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Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us

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:

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Amen.

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Postmodern Prayer

This is the last sermon of my three-part series on being church in the great emergence.
Please find parts one and two here.

A photo posted by Daniel Haas (@revhaas) on

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!

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Reformation Apps

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.

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The Emergence of Justice

This is the second sermon of my three-part series on being church in the great emergence.
Please find parts one and three here.

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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.

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Corpus Christi

stpaulona 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.”