Archive for August 2016
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost August 28, 2016
Proverbs 25:6-7 Psalm 112 Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16 Luke 14:1,7-14
What wonderful lessons we are blessed with this morning! I usually read Brian Stoffregen to prepare for my sermon and reading his online commentary this time makes my cup overflow with thoughts to share. But my thoughts, of course, are not important. That’s why we pray, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. Amen.” To quote Luther, “May I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that with my bodily voice I bring Christ into your hearts, so that you may form him in yourselves.” “And again, may I preach the Gospel in such a way that you hear your God speaking to you.” Not my thoughts, but Jesus Christ is the Word of God and “when you hear the word you become like the word: pure, good, and just.”
Let me begin by saying that humility is not the way of salvation, but Christ is. Otherwise the lowly could not be exalted. But humility helps us be able to grow. When we identify with children as old as we might be, we will still be able to grow and mature more. Where can we go if we think we have already arrived? If we already know it all, how will we be able to learn anything? When my students had trouble understanding something, abstract logic, for example, and I became impatient with them, I turned to something I could not understand myself and struggled with it so that I realized what they were going through.
In our pastors’ bible study, one pastor was brought to tears when he read the Hebrews lesson:
Keep loving one another as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison – [we have locked up two million or so] – remember those in prison, as if you were together with them in prison; [Imagine the torture you would experience in solitary confinement?] and remember the mistreated as if you yourself were suffering.
When reading Scripture it is better for us to identify with the sinners rather than the saints, the righteous. We need to identify with the imprisoned and the mistreated (tortured in another scripture version)and we have to keep on loving and showing hospitality.
The healing of the man with dropsy is left out of our lesson. The commentaries explained that a person filled up with fluid, that looked to them like a person water-logged, who still experienced unquenchable thirst. The symbolic significance of the disease made them think of someone incredibly rich, yet money-hungry. What is the symbolic significance of cancer? I wish I knew.
Once when I was in Bali, Indonesia, (leaving Germany, I went around the world, over the Pacific to come back to the U.S.A.) the people there said to me: you consider millionaires, today we would say billionaires, as the most important people in your society. They are the ones you look up to. We look up to the artists, musicians, scholars, and authors as the most important; those who make a cultural contribution enriching our lives.
Jesus says to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind to our banquets, because they cannot repay us. Compare that with political fund-raising dinners, where you are invited if you can pay $60,000 or more a plate. Many political donations, of course, bring much better returns than the stock market.
Jesus is speaking about pure giving. Giving that is done just because there is a need, not to receive brownie points, or some reward, like getting into heaven.
Once when I was pastoring in Berlin, a woman in a nursing home died. Her name was Frieda Frischbutter. Her name is funny, because it means “fresh butter.” When I gave her communion, she would say, “Thank you, Herr Doctor,” because she thought I was her doctor. She had dementia and had been completely forgotten. The fellow driving the hearse to the cemetery told me, “There’s no need to do a service. Just come along and say a prayer at the grave.” Something in me rang a bell. I called my nursing home worship helpers together. Today they would be: [I named the three in our congregation that now help me with nursing home worship.] We went to the cemetery and performed a full funeral service. Suddenly we were overwhelmed: a woman who had nothing, not even her life, who was completely forgotten, even by herself; God had not forgotten and it was through her that God gave us the most precious gift on earth, God’s very self. The presence of God around that grave filled and overpowered us as we experienced the compassion of God, whose plan it is to include everyone, even those we have completely forgotten, in the law of love. In those who have nothing, who have even lost their lives, God encounters us in the way that:
In the poor, we receive God’s riches,
In the imprisoned, God’s freedom,
In the confused, God’s clarity,
In the lost, God shows us the way,
In the mentally distressed, a healthy and sound mind,
In the dead, the fulfillment of life.
I wrote that way back then [in 1974]. It is something like the prayer of St. Francis: “It’s in giving that we receive, in dying that we receive eternal life.”
One way to look at humility is to think that we might not have to take ourselves too seriously. I used to talk very thoughtlessly – maybe I still do – and people would laugh at what I said. Then I pretended that I had meant it to be a joke; but I had just not thought about what I was saying. My mother would tell me, if they laugh at you, then laugh with them, and then they are laughing with you and not at you.
The commentary said the name “Pharisee” meant to separate from. They separated from common people in order to be holy. They did not want to be among the riffraff. A very difficult woman, a long time member of our St. Paul’s Church in Coney Island, who always wore expensive furs, walked into our church, looked around and said, “This is low life!” and walked out. One time she came out to me as worship was about to start, and insisted that I make a young man in the congregation remove his hat. I went in and it was a young Black girl. “Don’t you see it’s a girl!” She would not admit her error. I could tell you many more stories about her. “She has been leading the singing in the congregation,” the editor wrote in our newsletter. “The last we heard she was leading the singing by a whole verse.”
In Coney Island there the congregation used to do Minstrel shows, making their faces black, meanwhile they were very bigoted and racist. One Black woman, who could pass for White was received into membership in 1956 and beside her name in parenthesis was written: (colored). She kept a kerchief over her hair to hide the fact that it was kinky. For her birthday a Norwegian couple gave her a pail and a mop. I tell you no lies. She never forgave them. I got her into the church council and she became the vice president. They never forgave me. I cannot repeat some of the slurs they said. Because my salary was paid by the Board of American Missions, now it would be the Department of Outreach, they could not stop my salary payments.
In some eyes, we might have been low-life, but to God we were high-life. Jesus, the Pharisees said, ate with tax collectors and sinners.
In India students who were Brahman, the highest caste befriended me and accompanied me on a boat-ride on the Ganges River in the Holy city of Varanasi. They then invited me home to eat with them. I found myself eating alone in a room, while they all ate in another. The women were also not eating. I asked them why: “When you eat, we are filled.” One of the women told me.
The Pharisees called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard, who would probably eat with anybody! Imagine, he might even have a beer with you and me!
Eating and drinking together is so very important and what is this sermon but reaching each other’s hearts to raise up the living Christ within ourselves before we receive the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ. In the Schmalcald Articles, Luther said, one way to participate in God’s grace is in the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters. That can happen in a potluck, for example, or say even in our coffee hour! Amen.
 Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, p. 319.
 From the Martin Luther, “Freedom of a Christian” in Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), page 72.
 Ibid., page 268.
 Luke 14:2-6.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost August 21, 2016
Isaiah 58:9b-14 Psalm 103:1-8 Hebrews 12:18-29 Luke 134:10-17
Christ Heals Hunched and Bent Backs
It’s good to be back with you here on the West Coast. We had a wedding over there near Boston, I showed Joshua and Mark the house I grew up in near Haverhill, Massachusetts. It is right next to a railway embankment. We used the German word Bahndamm because it was so much easier to say. Then we climbed Mt. Chocorua, 3,500 feet. Joshua and Mark made it. I stayed at 3,100 or so feet. When will I know my own limits? But what an adventure! Then Nora’s father died.
But let me turn to my sermon: I think it will be somewhat autobiographical, because I really identify with that woman Jesus healed and because I used to walk very much bent over and it is not just a matter of anatomy and bad posture.
Sometimes I believe that I grew up more under the law of the Old Testament than the Gospel of the New. I don’t mean the parts of the Bible. A life in the Gospel is filled with trust and gracious freedom in quality relationships, while the law means compulsion and control. Lenin said, “Trust is good, control is better!” No way. Control is necessary in a crisis, but it is inappropriate in growing up in the life-world of our relationships.
We live in the gracious freedom of the Christian, where Christ invites us into a life filled with adventure, helping us become upright and mature. A verse hanging on the wall of my brother’s room read: “The Lord God is a sun and shield; God will give grace and glory; no good thing will God withhold from those who walk uprightly.”
But under the yoke of oppression our backs get bent and we look down only at the ground and can’t lift up our eyes to the hills, to the one in heaven who can help us. My brother Philip, writing for today in our devotional book, Christ in our Home: Light for Today, notes that we are bent down by the challenges of life. (Check his devotions out. His passages go from August 16th to the 31st.)
I still have to watch out for my posture. My father used to press me against himself and say, “Walk straight!” It did not help because he was trying to control my whole life. Reading his diaries which he wrote when I was three years old, I found nothing about his determining I was to become a minister. Did I only imagine that? Then I read his sermon for my baptism, when I was eight days old. “I’m naming him Peter because he is going to become a minister.” Now I say, “No matter.” God has chosen us from before the foundations of the world anyway – but in order to raise us up in freedom.
Being called and chosen by God does not mean that you have to become a pastor. Don’t get me wrong. We need them. But you are called and chosen by God before our Creator laid the foundations of this world, when you were baptized and God called you by name and made you his.
The law is not the way to salvation. Christ is. Moses is the law-giver. Christ proclaims the Gospel of grace and glory. Christ’s forgiveness straightens us out, gives us the inner strength and integrity that make us be able to walk with our chin up and our shoulders thrown back in the glory of being part of God’s new creation, in the glory of being a forgiven Child of God.
At home we grew up very much according to the Old Testament law. You stopped work at 6:00 o’clock Saturday evening and you were allowed to begin it again at 6:00 pm Sunday evening. It was the Sabbath and you better not work in it! (The Puritans killed a cat on Monday, because it had caught a mouse on Sunday.) We had an exception: should your ox fall into a well – you could pull it out. But we didn’t have any oxen.
Then one Sunday morning before church, my father comes rushing into the house. “The ox fell into the well! The ox fell into the well!” We all knew that verse and that my father was sounding an alarm. We all rushed out of the house. We had built a large chicken coop with stone walls beside the railway embankment (the Bahndamm) and we had not yet put a roof on it. A rainstorm filled it with water and pushed the one wall down the embankment. Boulders from the wall had fallen onto the railroad tracks. We rushed down rolling them off the tracks just before a train rushed by. What a close call!
Now Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath and he teaches us to view the law as a way to heal and save and bring about abundant life. It is good to rest on the Sabbath. But when the law replaces the Gospel, you get a disaster.
I checked out this story, because I thought that it may not have been true, but it was. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, back in 2002 a fire started in a girls’ school. All the doors were locked, because they do not allow the mixing of the sexes. The schoolgirls ran out of the blazing building to save their lives, but they did not have their headscarves on nor the black robes, the abayas, which was their proper dress. Their guards would not unchain the doors. Moral police stopped their rescue, beating the girls to prevent their escaping and forcing them back into the burning building. Fifteen girls died before firemen arrived and overcame the guards and police to start the rescue.
How to miss what is important in life! How to miss the whole point of the law! How to turn what is life-giving into a death-trap!
Christ says, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The law penetrated by the perspective of Christ’s Gospel is a law of love and one can love that law, because it invites us to bear one another’s burdens, to walk in one another’s shoes, to listen deeply to one another, and to get into each other’s hearts.
You and I have probably seen a man or woman completely bent down, like a hunchback, bearing the whole world of troubles upon their backs, at least their body language indicates that. Isaiah tells how God removes that yoke of oppression from us. And the beautiful way that Isaiah speaks of the Sabbath is possible because he loves the Sabbath. What is there not to love about a free day with no work required? You can beat a lion to force it to eat meat, and it will hate meat. You can force a child to eat desert and the child will hate desert!
In the Freedom of a Christian Luther wrote that in the Gospel we have a new Sabbath. There is nothing we need do to be saved. We are saved by grace and not by works. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not submit to the yoke of slavery again.”
By getting ourselves out of the way, God works through us, bringing about works that seem unimaginable. How can a Beethoven have created his Fifth Symphony or Mozart composed his concertos? These are creations humanly impossible to accomplish; except when the Sabbath enfolds our whole lives, our hearts rest in God and God’s healing, blessings, and life-renewal for the abundance of life follows in our wake.
Much reading and bending over my books gave me a bad posture once again. I asked the physical therapist, who came for my hip implant what I might do? “Roll back your shoulders ten times. Act like you are squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades and walk with your chin up.
It’s great to be alive! And it’s great to be free! Jesus looked at that woman and said, “She’s a daughter of Abraham!” And in the reign of Christ, he was not about to leave her in bondage. He healed her back, bent down to the ground under the oppressive yoke and she praised God as the Holy Spirit lifted her burden and raised her up so that she stood upright before the Lord. And we praise God with her, rejoicing with our Psalm:
Bless the Lord O my soul,
Bless God’s holy Name.
Because Christ leads us into healing and life.
Bless the Lord O my soul,
Bless God’s holy Name.
For our God is full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! Amen.
 Psalm 84:11.
 Rebecca Grothe, et. Al. editors, Christ in the Home: Light for Today, July, August, September, 2016, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), page 55.
 Luke 14:5.
 BBC News, Front Page, March 15th, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1874471.stm
 Matthew 11:28-30.
 Galatians 5:1.