Archive for July, 2011

Sermon Pentecost 6 – July 24, 2011

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
which a man found and hid;
then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
When I was a child, I never understood this parable.
These are interesting parables,
because unlike the last two weeks,
St. Matthew does not record Jesus’ explanations –
perhaps because Jesus did not give any explanations of these parables,
or perhaps because St Matthew thought them unnecessary.

Certainly the parable of the fish parallels last week’s parable of weeds among the wheat,
that we must wait for the moment when we finally see evil separated from righteousness.
The parable of the mustard seed and the leaven have something to do with growth,
and again, patience.
But the parable of the treasure hidden in the field
points to something that was not immediately clear to me as a child.
I must confess that when I was a child,
my first thought was –
“Why does he hide it and then buy the field?
Why doesn’t the guy just take it?”
No one knows it’s there, obviously –
For some reason it didn’t occur to me that this would be stealing.
As I thought about it some more, I guess this dawned on me.
Even though no one knows the treasure is there,
you do,
and you can’t just take it.
You don’t have to tell the seller about the treasure,
but you do have to pay the asking price for the field.

But then as I was thinking about this this week,
I thought about another thing.
What if you can’t move the treasure?
What if it’s not like a treasure chest full of gold and jewels,
but more like a mineral deposit –
say, a natural gas reserve?
Now there’s a parable we here in this area can relate to.
And we’ve got all sorts of people around here who want to buy our fields –
well, if not buy, to lease the mineral rights –
so that they can have the treasure that is covered over.

And then I thought of the patience that would be required of the person
who had found the treasure hidden in the field,
the hope and expectation tempered with anxiety –
is this treasure really worth everything I have, everything I own –
my reputation, my life up to now, everything,
in order to possess this one thing?

You remember the movie, “Field of Dreams,”
where Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, must choose between selling his land
to the large farming corporation
or retain it so that part of it can become a baseball field
where Shoeless Joe Jackson can come and play ball again,
where Ray can reconcile with his father?
Ray’s brother thinks he’s nuts.
He will lose everything.
And yet Costner’s character goes the distance.
“If you build it, they will come,” says the voice.
And they come.
They come through the fields, they come to a place of encounter
with those they love and with those who love them,
to play the game that brings them together.

This, too, is a parable.
A parable is something you throw up alongside reality,
a parallel to reality to make reality clearer.
And what Jesus seems to be saying in his parable
about the treasure hidden in the field –
what he seems to be saying to me, anyhow, at this point,
is that the kingdom of heaven is not a place,
but it is a reality.
It is a reality that Jesus is king in my life,
and that it’s true both now and in the future.
But the kingship of Jesus is not one that can coexist with other realities.
Just as the man who found the treasure couldn’t just take it
without giving up everything that he had,
just as Ray in Field of Dreams
had to risk his security to find the place where the past and the present met,
so we cannot have a situation where Jesus is in charge,
and we are in charge.
We must give up in order to gain,
we must let go in order to have,
and we must spend in order to acquire.

Spending our lives in pursuit of the treasure of Jesus
is the call we were given in baptism.
If in our nation’s Declaration of Independence
our forefathers declared that we were given the rights
to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,
then Christians identify happiness as the state of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord.
Whatever anyone else may define as happiness,
that is what Christians pursue.

Now what I am clearly not saying,
is that I have yet acquired the treasure hidden in the field.
God’s Word, and Jesus’ parables,
tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like.
And the kingdom of heaven is not just when the field is bought.
But it’s when the person finds the treasure,
realizes what it will take to obtain it,
considers whether or not to do so,
takes the necessary steps,
and finally purchases the field.
I’m not sure whether I’m on step one, step two, or step three.
But if we are hearing the call, we are hearing the good news
of what the kingdom of heaven is like.
If we hear of the granting of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom;
If we hear Paul’s proclamation that good can come from evil for those who are called,
that Christ is for us, and who can be against us,
that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord;
If we hear Jesus’ message that the one who found and hid the treasure
is joyful even as he gives away his old life to find the new one,
then we are in the presence of the kingdom of heaven.
We are being called to live into the new reality,
that Christ Jesus is Lord of our lives,
that heaven reigns despite hell’s fury,
and that one day our joy will be complete,
as what we long for and hope for becomes fully ours.


July 24, 2011 at 9:57 am Leave a comment

From “Dying with Dignity” to “Living With Dignity”

I like this article because it not only makes a strong statement against the euthanasia movement, it also makes an equally strong and principled argument for increased attention and investment in the palliative care movement, which allows those with serious and terminal illnesses to live the best quality of life – “each day with dignity” – and to affirm life even near the end is meaningful and fraught with physical, mental, social, and spiritual possibility.

“Christians know the beautiful truth. That Jesus Christ rose from the dead and destroyed the power of death forever. That every human person has an infinite value in God’s eyes. We must tell our society that our lives are more than biological. Our lives are also theological. We are creatures of body and soul, matter and spirit. We are created out of love to be in dialogue, in a relationship with God.

This relationship begins before we are conceived in the womb. It is not cancelled by illness, disability, or disease. As St. Paul taught us: Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ!”

July 19, 2011 at 9:37 am Leave a comment

Sermon July 17 – Pentecost 5: Waiting in Hope for what is Not Seen
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 11 (16)
Messiah Lutheran Church
July 17, 2011

We do it all the time.
Much of our lives have been spent waiting.
We wait for the package to arrive,
for the traffic to clear out,
for the child to come home.
We wait for the right person to come along,
for dinner to be ready,
for us to be there already.
We wait for our turn in line,
we wait for our ship to come.
Much of our lives are spent waiting.
Waiting with expectation for the weekend,
waiting to fall asleep,
waiting for the alarm clock to ring.
Waiting to be grown up,
waiting to make it,
waiting to die,
waiting to understand what it is all about.

It is most frustrating, and yet it is a part of the human experience we all share.
And yet it can be the key component of one’s life.
Are you able to wait? And why?
Are you able to stand still and wait for the thing to happen,
are you able to be patient and not mess the thing up
by acting impulsively, by speaking out of turn,
by buying what you do not need with money you do not have,
by refusing to destroy with word or deed what seems to be worthless?

The Bible and the world we live in
are diametrically opposed on the subject of waiting.
The world views waiting as a necessary evil to be endured sometimes,
but on the whole we should have what we want and need and have it now.
Waiting is simply not an acceptable option.
“Patience is a virtue” is a proverb that was in style many many years ago.
Very few people today view patience as a virtue.
Instead they view delay as a vice and as an affront.
And yet when we learn patience,
when we learn to live with a situation that cannot be solved in seconds,
when we learn to live in the tension between “now” and “not yet”
we begin to come to a different place.
Those who must live with disease may come, often painfully, to a new place in their life,
where they are more willing to live without control,
where they are able to accept what is given each day.
Both Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat
and Paul’s words from the letter to the Romans have to do with patience today.
For we believe that God’s Spirit is at work in us and in the world,
we believe that God in Jesus Christ has won the victory over sin and death,
and yet we are impatient,
because we do not see the evidence either in our lives
or in the life of the world.
Many churches will blame this upon their members;
that their members have not tried hard enough to clean up sin in their lives
or that they do not have enough zeal for spreading the Gospel –
that if only they tried harder, if only they did something more,
if only they were more relevant to the world they live in,
God’s kingdom would be more in evidence.
This can lead to an impatience that can easily be turned to our enemy’s advantage.

Before I went to seminary,
I was the choir director at a UCC church in Willow Street,
a few miles south of Lancaster.
The interim pastor there preached a sermon
and told a story about how she was serving on the pastoral staff
at a Christian camp in California,
and in the middle of the week she received a telephone call.
Her house was threatened by one of the wildfires that can ravage the state,
and she needed to go home and secure her belongings.
Thankfully, her house was spared, and she returned to the camp Friday night,
only to come back during the climactic worship service,
where one of her colleagues, not having heard from her,
was concocting a story out of whole cloth about her.
“Her house is gone. Her possessions are gone. Her memories are gone.
She has nothing left in the world,
and yet she has Jesus, and that’s enough for her.
Is he enough for you? Won’t you have him too?”
And here were impressionable teenagers with tears in their eyes,
saying “yes” to the Truth, but enticed by a falsehood.

There is nothing wrong with striving against sin in our lives
or spreading the Gospel.
In fact there is a danger that in patiently waiting for a Kingdom that never seems to come
we can become lackadaisical, unfocused on the promises, and stop looking for the Kingdom.
Those parables are later on in the Gospel of St Matthew.
But if we are focusing upon our own actions or inactions,
we leave God and his Word out of the equation.
We actually ignore God’s Word, and substitute our own model of success.
Try harder, work longer, maybe from time to time tell a few white lies, and you get results.
Many Christians subscribe to this model,
and become bitter, and burnt-out, and drop out of the church
and leave the faith because it doesn’t seem to work.

There are still weeds among the wheat, bad apples among the good,
and we still have to wait and will always have to wait
until God himself reveals his kingdom.

St Paul calls the Roman Christians to patience
by presenting such an inviting image of the Kingdom fulfilled
that we cannot help but wait for it to be fulfilled
rather than choose anything of our own.
We are children of God. We have been adopted.
And we wait crying out in the Spirit to our Father,
for him to fulfill all of his promises,
suffering if we must,
but rejoicing in the knowledge that when the Kingdom comes to completion,
it will so be worth the wait,
it will so outclass the suffering that the suffering can’t even be compared to it.

Jesus paints a parable of weeds among the wheat,
and the thing about these weeds is that you can’t tell them apart from the wheat,
you can’t really tell for sure which is which.
You’ve got to wait until harvest time to tell good from bad.
While Paul paints an extraordinary vision of the future,
Jesus is warning his disciples not to give up on the present,
not to be so quick to judge, not to be so quick to despair
not to wish to know who is a good Christian
and who is a bad one; who will bear fruit and who will not.
And we can make those hasty determinations, positive and negative,
about ourselves and about others.
God isn’t done with us yet,
and God isn’t done with our neighbors yet.
And we’re not in a position to know when he’s done.
Be hopeful, be prayerful, be patient with yourself and with your neighbor,
trusting in your heavenly Father.
Let Christ , the Word of promise, be your comfort and your consolation,
and the Spirit which dwells within us will give us patience
until the day we rejoice in the full glory and freedom of the Kingdom.

July 18, 2011 at 9:40 am Leave a comment

Book Review: Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, by Jon Meacham

Listening to the Books-on-Tape production, read masterfully by Grover Gardner, had its good and bad points. On the one hand, Gardner captures the rhythms and cadences of the speeches and conversations of both Churchill and Roosevelt. On the other, listening for long stretches at a time could transport me into the position of being one of those caught at the dinner table during an endless Churchill speech.

Nevertheless, this book, although perhaps it could have been made shorter by simply paring down the blow-by-blow descriptions of each drink Churchill and Roosevelt took during their dinners together, was well worth the time. Indeed, part of its charm was in those descriptions, as Meacham wished not to simply talk about the decisions that were made but to describe the very human men whose friendship enabled the United States and Britain to fight, and win, World War II; and indeed shaped the world as we know it today. Thatcher and Reagan, Bush and Blair found their progenitors in Franklin and Winston: not agreeing on every matter but convinced of the necessity of the Anglo-American “special relationship” because of the shared history values and values of the two nations, and linked by a very real bond of personal friendship.

In this friendship, Churchill was the wooer and Roosevelt the wooed. Churchill needed Roosevelt, Roosevelt did not need Churchill, but perhaps felt he needed to be needed. Churchill wore his heart on his sleeve; Roosevelt did not give his heart to anyone. The fact that Roosevelt died first allowed Churchill to do what Eleanor Roosevelt did, defining FDR for the ages in his most positive light, rather than FDR defining his own legacy according to the vagaries of FDR’s personality.

This is not to say that FDR did not have an honest personal connection to Churchill; in the words of the immortal lyric, he was “always true in his fashion.” Meacham does not shrink from portraying FDR’s faults, as he does not shrink from Churchill’s faults. Instead, he portrays the two men as human beings – complex, and yet committed to the right as God gave them to see it. Perhaps with the benefit of time, people such as George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama will also receive such honest treatment.

The most intriguing parts of the book involve Churchill’s desparate courtship of Roosevelt and America’s aid and favor in Britain’s darkest hour, when he was convinced that nothing but America’s intervention could save Great Britain; Roosevelt’s delicate dance toward war, when his personal trait of keeping hidden his deepest thoughts and feelings worked to his own and the world’s advantage; the beginning of the face-to-face relationship between WSC and FDR on ship in the North Atlantic and in Washington at Christmas 1941; and a dramatic day-by-day account of FDR’s last days and the actions of both Eleanor Roosevelt and Churchill following his death.

Meacham has assembled his account based on letters, diaries, and recollections of the time, reminding us what a very literate age it was. As a pastor, I note the public faith at the time, very different from seventy years later, and the personal facility of both Churchill and Roosevelt with Scripture and the language of faith.

July 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm Leave a comment

Sermon Pentecost 4 – July 10, 2011

One of the main problems with life in the Church today
Is that our culture is a culture of doing.
We are called to do constantly.
And that’s not unimportant.
If we were not called to do, then this sermon would not be being preached,
the music wouldn’t be played,
the house would not be open today for worship.
then houses would not be built for Habitat for Humanity,
the church wouldn’t offer free clothing for people,
and we wouldn’t open our doors to the homeless through Family Promise.
We wouldn’t have trips for our youth
and we wouldn’t have gifts for the needy at Christmas
and supplies for the Shepherd of the Street.

The official “brand-mark” of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
is “God’s work; our hands.”
as a description of who we are called to be.
As a description of what we do when we reach out to others,
it’s not a bad one.
As a summary of the Gospel, it is woefully incomplete and dreadful.
In a noisy culture, in a culture obsessed with what people are doing,
in a culture that absolutely will not stop to hear what God is saying,
to say “God’s work, our hands” turns the church simply into a volunteer organization
like the Elk’s Club or the Kiwanis or the Rotary.
Again, these are necessary and worthy causes,
but they are not the Gospel.
And God did not promise “Built on a Rock the Elks will stand.”

Our three texts today have nothing to do with our doing.
They have everything to do with what God is doing,
and more specifically with God’s speech.
The only thing we have to “do,” if you will, is listen to what He says.
And we’re not good at that.

The three lessons from Holy Scripture,
God’s Word spoken and written for our hearing and learning,
that we have today are filled with references to God’s speech and action.
In the first lesson, Isaiah speaks of the Word of God which falls upon the earth
as do the showers of rain, or considering the recent weather we’ve had,
as did the showers of rain.
The resulting blessings are like the sprouting of the vegetation
which give seed to the sower and bread to the eater.
Notice who is the actor in this passage.
We are not encouraged to act, but to be receptive to God’s action.
There is no way we can bring forth on our own,
but instead we may and must wait upon God to speak to us.

In the second reading, Paul makes the astounding statement
that in spite of what we heard last week that sin still dwells in the bodies of believers,
there is no condemnation of that sin for those who are in Christ Jesus.
An astounding statement – a word which demands no prior deed
except the prior deed done by Jesus Christ.
Though we are beset by sin, the Spirit which has been given to us
dwells in us and directs our minds away from the inclination to sin
and towards God’s will.
Though we may fall, we may get up again and continue to set the mind
on the Spirit of life and peace.
And this is not our doing, but the doing of the Spirit within us.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of himself and his evangelists as those who spread the Word,
the Word of salvation and forgiveness,
and speaks of the different results within people,
those who forget and those who fall away,
those for whom the word is choked by riches and the cares of the world,
and those lives who are good soil, and produce richly.
Now at last, there seems to be something we can do!
Defend ourselves from the evil one, deepen our rootedness in the Word,
eliminate the cares of the world that keep us from being who God wants us to be!
And yet, given what we have heard of the power of the evil one,
given the cares of the world that beset us day by day,
which try as we may we cannot escape,
given the attempts we have made to become better people and failed,
what is there to do but to listen and let the words sink into our ears
until by the power of the Spirit they are firmly affixed into our hearts.
Listen again and again to God’s Word that says it is not about you,
it is about God – what God speaks, what God commands, what God promises?
“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
What a glorious promise, one that we can only receive by hearing.

God’s work, our hands? Fair enough.
But how about God’s Word, our ears;
or better yet, God’s Spirit, our hearts.
For the more we listen; the more we hear and receive God’s Word,
made incarnate for us in Jesus Christ,
and spread abroad by the Church Sunday after Sunday, day after day,
the Spirit will more deeply root us in the Word
and protect us from our enemies
and put those cares and troubles of the world in their places.
And yes, we will be set to our tasks in God’s kingdom,
using our words and deeds to accomplish God’s work.
But listen first and always.
Let these words sink into your ears, and embrace the hope they bring you:
“My word will not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
“The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
Listen, and by the power of the Spirit believe and trust that these promises are for you,
and let God take care of the cares and the thorns and the evil one.
Be still, and know that God is God
and that he will be our stronghold and our rock and our deliverer,
to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen

July 11, 2011 at 9:38 am Leave a comment

Book Review: The Great Silence

Originally published on LibraryThing.

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age… by Juliet Nicolson

A collection of personal snapshots from the two years between Armistice Day and the Burial of the Unknown Soldier, anchored in the center by the two-minute Great Silence observed in all of Great Britain on Armistice Day 1919.

Ms. Nicolson writes “history from below” in the sense that this is not primarily the story of the politics of Britain of the time (except in the ways the movements from below affected them), but about how different people acted and reacted in the immediate aftermath of the trauma of World War I and the changes which immediately enveloped Britain. Butlers found their services no longer needed or afforded, the mobility offered by the automobile offered entrepreneurs new opportunity, and the newly-developed science of plastic surgery eased the suffering of men deformed by the ghastly wounds suffered at the front. Ms. Nicolson does not tell us these things happened; she shows us by telling the stories, reconstructed by diaries and letters, of those who lived the changes.

As a pastor, I was interested in how religion figured in this history. Religious observance declined after the war for three reasons: the lack of the corpse of the war dead meant no funerals (hadn’t they ever heard of a memorial service?); and there were fewer marriages and fewer baptisms. But there was also a sense that religion had failed and simply become a cheerleader for the war. I don’t know that this is untrue, but I wish that Ms. Nicolson had included among her snapshots religious folk who were trying to come to grips with that very question.

In Europe in 1919, Karl Barth wrote his monumental commentary on Romans, the first shot fired (if you will) by the Neo-Orthodox who rejected their teachers’ blind acceptance of the necessity of war. In Britain, the monuments of the inter-war years include the Service of Lessons and Carols from Cambridge, begun in 1919 as a response to the tragedy of the war. 92 years later it survives and thrives, and is broadcast around the world, as much a relic of the time of The Great Silence as any, and a constructive Christian response at that.

Ms. Nicolson’s book is well-written, its strength lying in her attention to detail, which makes the few typographical and factual errors more jarring. It is a work that may lead to further reading as we approach the hundredth anniversary of “The War to End All Wars.” ( )

July 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm Leave a comment

Quotable: On Friendship, Love, and Truth

“Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay on friendship, C.S. Lewis noted that Emerson once observed: ‘Do you love me?’ means, ‘Do you see the same truth?;’ or at least, Lewis wrote, ‘Do you care about the same truth?’…A friendship like Roosevelt and Churchill’s is rightly understood as a fond relationship in which two people have an interest not just in each other, though they do, but also, as Emerson saw, in a shared external truth or mission.”

– Jon Meacham, in Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship

July 6, 2011 at 8:49 am Leave a comment

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