Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Game of Thrones, Jesus, and the Syrian Civil War

God of peace, help us to understand your word so that we might share it with the world in all we say and do. Amen.

After some pressure from friends, including one of them lending me a set of DVDs, I finally gave in. I started watching Game of Thrones.
It’s a very compelling story, even though there’s gratuitous nudity and too many sex scenes for my taste. I guess that’s what you get with HBO.
The basic premise of Game of Thrones is that there’s a country that has been ruled by various families in the different regions, and now they’re fighting to see who can rule the entire kingdom, with each family laying claim to the throne. Meanwhile, there’s a group of folks who are not supposed to be allied with any one family, who are trying to fight off the monsters who live behind an enormous wall that has been protecting the kingdom from impending winter and destruction.

Dysfunctional fighting within and between families, with even more dangerous threats coming to them all from outside sources.
It’s not exactly a happy story. But, as I said, it’s compelling.

One of the most interesting things to me about this series is how complex the characters are. There’s no single protagonist. As soon as you start thinking that a particular person is the true hero who really deserves the throne, she or he does something that you can’t quite understand, that makes you like them a little less.
Now, to be sure, there are some characters who are more likeable than others. But there’s no clear good side or bad side, and alliances are constantly changing. It’s not like Harry Potter or Star Wars or a comic book or one of Grimm’s fairy tales.
Many of our favorite stories have a blatant divide between good and evil. In Game of Thrones, however, everyone falls somewhere in between.
Perhaps this is why the series is so compelling. It’s more realistic than many of the stories that we love. It would be nice if the whole world could really be divided into wicked witches and heroic princesses – and that’s why we love our fairy tales. But real life is much more complicated than that.

Take Syria, for example.
In 2011, peaceful protestors were imprisoned and killed by the government, led by Bashar al-Assad, who is still the president of Syria. Some military folks rebelled against the government by joining the protestors and starting their own Free Syrian Army, with the goal of overthrowing Assad.
In the past five years, rebel groups have been reimagined a few times, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has joined in the conflict against them and Assad. The Kurds are fighting against ISIS, the government and the rebels. Outside countries including the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states have taken sides. By providing money, weapons, and soldiers, some of these outside forces support Assad’s government, some support ISIS, some support one of the rebel groups, and some support the Kurds.

It’s a complicated conflict, with more than two sides, with changing alliances, and with no clear “good guys” or “bad guys.”
And while all the fighting continues, the folks that are taking the biggest hit are the civilians    who have not taken up arms.
The first casualties of the war were peaceful protestors, fired on by Assad in 2011. This is what started the civil war.
In 2013, Assad first used chemical weapons against rebels – the kind of weapons that always kill bystanders as well as the intended targets.
And the violence continues to get worse. As you’ve heard on the news, millions of Syrians are displaced, who have fled their hometowns and in some cases their home country in search of somewhere safe to live.
And when I say millions, I mean about half of the country’s population. That’s a lot of displaced people.
And as you’ve probably heard on the news in recent days, people in Aleppo, which is the largest city in Syria (or used to be), are basically under siege and awaiting evacuation, but a series of cease-fire agreements have been made and violated and ignored.
Even those who are waiting to be taken out of the city fear that they won’t be taken to a place of safety – because there are so many sides to this conflict, the place that is taking in the refugees still might not be a safe place for everyone.

What most citizens want is simply to be able to live in their homes without fear of violence or attack.
But the multi-faceted conflict in Syria has ensured that everyday citizens can’t have what they want, at least not right now. While they wait, they are being killed or displaced or denied access to food and medical care while their homes and neighborhoods have become battlegrounds.
The Syrian people have been caught in the middle of the deadliest conflict in the 21st century. They are experiencing war crimes.

The situation in Syria is dire.
So why am I talking about it today?
Today is the last Sunday in the season of Advent – the season of hope and joy and peace and love, during which we prepare for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as well as the coming of Christ again someday.
There are several ways in which the current situation in Syria relates to our Christian faith, particularly in this season of Advent.

First, and most obviously, there is a geographic and historic connection between the Bible and the conflict raging in Syria today.
Ahaz is a king of Judah, who speaks with God in Isaiah 7.
Ahaz fears losing his kingdom to a threatening army, so he goes against God’s will and makes an alliance with a stronger army, from Assyria.
Assyria, of course, includes the region that we now know as Syria.
Ahaz’s alliance falls flat when the king of Assyria demands allegiance from Judah, and eventually takes away their independence.

The example of Ahaz can teach us that compromising your God for the sake of your country is never a good idea.
And, at least as important in today’s political climate, Ahaz’s mistakes can remind us that Israel, Syria, and neighboring places have been in conflict for thousands of years. There have been long-standing struggles for power, alliances made and broken, and complicated conflicts that make it seem like no one is truly the good guy or the bad guy, but that everyone falls somewhere in between.
This is the political climate that the Hebrew people lived in, every day.
This is the uncertainty that exists in the Middle East, and specifically in Syria, today.
This is the environment into which Jesus, our savior, was born.
So, the first connection between today’s news headlines and the story of Jesus is geographical and historical.

Second, and more theoretical or ideological, the current situation in Syria is connected with our Christian faith because God tells us to love and act on behalf of those who are oppressed.
The prophets tell us that true worship is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) The Lord’s command to the people is to act with justice and righteousness, delivering others from their oppressors, and protecting the strangers and the powerless people in society.  (Jeremiah 22:1-3)
In the Psalms, we hear that God is a stronghold for the oppressed, but crushes the oppressor. (9:9; 72:4)
Basically, the conflict in Syria matters to our Christian faith because the people caught in the middle are the ones that God loves – and they are the ones that God expects us to love.
The history of God’s people is full of stories about God sending some kind of salvation to the people when they are in their most dire need – this is the basis of the Exodus story, and even of the birth of Jesus.

This brings us to the final and most important connection between our preparations for Christmas and the current conflict in Syria:    Jesus himself.
We are preparing to celebrate the birth of a child whose parents were displaced from their homes, who had to flee from government persecution shortly after the child’s birth, and who were innocent bystanders in the political games that were being played in their society. Our savior, Jesus, has more in common with the civilians in Aleppo than he does with nearly anyone else you’ll ever meet.
Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem because of a governmental decree, which is why Jesus was born in a stable. It was the only shelter available.
Jesus was a refugee as a child. When Herod issued a death sentence for all children born the same year as him, Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt to escape the violence.
Throughout his ministry, and even through his trial and execution, Jesus was caught in the middle of power struggles. He was tried by the Roman authorities and the Jewish authorities, and by the masses, after being betrayed and denied by his own followers. Jesus was caught in the middle of multifaceted conflicts.

If we are going to celebrate the birth of our Messiah, who lived close to present-day Syria, in lands that once were ruled by the same empire – Jesus, who spent time as a political refugee, and who was caught in the middle of complex power struggles – if we want to show our devotion to this Savior, who gave his life for us and through whom we are promised eternal life – if we hope to honor the Gospel, the good news that Jesus is to the world – what better way to celebrate Jesus than to support the victims of the Syrian civil war?

The birth of Jesus is good news.
Even Joseph, who didn’t know what to make of Mary’s pregnancy at first, came around with just a slight nudge from the angel in his dream. He stayed with Mary and raised Jesus as his own son.
And until Jesus comes back to earth again, or until the day when we get to meet him face to face, as followers of Jesus, it is our job to continue his work in this world.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, and bring good news to the poor. (Matt 11:5)
Bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly. Fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53-53)
Help those who are in any need, knowing that by doing so, we are serving Christ himself. (Matt 25:40)
This is what the holiday season is truly about. Advent, as we prepare the way for the Lord, is a time for us to look around us, to find those who are in the most desperate need, and to give of ourselves until it hurts so that they can have their most basic human needs met.
It is what Joseph and Mary did for Jesus.
It is what Jesus did for us.
So in this Advent, as we await the coming again of our Savior, I pray that we all will find ways to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, shelter the refugee, and care for the sick and wounded. Especially those from Syria. It is our Christian calling.

A sermon originally preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016. For audio of the sermon, visit 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Speaking Truth

God of grace, speak to us today. Help us to listen, to understand, and to respond in faith to your word. Amen.

You know that the pastors don’t pick out the Bible readings for worship, right? At this church, we generally follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year cycle of readings that was selected many years ago by a committee of people who were trying to make sure that worshippers – not just Lutherans, but Christians across denominations – would hear from all the Gospels, all of Paul’s letters, as many of the Psalms as possible, and a wide range of books and stories and styles of writing from the Old Testament. The readings for this Sunday are the ones that show up every third year as we get close to Advent.

And what readings they are for today. Jesus tells us:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. (from Luke 21)

Wow. This is not the Jesus I remember from Sunday School lessons and nativity scenes.
What happened to warm fuzzy Jesus who welcomes the children and shepherds the sheep? Where is gentle Jesus, meek and mild, infant holy, infant lowly?

Well, as it turns out, the Jesus of Sunday School stories is not always the same as the Jesus of Scripture. There are many times when Jesus was a rabble-rouser, when he said or did things that ticked people off.

One of the wonderful things about Jesus, as we meet him in Scripture, is that he tells it like it is. Jesus does not mince words. When something needs to be named, Jesus calls it out!

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is calling out the complacency of the faithful people around him. Things are so good, they said.
Jesus replied – just wait.
Things are not what they seem.

Yes, this temple is beautiful and we are at our prime as a society right now in many ways. But under the surface, a revolution is simmering.
Workers are underpaid.
Women are objectified.
Immigrants are abused, and prejudice about ethnic groups is harming our community.
Health care is reserved for the privileged, and those in power cannot see the needs of their neighbors.
The poor are ignored and mistreated.
People are afraid for their lives.
It cannot stay this way, says Jesus.
Something’s gotta give.

Jesus sees injustice, and Jesus calls it out. His entire ministry was based around the imbalance of power in his society, and the need for people to see and love and respect one another. Why else would he heal lepers and care for widows? Jesus’ ministry was subversive because he told the truth, and acted on it.
And the truth in today’s lesson is that the people in power are self-centered, self-righteous, and unfaithful to the commands of God.

Anyone who knows anything about unfaithfulness in the Bible knows that God treats it as the ultimate sin. Whenever God’s people stray from God’s commands, they are sent to wander in the wilderness for 40 years; or are subjected to exile in Babylon; or the single nation founded on the Scriptures is divided in two, based on different interpretations of God’s word. It’s all in the Bible – this is the history of Israel. These are the circumstances into which the prophets preached, and during which the Psalms were written. With a few peaceful exceptions, the people of God spent much of their history being unfaithful to God, at the societal level, and God punished them for it.

It’s coming, Jesus says. We are being unfaithful again. And so the destruction and the punishment will be coming again. The central place of worship will be destroyed, and there will be political upheaval.

Jesus can read the writing on the wall and he doesn’t mince words in his predictions. He warns us of the terrible things to come.
And yet.
Even though he knows that disaster is imminent – even though he can see how the people are bringing about their own destruction – Jesus holds out hope. “Not a hair on your heads will perish,” he says.

Jesus holds out hope – for life, and for a better future.
Isaiah does the same, in today’s Old Testament reading.

While the Scriptures are full of stories of the people of God being unfaithful and bringing about their own destruction, the Bible also give us hope for better times. Isaiah talks about a new heaven and a new earth. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

If we are living in the moments immediately prior to the creation of a new heaven and a new earth – if we are part of those “former times” – it must seem like the end of the word to us.
But even if we can’t see it yet, something better is coming. God will rejoice in the people and there will be no more pain or sorrow. The people will be safe in the new reality that awaits. That is what the vision from Isaiah promises.

That whole section that begins “they shall build houses and live in them” – that is a response to an earlier prophetic warning, when the people of Israel were about to be taken into exile. The prophet Zephaniah warned the people about the results of their unfaithfulness before they were taken into exile in Babylon. He told the people that disaster would be coming:
Their wealth shall be plundered,
    and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
    they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
    they shall not drink wine from them. (Zeph 1:13)

Isaiah is writing after the people have returned from the Babylonian exile. So he repurposes the words of Zephaniah for his own day, for a better time, for an era when the people are rebuilding their society and reigniting their relationship with God.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
 they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
 they shall not plant and another eat;
They shall not labor in vain,
 or bear children for calamity. (Is 65:21-23, edited)

Even when things seem hopeless, there is a long history of rebuilding and restoration for us to remember. Where Jesus calls out a world of injustice, Isaiah looks forward to a world of peace.
Both can be true.
And both hold out a ray of hope.

The world may be unjust today, as it was in Jesus’ time, but that does not mean that there is no possibility for things to get better. Even in times of tragedy and sorrow, God is there. God has the power to bring peace. When our institutions and sacred places have been knocked to the ground, God can help us rebuild.

Not a hair on our head will perish, Jesus promises.
Of course, this comes immediately after he says that some of us will be put to death.
Which is it, Jesus? Utter safety or death at the hands of people we love?
Again – both can be true.

Some of us will be able to survive the destruction unscathed. Those of us who are members of the ruling class, who have power in society, who have the right skin color or family structure or connections – even if we are lamenting the horror of the destruction, we will probably be safe.
Those of us who have fewer material resources, we who are women, we who love who society says we should not, those of us who do not fit into the normative mold created by the ruling classes – we will have a harder time. Our lives are at risk.

During the Roman occupation of Israel, which was going on in Jesus’ time, some people were safe. Some people chose to cooperate with the authorities and they lived to fight another day. And some people in those days did not or could not cooperate with the ruling class.
As women, half of the population was automatically discredited. People from Samaria were treated like second-class citizens. People were not treated as though they were all equally created in the image of God.
And yet, we know this to be true.
Each and every one of us really, truly, has been created in the image of God. Every person has value. God loves and honors every single one of us. Jesus believed that, and he lived it out in his ministry that healed the sick, fed the hungry, proclaimed freedom to the captive and let the oppressed go free!
And it got him executed.

Both safety – if Jesus had chosen that route… and a death sentence – if Jesus treated everyone as a child of God.
But even the death sentence can be good news. Remember that even though he was put to death, Jesus did not stay in that tomb! Through his death, he conquered death, and through his resurrection, we all are promised eternal life in the kingdom of God.

We have the example of Jesus to live by, and we have the hope of Isaiah to sustain us. The example of Jesus is not always hopeful, and the vision of Isaiah does not always seem realistic. But both of these ways of seeing the world are true, they are faithful, and they have great precedent in Scripture.

For many of us today, we see the world self-destructing, or we look around and see things that are appalling to us – our family relationships are deteriorating over political issues. Some of our loved ones are afraid of their neighbors, and some of our children or grandchildren are reporting awful behavior from their schools. You might even be afraid of what the future will hold for you.

Isaiah promises peace.
Jesus promises life.
And following in the long tradition of the prophets and martyrs, I believe that we are also called to action, while we await the coming of that peace and life. 

When things seem hopeless around us, we the people are left to declare God’s goodness in the face of evil. Without our Messiah in our midst today, we the people are the ones who can carry on the message of Jesus. As it says in the Gospel lesson, we are called upon to testify! Our job is to testify to the values of Jesus:  
Workers deserve fair pay.
Women are not objects.
Immigrants and ethnic groups are children of God who we are to welcome into our communities.
Health care is meant for all people, and those in power must be made to see the needs of their neighbors.
The poor can no longer be ignored and mistreated.
People are afraid for their lives. But if we treat everyone as Jesus wants us to treat them, then no one needs to be afraid any more. Love is love. So love one another, just as God in Christ loves you.

Even in the midst of apparent disaster, God is with us. God has the power to bring peace. And we have the power to be the agents of change. It may not be easy, and it may not even be safe, but that is the example that Jesus sets for us and expects us to follow.

When the world is tumbling down around us, we cannot hide from the reality of life – we are called upon to remain faithful to God. Faithfulness means working for justice, and preparing for the new heaven and the new earth that we know are on the way.
God gives us hope for a new world to come, and our courageous action is our faithful response. It is our job to tell it like it is – to speak truth to power, and to advocate for the underprivileged. Just like Jesus did.

May God, who has taught us these things, give us the wisdom and the courage to do them.

A sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, Nov. 13, 2016, the Sunday after election day.  Based on Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Reformation Red

Holy Spirit, move among us. Help us to hear your word, to understand, to live it out, and to share it with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

My favorite liturgical color is red.
Many of you already knew this about me.
But allow me to explain.
Fair warning – this is going to get a little bit church nerdy for a minute.

Each season and festival in the church year has an assigned color. That color is used for the paraments, which means the cloths on the altar and pulpit and the stoles that the pastors wear, and sometimes other decorations in the church building. If you have seen pastors wearing chasubles or copes or other fancy colorful robes, those match the seasonal color too.

Each liturgical color ends up having a different meaning.
White or gold mean Jesus and resurrection. Christmas and Easter are white or gold, as is All Saints’ Sunday, which we’ll celebrate next week. Christ the King and Transfiguration also use white – basically, any time we’re celebrating Jesus or resurrection, white and gold are the colors to use!
In Lent, while we are preparing for Good Friday through a season of repentance and refocusing on God, the color is purple. So purple is for penitence.
Advent is blue. This might be new to you, if you grew up in a church that used purple for Advent. But Advent is for anticipation, not repentance. So purple is used in Lent – only – and blue is the color used for Advent, the season of waiting and anticipating the birth of our savior.  
Green is for ordinary time. Really. That’s what the church calls the long season that stretches through the summer and into the fall, when there are no major church festivals or holidays. It’s also called the season after Pentecost, since that was the most recent major church festival… about 23 weeks ago.
Green is used for the in-between times, for those days that don’t celebrate anything in particular except another wonderful morning to remember our relationship with God.

White, gold, purple, blue, green. The other liturgical color is red.
Red is the color of the Holy Spirit. Red is used on Pentecost and to celebrate saints and martyrs. The color red is reminiscent of the blood of the martyrs, and also of the flames that appeared on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them.
And red is used on Reformation Sunday.
Once a year, Lutherans and other Protestants remember the courage of those faithful people who stood up to the church in their day and took a stand for the Holy Spirit, and against the institution of established religion.
This means that Reformation Day is a Holy Spirit holiday – it’s a time for us to remember that God continues to move among us, to inspire people, to work for change, and to teach us new things.

Some people treat Reformation Sunday solely as a time to celebrate the European reformers, generally dead white guys who popularized a particular way of interpreting Scripture. To confine Reformation Sunday to history, I think, is to do it a serious injustice.
The point of the Protestant Reformation is to acknowledge that God’s revelation to humankind didn’t stop with the biblical book of Revelation. The Holy Spirit has broken the barrier between human and divine, and continues to do so!
We don’t call this day “Lutheran history celebration” or “1517 revisited” or “feast of the 95 theses.”
We call this day Reformation Sunday because the church continues to be formed and changed and formed again when we pay attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Lutheranism isn’t about commemorating a particular day in the 1500s when some German law student who was afraid of dying in a thunderstorm promised God he’d become a monk if only he made it through the storm.
Lutheranism isn’t about a German priest posting 95 complaints about the church in his day on a public bulletin board, that happened to double as a church door.
Lutheranism isn’t about a priest being excommunicated for his insistence that the pope isn’t the only one who can rightly interpret Scripture.

Lutheranism isn’t about continually exalting our northern European ancestors in the faith, who joined the Reformation either by royal edict or moral conviction, and then proceeded to tie cultural practices to their theological beliefs.
Lutheranism really isn’t primarily about Martin Luther, or about Germans or Norwegians or Swedes, or Jell-O, or even lefse. 
Lutheranism is about the Holy Spirit.
That’s why the altar and the pulpit and the pastor wear red today.
The Reformation is about seeing the activity of God in the world around us – in every culture, in every language, in everyday people – and not just in the priests and professors who make it their life’s work to study religion.
The Holy Spirit can speak just as clearly through you as through the pope. That is what the Reformation was about. 

From a thunderstorm 500 years ago, to letters and papers from a Birmingham jail, Reformation Day proclaims that there’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place!
We lean on the everlasting arms of the mighty fortress that is our God, singing with a blessed assurance that Jesus loves you and me!
Through music and writing, rainbows and thunderstorms, protests and worshipping congregations – God is not done with us yet.
The Holy Spirit still has something to tell us about how to know God and how to live in community with one another.
The current capital campaign for the ELCA is called “Always Being Made New.” That is what it means to be a church of the Reformation – we believe that God still has more to teach us. Beyond the Scriptures and the witness of the church, the Holy Spirit can speak directly to each and every one of us. God is constantly re-forming the church and making it in to something new!

Consider today’s Gospel story. What would have happened if Zaccheaus had believed that God didn’t speak to humankind any more – that the Scriptures were there, and no additional relationship with God was needed?
He would never have climbed that tree, Jesus would never have seen him, he would never have become the example that he is for us today, and – perhaps most important of all – we would not have that catchy Sunday School song that nearly everyone here could probably still sing by memory!
Zaccheaus was willing to meet Jesus, to welcome him into his home, and to learn something from him about the nature of God, even when it made him uncomfortable.
Our call, as people of a re-forming church, is to be willing to meet God, to welcome the Spirit into our homes, and to learn new things about the nature of God, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Reform can be a loaded word in today’s society.
Education reform             Healthcare reform
Voting reform                    Political reform
As Lutherans, we are asked to always reform, to continue reshaping every aspect of our lives. We can’t get settled in to “the way it’s always been” – that is the least Lutheran thing imaginable! The Holy Spirit is alive and well, and still speaking to us in new and exciting ways! Every time we learn new information or receive new revelation from God, our Lutheran duty and our responsible response is to reform what we believe and incorporate what is new into an ever-expanding understanding of the world.

All those social reform ideas – they’re important! Nothing should ever be so established that it is unquestionable.
That is the lesson of Reformation Sunday. Nothing – not even our relationship with God – especially not our relationship with the church – nothing should ever be so established that it is unquestionable.
Ask questions! Challenge the status quo! Look for new ways of understanding the world! That is what Martin Luther did.
It got him kicked out of the Roman Catholic Church, but it also opened up a whole new way of seeing the world.
Thanks to Luther, we now allow all worshippers to receive bread and wine at Communion, not just the priests. Everyone is encouraged to read the Bible, in their own language and not in Latin, and discern how to apply it to their lives.

These are reforms that came eventually not just to the church that Luther instigated, but also to the Catholic Church. While Luther may have been excommunicated for his ideas, eventually even the church that defrocked him came to understand the importance of reform.
If we truly do believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who is worshipped and glorified alongside the Father and Son – if we believe that the Spirit has spoken through the prophets and the church – then we must believe that the Spirit continues to speak.
And we must continue to listen and respond.
That is what Reformation Sunday is all about.
That is what it means to be Lutheran.
That is what it means to be Christian.
If God can give a special revelation to some student in Germany in the 1500s, then why not also to you and to me?  
Thanks be to God. Amen.