Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent

Year B

November 30, 2008

Resurrection Lutheran Church

Isaiah 64:1-9 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

I Corinthians 1:3-9 St. Mark 13:24-37

In the name of the triune God who created us, who loves us, who redeemed us, and who cares for us.

Today is the day of a new beginning. This is the First Sunday of Advent. Today is the ecclesiastical equivalent of New Year’s Day. In the recent history of the church, Advent has taken a rather penitential feeling, very much like Lent. This is most likely due to the use of purple as the color for both seasons.

In an attempt to combat this, many churches have moved from purple to shades of blue.

“The word Advent means "coming" or "arrival." The focus of the entire season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent. Thus, Advent is far more than simply marking a 2,000 year old event in history. It is celebrating a truth about God, the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation might be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. Scripture reading for Advent will reflect this emphasis on the Second Advent, including themes of accountability for faithfulness at His coming, judgment on sin, and the hope of eternal life.”[1]

This Advent I want to encourage you to expected the unexpected. One thing that has always interested me is that fact that the first Advent of Jesus came about in a most unexpected way. No one imagined the messiah as the simple son of a carpenter. In spite of all that was found in the Scriptures and in spite of the eager anticipation of the Jewish nation of a messiah who would come in great power and set things right, it just didn’t happen that way. Nope. God came in God’s own way and to serve God’s own purposes.

It must have been quite shocking for people to learn that their centuries held beliefs were to be turned upside down. That is if they were able to accept it at all. You see, many could not. They were unable to change their preconceived ideas to embrace Jesus as God revealed to them.

I think that it often seems that God never comes the way we plan on God coming in our own lives as well. That is why we need to expected the unexpected in our own lives. God will come to us in ways we perhaps never imagined. But if we insist on holding on to our own ideas and expectations we can miss God in our lives when God is right in front of us. We will allow ourselves to fall into the same trap that so many in the time of Jesus did. Those who recognized Jesus were rarely those of a religious bent. They were too obsessed in their own views of how God should act and as a result not only missed Jesus, but often actively plotted against Jesus.

The lessons in Advent will often focus on the next coming of Jesus. And I have an idea that the next coming of Jesus will probably also be unexpected. Those who are convinced that they understand from the Scriptures and the teaching of the church just how the next Advent will occur I believe are destined for disappointment.

Now that probably explains why I’m not a fan at all of the “Left Behind” series and the entire cottage industry of end times books, tapes, and teachings. They miss the fundamental point that humans don’t seem to do a very good job of guessing how God will choose to act in the world.

There is something very positive in this focus during Advent on the past and the present. Advent becomes a time of looking head and a time of looking behind and that can be a powerful symbol of our own faith journey, and even more it can be a powerful symbol of a congregations faith journey. Particularly in this place and time. As you examine the past and look towards your future in the call of a new pastor.

Last time I was here the lesson focused on our responsibilities to God in the time between the appearances of Jesus on earth. Last time I focused on individual responsibilities within the concept of supporting the church financially. Today I would encourage you to think about your life as a congregation. As I know from my own experience it is very easy for a congregation to assume that the pastor will be doing everything. Visiting the sick, evangelizing, cleaning, maintaining, inspiring, cajoling, you name it, it is the pastor’s job.

It is true that many of these things are indeed the pastor’s job. But please do not forget that in this time between the first coming of Jesus and the second coming of Jesus each and every one of us has our own responsibilities. Those responsibilities include everything I listed for the pastor to do. You see the “great commission” was not limited to pastors and other church professionals. It was for each and every one of us. The lesson of Matthew 25 was not limited to pastors and other church professionals. It was a call for each and every one of us to feed the sick, visit those in prison and minister to the needs of those less fortunate than us. The summary of the law by Jesus to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves was not limited to pastors and other church professionals. It was for each and every one of us.

“… as the church celebrates God’s inbreaking into history in the Incarnation, and anticipates a future consummation to that history for which "all creation is groaning awaiting its redemption," it also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" and to "love your neighbor as yourself."[2]

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, November 16, 2008

Twenty Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 28

Year A

November 16, 2008

Resurrection Lutheran Church

Isaiah 45:1-7 Psalm 96:1-13

I Thessalonians 1:1-10 St. Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of the triune God who created us, who loves us, who redeemed us, and who cares for us.

The parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel for today can be understood in different ways. And I have sworn to myself to not use the word eschatology in today’s homily even though the lectionary and the commentary are begging us to understand it in terms of the end times. I'm not sure I agree with that. While it is one possible understanding, I think that parables are open to multiple interpretations. There is no one "right way" to get at any of them. And in fact, I think this parable much more a parable on Christian living for us today than anything else.

One thing I do believe is clear however is that in this parable Jesus is giving guidance to his follows, that is you and I, concerning what we are to do while Jesus is not with us.

I’m also aware that I have a singularly unique opportunity while helping out at Resurrection Lutheran. I have the opportunity of not being the pastor during the time of year when most churches are working on their budget and in the middle of the stewardship campaign, or whatever other name they choose to call it.

This gives me the chance to talk about church finances and individual responsibilities without the usual baggage of feeling like I’m pleading for my salary or a pet program I happen to like.

Let’s face it though. It is sometimes hard to talk about money in church. It is hard enough when we are talking about it generically, but it is even more of a challenge when we are talking about it with respect to the annual stewardship campaign. We all reach for our pocket book to protect it!

And I sort of have a split personality about the entire issue of giving to the church. Not that I have any issues about doing it, I’m a firm believer in it. I was raised in the Baptist tradition where it was just assumed that everyone automatically gave ten percent of their income to the church. I never though Christians did otherwise. That is until I joined the Episcopal Church. We are an organization which, while officially proclaiming the tithe as the minimum standard of giving is nevertheless rather timid about it. I remember well the most shocking revelation when I discovered that Episcopalians in general considered all their charitable giving when determining they were giving ten percent or not. So if they gave generously to say the Boy Scouts, a local non-profit and the church as long as it added up to ten percent that was fine.

I have to confess that as a former Baptist that really raised the hair on the back of my neck. While I never said it, to me it sounded like stealing from God.

It is even hard to talk about what each of us might be doing personally. I know when I applied for the position of Rector at one parish I noticed that at least for the previous Rector, his title was an income line item in the budget. I had never seen that before. But one thing it made the congregation know for certain. Their leader tithed.

I can tell you all that I give at least the tithe to the church. I don’t share this with you out of pride, but because I want you to know that I’m not asking you to do something I’m not willing to do myself. I have always given at least ten percent, in those times when I was a young man in the military, oh so long ago, I know. Those were days when I often didn’t really believe that I would have enough to make it to the next pay check and it was sometimes very tempting to not put that money in the offering plate.

But somehow, God always managed to provide. Whether it was from a decision not to buy something that I really didn’t need at that moment, or offers of dinners from wonderful friends, or just sitting home rather than going out. Somehow I always made it. It wasn’t always easy or comfortable, but I always made it. Now I do not believe that God we can manipulate God to reward us by paying God off. But at the same time I know from my own experience and from the words of Scripture that God does look out for those who are faithful to God.

In the lesson today we have three slaves who were trusted with responsibilities from the master. The last slave, the one that Robert Farrar Capon in his book “The Parables of Judgment”[1] likes to refer to as the prudent slave ends up in hot water. This slave did not want to take risks. What would happen if he lost what he was given by the master? How in the world would he explain that! And so he takes the path of prudence and protects what was given him by his master. I can see him checking on it regularly to make sure he has not lost it, so it will be ready to be given back to the master upon his return.

That is the option we are really faced when we consider our giving to God as well. Do we take risks or do we play it safe, do we act out the part of the prudent slave. I want to encourage you to take risks with God.

I told you I had a split personality when it comes to financial responsibility to the church. And here it is. Forgive me Council President and the rest of the Council. But in spite of my upbringing I believe you absolutely do not have to tithe. I believe that gifts given out of compulsion are not what God if looking for at all.

But at the same time I believe that it is vitally important to your own spiritual health that you do at least tithe. And so I encourage you to prayerfully consider that as a goal in your life.

I’m aware of the financial implications of all of this during an economic downturn. I know many clergy are worrying about how to approach stewardship when the economy seems to be tanking. Do they ask people to continue to step out in faith when times are bad? I say not only yes, but that it is even more important to do it when times are financially difficult. You see it is easy to give when things are flush. The challenge is when things are tight. The challenge is when we are more like the widow with her mite than those with riches giving out of their excess.

But I do want to encourage you to step out in faith with regard to your support of your church and in trusting God. I want to challenge you to challenge yourself. God may never respond to your stepping out in faith by depositing $100,000 dollars in your bank account. At least it never worked that way for me. But, God will respond and your spiritual life will be deepened in ways you can not even imagine.

[1] “The Parables of Judgment”, Robert Farrar Capon, p. 83.