territory and reinforces their message. In many other parables like the Wheat and Weeds. we are admonished from judging those who might, by some, be called "bad" or "losers". Attempts at identifying and / or snubbing "bad" or "evil" is not something that God requires.

My understanding of this parable this morning is that Jesus places importance on not ignoring God's invitation, whether we are  "good" or "bad". Attending the banquet and being transformed by that attendance is the right choice. Yet we may not choose to for any number of reasons. Perhaps we are lost, or distracted by our fields of interest, or our business, or our sense of wanting to be worthy of the kingdom and coming up short.

Which leads us back to the man without the proper wedding garment. Jesus says the king commands his servants "So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find." Pastor Ray noted that historically wedding garments were supplied to the guests which makes sense here. It is unlikely that the guests were already wearing wedding clothes on the street nor would they all have access to the clothes to match what the event would demand.

So, for whatever reason, this man sticks out. Something that happened with everyone else did not happen with him. The king does not immediately order him to be bound and thrown out. His response seems to trigger the king's reaction when asked "How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?"  Suppose he had answered with, "I was invited along with everyone else." or "Haven't a clue, where do I get them?" rather than simply being speechless. I wonder if the king would then have understood this guest recognized the invitation for what it was and was now ready to be part of the wedding.

Finally the concluding "Many are called but few are chosen" continues to turn over in my heart. Enigmatic words on closer examination. The statement is almost like a koan, designed to move us from our reason to a deeper faith. Does the king or God choose or judge who gets to heaven? If so, is it an arbitrary decision or is there a criteria? How does this fit in with God's grace? Is being a guest at the wedding mean being part of the kingdom of heaven? If this is so, the parable suggests that many were called and many were chosen. This may indicate the kingdom of heaven does not fit in neatly with our understanding that is rooted in the world.

Ultimately, are these questions and meditations possible ways of accepting God's invitation to the kingdom of heaven or are they examples of rejecting the good news?

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Only By Grace... "But you have to do..."

Only by Grace... "But you must believe..."

Only by Grace... "But you must stop..."

Only by Grace... "But you cannot be..."
 .
Only by Grace.

Grace is scandalous to paradigms and rubrics of worthiness, isn't it?