I walked into the living room this morning. This time of year the entire space looks like a winter wonderland. There is not a square inch that is not filled with Christmas decorations: a collection of ten nutcrackers, five Christmas stockings, two trees, hundreds of lights, five advent calendars, and all kinds of knickknacks, wreaths and evergreen everywhere. The one collection that stands out most though are our currently 18 nativity scenes. They range from tiny candle holder to children’s toys to finely crafted olive wood straight from the Holy Land. We have amassed them over the years always looking for the perfect one. In the process we found out that there probably is no perfect one because we really love having this museum of variety in our living room.
Remember how I walked into the sanctuary last week?
There you will find a similar collection of nativity scenes. There are 26 of them currently. Some display the stable with child-like naivete. Some create a royal palace around the divine child. They come it all shapes and sizes.
Both at home and at church I am very diligent at making sure to take Jesus out of the scene where possible. The baby simply does not belong in the manger until Christmas. If he is glued in or otherwise attached I will not break the piece but a removable Jesus will be removed. That is good Christian practice to me because it sends a powerful message: Advent is not Christmas!
Advent derives from the latin adventus and means “coming”. Christ is still in the process of coming! He is not born yet. Our job is to be here tensely waiting. There is no fulfillment yet. There are no gifts yet. Expectation is building up. Advent wreath and calendar serve as countdown clocks to tell us: It is not Christmas yet! And there is great reward in expectant waiting.
The Stanford marshmallow experiment showed how important delayed gratification really is: Psychologist Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of series of children and left them alone with it for 15 minutes. Before he left he told them that they would get a second marshmallow if they did not eat the first one while he was away. Wait 15 minutes and add 100% – sounds like a great deal. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures.
Christ is in the process of coming. The baby has not hit the hay yet. There are no shortcuts.
The Holiday Season is in full swing and it comes with extreme expectations. We are supposed to connect with a big group of relatives that are hardly familiar on a very intimate level very quickly. Who does not have family around will experience loneliness and disconnect even more brutally. And then there is the obvious food trap.
I want to use the turkey as an allegory for the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. In November the turkey is all about overeating and overdoing all kinds of indulgences. Come January most people go cold turkey and forbid themselves pleasures via new year’s resolutions.
Please be conscious of these traps and treat your emotions like your glucose level. Do not get drawn into the emotional and relational expectations more than necessary. Do not submit your body and soul to a too harsh drop from feast to famine. Avoid the extremes this holiday season.
I walked into the sanctuary this morning. It’s Monday morning and I wanted to see how the Advent decorations looked this year. I wasn’t around to help set up the afternoon before. But I can tell: Everybody knows exactly what they are doing. Everybody knows exactly where each piece goes. It looks gorgeous – like every year. Then I started checking for the little things that are sometimes off: No, the tree is not crooked. No, the extension cords are in place and actually long enough. All is well. All is as it always has been.
I find that comforting. I like it when tradition keeps me grounded. I think it is healing in an ever more hectic and divided world that there is this bastion of togetherness and grandeur that just falls into place year after year. There is beautiful stability in knowing what’s going to happen: The smells, the bells, and all those little things that make the holidays merry and bright.
As I am floating through the sanctuary I lay my eyes on the dozens of nativity scenes that are neatly arranged along the windows. My mood changes. All of a sudden I find myself bored. It is kind of same old same old. How is the gospel of Jesus Christ supposed to come alive for a new generation, for a new day and age when we keep everything exactly the same year after year?
But that’s how a liturgical church works. Repeating rhythms come with opportunities and limitations. The paraments are also the same as every year. One shows the Alpha and the Omega, a reference to Revelations where the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Wow! There is the promise of newness in the same old same old. That’s why we do this: Because the new needs to be birthed out of what came before.
That is also reflected in the other parament with its Isaiah reference: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” That old kingdom of David is coming to new life and new fruition in an entirely different shape, form and context. Out of an ancient flower grows the cross of Christ. May this Advent season surprise you with its openness to an entirely new future and may its traditional same old symbols guide you into something fresh. It worked for me this morning in the sanctuary.
Thanksgiving is right around the corner. The story goes that the pilgrims thanked God for sustaining them in a strange and dangerous land. They had just escaped another grave set of dangers from their nemesis King James of England. Walking through the four centuries since then we discover a few kings that did not turn out so well.
King James is not the king. The pilgrims sure did not want to live under him. These separatists did not want to be a part of the king’s church so they preferred to risk the journey across the Atlantic instead.
King George III is not the king. The american colonies declared boldly: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels is not the king. He may have brought the first German settlers to Texas but along with the Adelsverein he did not make good on many of his promises: free land, safety and plenty of opportunities. A lot of it did not come to pass for many early settlers.
Adolf Hitler is not the king. He demanded worship for himself but the confessing church denounced him declaring: “We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfill the vocation of the Church as well.”
Jesus Christ is the king. This week the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of the liturgical calendar puts all of creation, including all of history under the lordship of Jesus Christ. No matter how terrific or horrific our leaders, past or present or future may be, their reign is subject to Christ’s reign. And their service will not be judged by how great they are but by how humble they are: “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)
Are you in Christ? Do you want to be in Christ?
You are and it does not matter if you want that!
Paul informed the Corinthians and by extension us: “Everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our death and resurrection are in God’s past!
We are in Christ not because we choose that or want that but because in Christ the whole world is a new creation.
Paul does not speak about an individual soul. Paul speaks about the whole cosmos: All times and all places are in Christ.
There is nothing and nobody that is not in Christ.
When Paul says Christ, Paul means Christ! This is not about people professing their faith. This is not about people joining a church. This is not at all about what people do. Reconciliation is an act of God. It may or may not show in a person’s life here on Earth. Again: Paul speaks about the whole cosmos: All times and places are in Christ. It does not matter for a person’s relationship with God whether they come to Jesus in this life. They are in Christ anyway, just because the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are big enough to blanket-cover all persons of all walks of life, no matter their faith or lack of faith. You don’t have to be a good Christian in order to be reconciled to God. God does the reconciling no matter what.
This is what this day is all about. Today we combine two observations: All Saints Day and Reformation Day. And Jesus Christ is where they come together: Martin Luther started the Reformation based on his discoveries that that we are pardoned sinners and God’s grace is indeed free. And All Saints Day is when the church remembers that all God’s children – living or dead – are in God’s hands.
Now let that one sink in: Paul goes even further and states: “God does not count their trespasses against them”. The free grace that God gives to the living and the dead applies to your friends and loved ones who are already dead: You may unearth the most horrific stories about your ancestors: God’s love is stronger than their sin. God will not count their sins against them because in Christ reconciliation has already happened. Again: Everything is done, taken care off. All sins are forgiven we owe God nothing, God owes us nothing. We’re even. All is well.
There is a problem though: Not everybody knows that. Maybe everybody has heard the message of free grace by now. Maybe everybody has some sort of hope for their deceased friends and relatives. But actually finding the peace in your heart that only full reconciliation brings is elusive. We forget. And doubt creeps in: “But God can’t be that good. But I messed up really bad.” Well, that’s where we come in. That’s what the church does. Each and everyone of us is an ambassador for Christ.
Even though this world is reconciled with God, we are not reconciled with one another. As ambassadors for Christ we have the ministry of reconciliation. That means we need to model and teach reconciliation: Now, how do you do that?
See yourself as reconciled with God.
See everyone as reconciled with God.
Act as if God were okay with you.
Act as if you were okay with yourself.
Act as if God were okay with everybody.
Act as if you were okay with everybody.
Those things are hard to do. On one hand we need to remind ourselves of God’s free grace and then we need to model what reconciliation looks like for the world. Looking at my own soul is not enough. Looking at the souls of my family and friends is not enough. As ambassadors of Christ our ministry does not stop at individual souls. One soul may be a starting point but the goal is to model and teach reconciliation to the whole cosmos. As ambassadors of Christ our job is to bring reconciliation
between Democrats and Republicans after the election,
between police and the communities they serve,
between black and white,
between gay and straight,
between men and women,
and between those who are not easily defined along those binaries.
Now, how do you do that?
The magic formula is to not compare your strengths with their weakness. Everyone can take what they are best at and compare it to another person’s weak spot. Now when groups, parties, ethnicities start doing that, reconciliation goes out the window. We need to remind them that we are all made new. We need to regard no one from a human point of view because the separations and distinctions of this world are fleeting and don’t count with God. It’s so easy to make others look bad. The challenge of reconciliation is to accept that God is okay with everybody.
There is another problem though:
The hardest part is to accept that God is okay with me.
I keep messing up.
I keep beating myself up.
But God doesn’t seem to get it because God keeps telling me I am okay.
I cannot forgive myself and keep hurting myself and those most dear to my heart.
But God doesn’t seem to get it because God keeps telling me I am okay.
I cannot believe that.
The only way I can stop hurting myself and those most dear to my heart is to believe that I am okay.
I must change!
I must be okay!
I can’t do that on my own accord.
God does that. It is the love of Christ that compels us.
Reconciliation takes a changed perspective and maybe it’s minimal.
God offers reconciliation no matter what. So the message of All Saints Day and Reformation Day is in a nutshell:
Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. These two men go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee does everything right, all the time, and he prays that way to. The tax collector is really down and with his crushed heart yells out: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
Be careful with this story. It’s a trap! It sets us up for failure. It is written in a way that you can only end up on the wrong side of the story. In very plain terms the obvious good guy is the penitent tax collector. Very clearly we are supposed to identify with him. But when you actually follow the logic of the parable and you want to be the tax collector you end up judging the Pharisee. Identifying with the tax collector we basically pride ourselves to not be like that guy – the Pharisee who thinks so highly of himself. But by doing so we think so incredibly highly of ourselves. So all of sudden as you identify with the tax collector you are turned into the Pharisee. By the way Jesus was a Pharisee, so he is criticizing his own here. And the whole thing revolves around the issue of prayer and the attitude with which you do your praying.
So let’s take a look at the two prayer attitudes that are in our story: The Pharisee is well situated: I love my God and I love my life. All is well with my soul! The tax collector is crushed: I hate myself and I hope God does not hate me the way I do! You could say they approach prayer as stereotypes of the optimist and the pessimist: One says the glass half full. For the other one the glass is half empty. But which is true now: Does God want you to feel good about yourself? Or does God want you to feel bad about yourself? The answer is: YES!
Prayer is many things but in its most basic forms it is: mourning one’s own misery and praising God’s glory. Both is true and both needs to be done. An honest wailing like Job’s or the lamentations of Jeremiah is cathartic. A loud and proud Hallelujah like all over the Psalms is uplifting. There are endless modes and attitudes of prayer. With over 3,000 named characters in the Bible you can be sure that they have at least 3,000 very distinct ways to pray.
Let’s analyze these two prayers here: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’
You know who prays that way? – Somebody who was taken advantage of.
He doesn’t want to be like a thief: He probably had something stolen from him.
He doesn’t want to be like a rogue: He probably was one as a teenager and has outgrown that.
He doesn’t want to be like an adulterer: He probably had his dad cheat on his mom and grew up without a father figure.
He doesn’t want to be like a tax collector: He is probably still burdened by student loans and is intimidated by wealth.
Is the Pharisee really the bad guy here?
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
You know who prays that way? – Somebody who wants your sympathy.
He came to the temple to pray. Really? Self-pity and self-loathing he could have done at home as well! He wanted an audience! He’s gesturing wildly, beating his chest drawing attention to himself and his own misery. As if God didn’t not know of the tax collector’s pain. This is certainly a plea for attention directed at the people at the temple. Maybe he doesn’t get the attention his soul requires at home. Or maybe he doesn’t get the appreciation his soul requires at work. Is the tax collector really the good guy here?
What if both were praying in meaningful ways? Everybody prays in their own way, always have, always will. The prophet Joel says of God: “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Now, that’s a radical notion God’s spirit poured out on all flesh includes Pharisees and tax collectors, the hurting and the proud, the pained and the joyful. YES! God wants you to feel good about yourself! YES! God wants you to feel bad about yourself! Your flesh, with all that makes you who you are, is drenched with God’s spirit. Your prayer, whatever it may be, is meaningful and true and good.
Welcome to the postmodern era where everybody sets their own standard. If we have learned anything in the postmodern era then it’s that: Individuals have the truth in themselves. That’s what Joel means when he says the spirit of God is poured out on all flesh. You have the truth! So if and when people go to church in this day and age there is no reason to tell them how to pray the right way. Everybody knows that they can pray however the spirit may give it to them: “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”
That has huge implications for the way we do church because our outward expressions of prayer are transient in nature. And it changes all the time. Jesus and his disciples were good Jews attending the temple with its ancient Hebrew rituals. A generation later Paul and the other Apostles transition to little house churches that are mostly a handful of people gathering in a home for prayer – in the Greek language. Then the church takes over the Roman Empire and starts building cathedrals for the masses to gather for mass. The people turn silent and the priest reads Latin which nobody understands. Since the reformation church is held in every language of every culture. We still have buildings for Sunday use but a lot happens again in house churches. The way the church does its praying is radically changing right before our eyes. With over 300 million people in the US you can be sure that we have at least 300 million very distinct ways to pray.
That’s where we are: The truth is in my heart. And nobody can talk to any truth beyond themselves. And the church is still here. And faith is still here. As a matter of fact spirituality is stronger than ever and people have more choices now than they have ever had before. Also prayer is more individualized than ever before. So here is the challenge if we want our Sunday hour to remain relevant: How do we shape our shared worship and corporate prayer in a way that connects with the need for individual devotion? What we do is obviously only compatible with the people who are already here. What we do is not working for most people. That’s why they’re not here.
I can see three venues where our congregation offers prayer experiences. First, we have corporate prayer in our worship services. Second, we have a list of prayer requests in our newsletter. And third, we open the meetings of our groups, committees and organizations with a prayer. Did I forget anything? Is that supposed to be spiritually fulfilling or filling? Does that really feed a hungry soul?
I know it does not for me. On top of that I have the following prayer practices: We gather as a family at bedtime and say thank you God for all the things we enjoyed over the course of the day. We say grace over every meal at home. I enjoy the set times. It’s almost like the ancient monastic prayer times. You see: The church does not have a monopoly on prayer.
In every strip mall there is a shop that offers private meditation classes. For decades the Christian book market has exploded with books for spiritual growth and exploring your inner self in prayer. TV preachers present prayers that are actually more geared towards the people in front of their TVs as opposed to God Almighty. The prayer market is totally saturated yet we as a church decide to not even compete in it in a big way.
Where are places where you can learn to pray? Praying does take practice. It needs to be cultivated. Sometimes prayer is all action that does not require words. Prayer doesn’t have to be churchy. But it does require experience. And the most intense prayer experience for me since I have come to Texas are monthly calls that I receive. A Pentecostal part-time preacher who theologically couldn’t be farther removed from me, gives me a call every month. I usually let him go to voicemail because what he does is he prays for me and I want to be able to relisten to that when I need a boost later in the month. With his spirit-driven joy and energy he thanks God for my being, my family, my ministry and the work of this church. Then he asks God to continue to bless me and the people around me. Wow! At first I had a hard time accepting that. Now I have come to rely on it. Thank you, my friend.
Maybe that would be a good prayer exercise that I could suggest to all y’all today. We have this wonderful new church directory. The people listed in there agreed to share their contact information with you. Make use of it. I ask you to pray at least twice:
First, ask God who you should pray for.
Second, pray for that person, over the phone or via letter or per email.
You can pray with your own words or find traditional ones.
If you have a hard time coming up with words that seem meaningful don’t look any further than your own soul.
Remember the Pharisee?
He didn’t want to be like a thief: He probably had something stolen from him.
He din’t want to be like a rogue: He probably was one as a teenager and has outgrown that.
He din’t want to be like an adulterer: He probably had his dad cheat on his mom and grew up without a father figure.
He din’t want to be like a tax collector: He is probably still burdened by student loans and is intimidated by wealth.
The way he talks should give you clues what to pray about.
Remember the tax collector?
Maybe he didn’t get the attention his soul requires at home. Or maybe he didn’t get the appreciation his soul requires at work.
The way he acts should give you clues what to pray about.
You know, prayer takes practice and you can only get better at it by doing more of it.
Let’s practice! Amen!
2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the church. If you want to catch up with the latest app to go with the event check out these two:
Luther’s Small Catechism
This new app brings Luther’s Small Catechism to Android and iPhone for free. My favorite is that with one touch of the screen I can pull up the morning and evening blessings. What’s your favorite chapter?
2017 Luther Bible
The Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft just released a brand new revision of Luther’s iconic Bible translation. Until Reformation Day, October 31st, you can download it as a free app for Android and iPhone. This German edition allows bookmarks as well as notes. Grab it while it’s free.
How do I find a loving God? That’s a question that people have asked themselves and the world for quite a while. One of the most prominent ones who asked that question was Martin Luther. He was a young man following in his father’s trade and he just really wanted to be good with God and the world and justice and all those things. We’re in the middle ages here in our little story and this little boy was afraid of going to hell. That’s what they did back in the day because the church told him, if you’re not a good boy you’re going to hell. He thought of God as punishing, judging and putting the bad guys into hell and the good guys into heaven as if God were a machine that judges like, this is right, this is wrong, you’re going here, you’re going there. Of hell, he had this vision of a place of fire and burning and torture, like they did with the witches because you hurt bad people. That was the plan so God must hurt bad people too because that’s what we want. That’s our sense of justice. Then, heaven was just a place of fluffiness and love and happiness and light. And the good place is what you wish for your nice grandma.
Luther was really afraid of hell and really wanted to go to heaven and he really wanted God to be just in the middle of all of that. He was afraid and then came a very pivotal moment for him when he was working in the fields and a thunder storm came up. You may have heard that scene or seen it in a movie. A lightning bolt hit the ground right next to him and he’s super afraid. It’s starts raining and it’s dark, lightning and thunder all over the place and he drops on his knees and prays to God and says, “Please God, if I make it through this, I’m going the monastery, I’m becoming a monk, I’m devoting my life to you and we should be good then.” Eventually, of course, he makes it through and becomes a monk.
That in itself didn’t save him, but it certainly got the world into trouble because as that young boy was looking for a loving God, he then became that monk. Eventually, he learned to read and study scripture and guess what he found? He found that loving God! And in the Bible he learned that there’s such a thing as free grace. Free grace means that you’re not going to hell. God loves you. God gives you grace for free. That changed his world, that changed everybody’s world because all of a sudden this middle age concept that the bad guys are going to hell, the good guys are going to heaven was out of the window. All of a sudden, God was not a judge, but a loving father.
A few centuries later, we also learned that, that is not an easy concept to grasp because if God is really all that all loving, that means that in heaven we are going to see people that we don’t want there. The ultimate struggle that people usually quote is, “do you really want to see Hitler in heaven?” You can put any name there you want. That’s just a very famous one for being one of the bad guys, but the answer of free grace is: Yeah, that’s just how it works. God is that loving. God is that forgiving. Grace is really free.
What if our relationship with God were all good? What if God wouldn’t hate us? What if God weren’t to judge us anymore because that was already done at the cross? Oh wait, that’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what happened. Our relationship with God is good. Nobody goes to hell. Free grace! That’s what Martin Luther discovered! That means that you are okay. You’ll be good. That also means that all your loved ones that already passed will be good. Everybody’s going to be alright. And again, that also applies to the ones where that is hard to believe. That drunkard of a brother that you have. He’s going to be alright. God’s love and forgiveness are bigger than our failures.
What Martin Luther did here is really turning our sense of justice upside down. He picked up a more ancient theme that was discovered long before him, and that is the concept of passive justice. Justice is not something that is given, passed out, but received. We receive justice from God. God declares us just, we are declared just by God. God says we are just, whether we do it or believe it or not. Justice is not something that we can do, we’re pronounced to be just. You cannot work your way to heaven, you cannot work your way to hell either. God calls us just no matter what. God puts justice in our hearts and our minds and declares us just. We are okay. This whole justice thing is not only about the hereafter, it’s not only about heaven or hell or whatever happens after here, but justice is also what happens right here, right now already.
Justice is uncomfortable. Justice calls out injustice because when we have the love of God in our hearts the way our scripture told us today, then we also know exactly what’s wrong. We can call out injustice and we’ve got to do that just like prophets always have. Prophets of the Old Testament clashed with the kings all the time over the causes of the widows, the orphans, and the aliens. When you think about it, those categories, we’ve always struggled with those.
Luther struggled with that, we struggle with them today. Widows, orphans and aliens. Prophets called out their kings like nobody else. In our election cycles speak this year, maybe it’s about women rights, funding for social services, and immigration. Maybe that’s our 21st century speak for widows, orphans, and aliens. You know what’s so remarkable about the widow, the orphan, and the alien? They’re the ones that don’t have a voice. They can’t speak for themselves.
When God puts justice in us, we need to use it. We need to use it to give a voice to those who don’t have one for themselves because the widow, the orphan, and the alien in ancient Israel, they were hardly people. A woman was only a full person if she was attached to a man and once that man died, she was a widow. A lost one that was eventually married by a brother if she was lucky, if not she was on her own without any family support. An outcast. Same for the orphans. If you didn’t have a family to belong to, you were on the streets. Eat whatever you find in the dirt. If you were an alien, you were not part of God’s people. You may not even have been a slave that was at least fed by his owner, but just like a dog in the streets. They couldn’t speak for themselves back in ancient Israel and they have a hard time still.
A woman doesn’t even need to be a widow to feel disadvantaged. For some reason or another, we still tell girls that they’re to dress pretty. As if that matters. We don’t tell boys that. We tell them they throw like a girl and by that we teach them how to do that. They don’t think about that themselves. We tell them what jobs we wish for them which just happen to be usually inferior to those we suggest to our boys.
When we went through church history in our confirmation class this week, I had three girls there and they rallied around one image, well it’s actually just a name on the wall, but that is Antoinette Brown. She was the first woman ordained into Christian ministry in the 1800’s. They rallied around that picture because it showcased for them that “yeah, women can really do great things and break through barriers and I want to be like that.” You can do anything you set your mind to as a widow, as a woman, as one who doesn’t have a voice.
Then in the guild this week, we learned about not the orphans per se, but about foster children. How they’re taken out of abusive families, they’re being put in the system and even then with all our progress and support they have, they’re still somewhat on their own. They still need advocates to speak up for them in court, they still need parents to pick them up out of that situation. They need advocates and resources that stand by them and speak for them, that are their voice because in the system they don’t have a voice for themselves. Still, to this very day, ancient problems are very alive.
When we look at the alien, I know that story all that well. I only finished being an alien a couple of years ago. Even getting resident alien status, a green card, that process took us three years and $9,000. Not everybody can do that. Not everybody has that kind of money and time just for a piece of paper that allows you to live the way you need to live. My immigrant story may have been hard and long, but for me it was just an investment. I was okay, but if you don’t have that kind of money and you’re just stuck and can never get your feet on the ground, always in the shadows, you got to hide in order to stay alive, that’s not how immigration is supposed to work.
Our response to the justice that God puts in our hearts by declaring us just, the passive justice that Luther learned, our response needs to be that active justice, that giving out justice, not the one that God has. God has passive justice, declaring us just, giving us justice in our hearts. The active justice that we dish out, where we judge, where we decide, where we do, we’re not supposed to use that to send people to heaven or hell with our morals, but to actually live up to the standards that God puts in our hearts. Our job is to live up to the justice that we were given.
Remember, God declared us just without any merit. Now our job is to respond by actively pursuing justice in our society and that is what Christianity in this day, as the emerging Christianity that we’ve become, does. The emergent church is profoundly shaped by justice work. The church of every age, and this age especially, is in the business of doing good. So the nagging widow that we heard in today’s story who keeps nagging the judge until he gives in, that’s our prototype for today. How can the church become a louder advocate for those on the margins? How can you learn to make such a noise for those who can’t speak for themselves, foster children, women, aliens? The key according to our parable seems to be that you have to be uncomfortable. If you feel good about what you’re doing, you’re probably not doing it hard enough. If you receive praise for what you’re doing, you’re not pushing the right buttons. We need to feel uncomfortable with ourselves doing what we do and we need to make others feel uncomfortable when we call out injustice, otherwise we’re just pleasing ourselves.
The widow keeps nagging the unjust judge while the judge stands for God. And Jesus says if even that unjust judge helps that widow, how much more will God be on your side? The widow stands for us. Keep nagging, keep scratching your fingernails on that blackboard, make some noise. Wow, that widow could nag God so hard that we are given justice for free. That’s how hard we ought to nag the powers that be to show girls and young women that everything is possible, to provide safe and nurturing environments for all children, to provide all immigrants with affordable and speedy options. Let’s be loud. Let’s be uncomfortable. Let’s speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Amen.
Banner in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s UCC
Long before my family considered a move to Texas we were looking at options for beach vacations. Corpus Christi made the top of the list. A couple of years later I accepted the call to St. John’s United Church of Christ in Rosenberg, Texas. We were still living in Utah at the time. Our family of five used the occasion of the move for an epic road trip of the American Southwest. We came down through New Mexico. Before finally pulling into Rosenberg we spend a week at the beach in Corpus Christi, just like we had wanted for years.
This coming weekend I get to go back there. Not necessarily for the beach, the epic U.S.S. Lexington, or the Texas State Aquarium, but this time for the fall meeting of the Houston Association of the United Church of Christ. The various levels of our denominational structure remind us that the Body of Christ is much larger than just the local congregation. After all that is what Corpus Christi literally means: Body of Christ.
The name was given to the settlement and surrounding bay by Spanish explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda in 1519, as he discovered the lush semitropical bay on the Catholic feast day of Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi is a day of catholic processions carrying the consecrated communion elements through town. Especially after the Protestant Reformation, Corpus Christi has become a demonstration of Catholic domination and power: We own the living body of Christ. We are exclusively the one true body of Christ. All you Protestant heretics who are not in our procession are not the true church.
That could of course not continue without significant backlash. In one of his homilies Martin Luther wrote, “I am to no festival more hostile than this one. Because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed, than on this day, and particularly by the procession. For then people are treating the Blessed Sacrament with such ignominy that it becomes only play-acting and is just vain idolatry. With its cosmetics and false holiness it conflicts with Christ’s order and establishment. Because He never commanded us to carry on like this. Therefore beware of such worship!”
It is kind of ironic that the Houston Association of the United Church of Christ meets in Corpus Christi. In the United Church of Christ we are all about unity in the body of Christ, yet this town was founded on the premise of the separation of true and false religion. Maybe that’s exactly why we need to gather there: To bring unity and healing. Our sister church St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Corpus Christi has provided a continuous presence there for over 100 years now. They make a point of celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday. Their town needs that: A reminder that Christ’s table is open for all. Or, as the Reverend Burton Bagby-Grose puts it: “I’m passionate about sharing with people that God loves everyone, gay, straight, pink or purple.”
Who remembers the good ol’ days? For one reason or another church people keep telling the story of a glorious past. And then usually follows a horror story of how everything has gone downhill since. Who remembers the good ol’ days when the church was at the center of the community? When it was chic to belong? When it was necessary and beneficial to belong?
People used to put down their roots. Nowadays nobody believes it anymore but there was a time when your first job was also your last. Some people stayed with the same company not for years but decades. That meant you either stayed in your hometown for decades or even if you moved somewhere else you usually moved there for an indefinite period of time. You put down your roots. You find a home. You get involved in the community. Back in the day that usually included joining the local congregation of your denomination. You made friends that you could reasonably expect to be around to grow old with. Investing in these kinds of relationships was worth it. Your neighbors, your coworkers, they did not have much turnover. Your church was not only for you but also for your children.
That was also the generation that was great at creating volunteer organizations. Manning a concession stand at a sports game or even the county fair gets harder and harder. Investing in the community is not commonplace anymore. Community is literally not what it used to be. Our congregation used to fire up the BBQ pits for a community meal. Then we had it catered. Now it’s just not happening anymore. We used to have a team in the church softball league in town. The whole league is gone. The church used to be at the center of most pastime activities. If you lived in a community you tied into the institutions that were there.
The prophet Jeremiah preached that exact message to the exiles. A whole bunch of Israelites was taken to the Babylonian captivity and Jeremiah tells them to assimilate to the community. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This is the place where you are. Get attuned to it. Work here. Live here. Play here. This area with its culture, with its language, with its political leaning, all that is something people were supposed to assimilate to.
Part of that equation also used to be the church. Even Jesus sent the lepers to the priests. Now, usually Jesus is not a big fan of institutions. He challenges authority and the status quo wherever he can. But with the ten lepers he deals differently. To them he suggests what everybody would say, too: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Because the temple is the institution in the community where you find healing. Jesus sends the lepers to the religious establishment which later turns against him.
For the longest time church and empire have been walking in lock-step. Ever since the Emperor Constantine made it legal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, Christendom became the normative power of what we call “Western Civilization”. In order to be a member of the greatest civilization the world had ever seen you also had to be a member of the greatest faith community the world had ever seen. Bishops appointed kings, kings appointed bishops. The good-old-boys club ruled the world.
The founding fathers of the United States did not like this accumulation of power and introduced the separation of church and state. But that was on paper only. Still for the longest time, the politics of the town where determined by the gathering that happened in the sanctuary on Sunday. That started to gradually change as diversity came to dilute to Protestant hegemony of the original colonies. Catholics and Jews shook up the mono-culture a little bit. But still the whole was based on Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Then came the 1960s. Here comes the revolution. All of a sudden institutions went out of the window. Here is the individual. All of a sudden Hinduism, Buddhism and Krishna were en vogue. All of a sudden you did not have to go to church anymore in order to be someone in the community. All of a sudden you could fight for all kinds of causes without religious baggage. The days of having to participate in any kind of organization are long gone. Since the sixties we no longer live in institutions but we are really all individuals on our own journeys. Thank God that you can move to an area with its culture, with its language, with its political leaning, and you do not have to assimilate to it but you can transform it.
When the 10 lepers came to Jesus he may have sent them to the temple like everybody else would have. But from that came great transformation. Let’s follow the lepers on their journeys. They go to Jesus to ask for help and they actually follow Jesus’s advice and go to the priests. As they went, they were made clean. They may or may not have arrived. The arrival is not the point but the going. The going is what the story is all about. All ten were made clean because and as they went. All ten got what they needed.
Only one of the ten went back to Jesus to say thank you. The most interesting point here is what is not said: He is not better than the nine. Jesus does not praise him for coming back. For us, this one leper is where the church is. He comes back to the place where his healing journey started. Jesus for him turns into an institution where you can share faith experience and giving thanks to Jesus. He wants to relive that moment and reconnect to what put him on the right path to begin with.
But he was only 10%. The other nine went their own way. They were healed and moved on. They did not look back. They did not say “Thank you, Jesus.” They did not connect with the community but they did their own thing. Again the most interesting point here is what is not said: Jesus does not say they are wrong for doing that. He let’s them do what they need to do, no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey. They don’t have to perform a specific thank you ritual.
Thank God that they can move on with their own culture, with their own language, with their own political leaning, and they do not have to assimilate into a certain church culture.
Quite the opposite. As a matter of fact Jesus sends number ten off as well: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Do not hang around Jesus! Do not stay inside the sanctuary where your healing came from but move on into your own life! The church is not here to establish itself but to send people on their own way: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The church is no longer at the center of town and that is a wonderful thing. Everybody can pursue their own hobbies. You can play all the sports you want, not only in the leagues the church used to be in. You can eat whatever you want and don’t have to sign up for the BBQ pit to volunteer. The church in this day and age is the place where Jesus comes to visit. Ask him where healing can be found! If you want, come back and say thank you. That’s it. And if you are one of the nine who did not come back right away, you may still remember down the road where it all started. It’s never too late to come. Or you just stay out there doing your own thing. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
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