Archive for February 2017
Transfiguration of our Lord – 26th of February, 2017 at Bethlehem
Exodus 24:12-18 / Psalm 2 / 2 Peter 1:16-21 / Matthew 17:1-9
You may have heard about the far-away solar system that one of our telescopes out in space determined had seven planets revolving around their sun, which is so far away that it looks like a star to us. That sun is more dim than our sun and smaller. If our sun was the size of a basketball, it would be the size of a golf ball. But the planets, called exoplanets, because they are not planets in our solar system, are about the size of our earth and astronomers are testing to see if water is on their surface – and if so, there could be life out there. But the star, called Trappist-1, is almost 40 light years away and that means trillions of miles away, so let us try to stay on earth and talk about earthly stars – and one of those stars is Jesus Christ our Lord, indeed, the sun “involving” our faith.
Yes, his face up there on Transfiguration mountain shone like the sun and his clothes dazzled the disciples with their brilliance. St. Paul says that we can ascend from glory to glory, from splendor to splendor. Apply that to stars, we speak about their magnitudes. Stars at the sixth magnitude are visible to the naked eye, if you have good eye-sight. In the little dipper, there are second and third magnitude stars and in the big dipper there are even stars of the first magnitude, very bright stars.
But Paul is referring to people filled with the grace of God. some of us hardly shine and some of us by increasing in faith, by trusting more and more in the promises of God, grow brighter from one glory to the next, from splendor to splendor. (As scripture says, the friends of God are like the sun when it rises in all its splendor  – Judges 5:31.) In this ascent, we can receive more and more angel-power, as I like to call it.
Peter, James, and John climbing up that mountain with Jesus, suddenly saw the heavenly Jesus. They saw God shining through the Christ who walked with them and with him, they saw Moses and Elijah conversing with him. Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus about the coming valley of Lent, his Passion, and the cruel suffering on the cross that he was now about to undergo. But the Transfiguration, the real Epiphany of this whole season of Light, strengthened him in order to bear the cross and through it, get to the glorious resurrection from the dead. God repeated his baptism affirmation: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Moses appearing beside Christ stood for the law and Elijah for the prophets, while Jesus as the whole Word of God, glowed, radiated the light of the Gospel. We thank God for our Bibles, but the living Word of God, the shining Son of God, radiating all of God’s promises, shone up there on that mountain for Jesus’ inner circle Peter, James, and John.
The Old Testament, the law and the prophets are a testament, a testimony to Jesus and the whole New Testament was written only in order to be a testimony to him, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Behold, the human being! – created by God, but in his divinity, begotten of the Father, God’s very Son. Just think, if Jesus had not been born, the New Testament would not even have been written!
One of my commentaries talked about how the tyrant, King Herod wanted to appear as a god and be worshipped. He had a shimmering silver gown made for him, assembled all in an arena for a sunrise and when the sun arose, the light hit his silver gown, bursting into brilliant streams of light and he wanted to be worshipped by those present as a god. The story goes that worms then ate him up and he died a miserable death. That was a phony transfiguration. The enlightenment of Buddha under a Bodhi tree was authentic. He was really trying to provide a way to deal with human suffering. But imagine trying to insist that your glorious clothes made you mature in that kind of a glory? I know that the movie stars on their red carpet can deceive us in this way.
You know that I studied Martin Luther of old. In his pamphlet, “The Freedom of a Christian,” (1520) he talks of angels ascending and descending upon those who have Christ within them. He taught that we grow by the tension of opposites. Thus he opposed faith and love. Because of faith we are completely free and sovereign, subject to no one, not a president, not a pope, nor a boss. We are subject to no one. That’s how high God lifts us up through faith, making us God’s children. That also goes for the government in a democracy. The president is not over us, because we are all citizens. The president serves citizens.
But we fall in love. Love makes us descend and makes us slaves, so that we even have to stoop down to serve and help children, the homeless, and the very least in our society.
Thus, we are slaves by love and completely free by faith. Up there by faith we are strengthened for the love required down here. Yes, we are slaves by love and completely free by faith; we are sinners and saints and this tension makes us grow. Luther calls this growing and maturing rapture. So in Christ we get high, but by maturing and growing.
First Luther says, no matter our birth order (I’m the eleventh in my family) we become first-born for Christ, and Christ promises us the inheritance. Then we grow up further receiving the nobility of the spirit and the nobility of the blood can’t hold a candle to the nobility of the spirit. So square your shoulders, stand up straight and lift up your self-esteem, because you are royalty, kings and queens before God. Here we would have to say, presidents, senators, and governors. Now some people cannot even take care of themselves, but when God promotes you to a higher level by a strong share of divine grace, you can take care of a family, a city, a state, a country. But what is higher than that, Luther says, is becoming a priest, because a priest prays for others and intercedes before God for them, and what’s more, God listens to them. Above that we are raised up by the grace of God to become Christs for others and from Christs we are raised up into God.
That is where Christ arose in the transfiguration, but only to receive the strength from the mountain-top of faith to become more than victorious in the valley of his suffering and dying on the cross because of his love for us.
Let me witness about my own life: once I remember being in an anti-racism training back in the nineteen sixties. It was awful. The trainers wanted White people to feel what it was like to be discriminated against, rejected and abused. It felt like being put through a meat grinder and in the worship service that was to end the long event, a cloud of depression came over all the participants. Suddenly I couldn’t help it. I started singing “We Shall Overcome” disrupting the whole service. The people next to me tried to stop me and keep me quiet, but they couldn’t. I couldn’t stop myself. I was somehow singing and it was not my voice, but the voice of the Holy Spirit. Then everybody joined in, everybody held hands around the church and they danced out of the church, turning depression into celebration.
Afterward, the synod, angry because we protested the firing of our first Black professor, decertified me so that I could not become ordained. My seminary failed me in my examinations, also for political reasons. The president of the seminary told me I should go to Germany until people cooled down. It took me four years after seminary to become ordained and that by the German Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg, (by Bp. Kurt Scharf in 1975) but through all that time I knew that I had been affirmed by the Holy Spirit by what happened back on that day. It gave me the strength to get through those four years. I had problems. I was immature. But where they claimed I was a building in ruins coming down, the Holy Spirit assured me that I was a new construction going up.
Now I will not go into the booths or tents or dwellings that Peter talked about in this story. This is Jesus’ mountain-top experience, but we too; it goes for us too. You can’t hold onto a mountain-top experience like that. You just know that you have had a glimpse of the person you will become in Christ, and then you just put the cross between your shoulder-blades and soldier on, because your faith becomes active in love and love seeks justice, the merciful kind.
So you are the stars St. Paul talks about. It is for you to increase in faith and in the angel-power of love. Riding on grace, you will shine brighter from one glory to the next, from one splendor to the next. Hollywood stars are phony for the most part. In Universal Studios in LA, the first thing they do to you is throw a brick at you. You duck. Then you realize that it is a foam-rubber brick. Hollywood stars can be deceptive like that. They seem to know all about love, and then you find that they were married six times.
You are the real stars. When your little light starts shining, when you pray – and sometimes we prayed all Saturday night until beginning the Sunday morning service here in Bethlehem – you will increase in faith from glory to glory. So steep yourselves into the Word of God. Pray without ceasing, and let God’s Epiphany light, the light of the Gospel get brighter and brighter shining in this place. Amen.
 Kenneth Chang, “Seven Earth Sized Planets Orbit Dwarf Star, NASA and Astronomers Say,” NYT, February 22, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/science/trappist-1-exoplanets-nasa.html?_r=0.
 Judges 5:31.
 This comes from Flavius Josephus, (Antiquities 19.8.2) but it is also referred to in Acts 12:19-23. Frederick Houk Borsch, Proclamation 4: Aids for interpreting the lessons of the Church Year: Epiphany Series A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), page 61. Historical Evidence for Herod Agrippa http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/herod_agrippa.htm.
 I like to call it the existential rapture.
7th Sunday of Epiphany Bethlehem Lutheran Church February 19th 2017
Lev 19:1-2,9-18 Psalm 119: 33-40 I Cor 3:10-11, 16-23 Matt 5:38-48
The Double Victory
Paulo Freire wrote a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed and in it he explained that those who revolt against their oppressors usually just bring about a reversal: they get into power only to become the new oppressors. He asks the question: how can oppression in itself be overcome in a society? Freire asked a question that is in the spirit of Jesus and that is why we had to read the book way back in the seminary. The idea is that the oppressed had to realize that their struggle was not only for themselves, but also for their oppressors. That requires Jesus’ love of our enemies and praying for those who persecute and abuse us.
While studying out in my driveway a woman walking her dog stopped and talked with me. She had just come out of jail and she had held a deep grudge and could not forgive someone who had hurt her. In jail, she came to the end of her own strategies and strength and got down on her knees in her prison cell and surrendered herself to God. She compared her newly won forgiveness with changing a baby’s diapers. But we soil ourselves also as grownups sometimes: “You might be comfortable in your own soiled pants for a while,” she said, “but then you are going to stink. With forgiveness, you change and get into a clean and fresh pair of pants. That’s what forgiveness does for you.” She used much more colorful language, of course.
In the German of 1939 a fellow worker turned in a Jew to the Nazis and all through his years in the concentration camp he plotted and nursed the revenge he was going to take. When the war ended and he was released, he was walking down a street in Austria and he saw his fellow worker walking toward him. Murderous feelings welled up in him, but suddenly he said to himself, “This has to stop somewhere!” and he just passed him and walked on by.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that we are going to match your ability to inflict suffering with our ability to endure it. “One day we will win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes us more than victorious. The victory is not only ours but also for the enemy.
Jesus refers to the law of Moses, the Law of Equity, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Moses was putting the limit on blood feud and the law of revenge. The law of revenge is also called the law of retaliation (lex taliones). It can be found in Genesis: And Lamech said, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven-fold, truly Lamech will be avenged seventy times seven-fold.”
Moses reformed this law of revenge: if a person knocks out your tooth, only a tooth is allowed in return. So, the punishment has to be equal and proportionate to the harm suffered.
But our Savior Jesus proclaims the law of love. “It has been said of old, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you, do not resist the evil-doer.” Love your enemies. If someone asks you for forgiveness, seven times is not the limit, but seventy times seven times. On the other side of the law of equity he replaces the law of revenge with the law of love.
Now individually enduring a great deal of suffering we can live out the Gospel like that. It makes us authentic, genuine, mature, holy, set apart for the perfection given us from on high. With plenteous redemption and abundant grace, we grow into the full stature of Christ. But there is a book by Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, our countries still operate under the law of revenge and often it is not even proportional to the harm that we have received. We had about 3,000 casualties in 9/11 and how many Iraqis and Afghans have died? How many more casualties did we sustain exacting our revenge?
Jesus is giving us a strategy to overcome evil with good. Continuing an eye for an eye, most of us end up blind; a tooth for a tooth, we’d all end up with partials. Evil has to be overcome by good. Only light can overcome darkness. But on the other hand, we are not allowed to keep on taking abuse from a husband or wife or a bully or boss. We can take on the abject cowardice of a victim and in that way, and with that we become an accomplice to the crime being committed against us.
Jesus is full of courage and is speaking about becoming more than victorious and gaining the double victory that Martin Luther King refers to.
The Old Testament lesson is full of good ways to be merciful and law-abiding. Psalm one says, “Blessed is the one who mediates on God’s law, day and night” and then Psalm 119 is all about the law and a psalmist taking day and night meditating upon it. It is the longest psalm and it takes you day and night to read it. It has 176 verses. In verse 105 it says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” And then St. Paul says, don’t you know that you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells within you?
We are usually kind and loving to each other during the church service. Beggars used to sit right outside the church doors when people were coming out of worship to get a hand-out before the good and warm feelings of the people wore off. But Saint Paul reminds us that we are the church, a sanctuary, a temple. When we are the church then the real presence of Christ is within us. The Holy Spirit is within us. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus if the temple in Jerusalem or in Bethel was the one, in which to worship, he said that we ourselves were the church; the spirit was in us even outside this beautiful sanctuary, this church. Thus, we worship God in spirit and truth. And God’s Spirit remains in us when we are the church living our everyday lives. Our bodies are a sanctuary, a church. Everywhere we go we are still church and a sanctuary for those in need. And the purpose of the preaching is not emotionality but morality, according to Martin Luther King.
But remember the Gospel. When our lives are shattered and we ask God, “Where are all your promises, where are all the promises you made to me?” We cannot achieve the promised good and moral life by our own strength and effort. When we surrender to God, the way that woman did in her jail cell and say, “O God I’ve come to the end of my strength. I can’t go on. Now let me live out of your strength. Here I am. My life is yours. Live my life.” At this point you and I no longer live, but Christ lives in us. And then you will see a train of miracles, just like those Christ worked here on earth. You will open the eyes of the blind, cause the deaf to hear and cry like Jesus: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”
Our prayer for the day said,
Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies and transform our words and deeds to be like his, through whom we pray, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.
This prayer mentions our words and deeds, but we ourselves need to be transformed. Martin Luther King again, “Only through inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving way.” So we ourselves have to become transformed and grow and mature into the full stature of Christ and then our words will be the words that Christ speaks and our deeds will be his miracles, because even now we do the impossible and those miracles that are around the corner just take a little longer. Indeed, all things are possible to those who believe. Amen.
 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Herder and Herder, 1970). I attended Hamma School of Theology in Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio 1967-1971.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, (New York: Harper & Rowe, Publishers, 1963), p. 40. In the Philadelphia: 1981 Fortress Press edition, pp. 54-55.
 Ibid., 1963 edition, page 39: when Abraham Lincoln was asked by a shocked woman how he could say kind words about the South when times were the most bitter, he answered, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
 Genesis 4:23-24.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength To Love, (1963), p. 13.
Under the Influence of the Holy Spirit and the Law versus the Gospel 2/12/17 Sermon at Bethlehem Church in Oakland
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 6th Sunday of Epiphany, February 12th 2017
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 Psalm 119: 1-8 I Cor 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-37
Under the Influence of the Holy Spirit
Preface: I first called this sermon The Law versus the Gospel because the Gospel lesson that I read to you from the Sermon on the Mount is really law and can come across in a very judgmental way. We have to make a distinction between the gospel as a genre, which in this case contains the law, and the Gospel as all the promises of God: abundant life, forgiveness of sins, salvation, and even life everlasting. The Gospel is absolute, while the law is relative to a time and place, except for the natural law of preserving life, nourishing life, educating the young, and improving life. The Gospel gives the wherewithal to fulfill the law; indeed, to do more than the law requires. Now to my sermon.
I thank God that you called me to preach and preside for you this morning. What an honor it is to be able to preach the Word of God for you for three Sundays! I remember, back about fifteen years ago, when Pr. Julius Carroll asked me to step in for him during his sabbatical after my four years at St. John’s Lutheran Church in East Oakland. I spent two years with you at that time and then how Pr. Richard Rubio Bowley called me after I returned from Philadelphia in 2008 for another two years with you. We even stepped back in for six weeks when Pr. Clay had to be treated for cancer – so our relationship goes back a long way.
What is important, however, is your strengthening up by increasing your faith and your numbers. The prayer for today provides what you and I need to hear and take to heart for this strengthening.
O God, you are the strength of all of us who hope in you, because we are weak mortals and we cannot accomplish anything good without you.
That means we cannot increase our faith and our numbers here at Bethlehem without the help of God, without the real presence of Christ. Without that we are helpless. The prayer continues:
Help us understand the things we ought to do and give us the grace and the power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
And God will answer this prayer for you. I can witness to you from experience that God answers prayer. “God turns, turns, turns those around who turn away from you.” That comes from Psalm 126. To put your address on its words: When God restored the fortunes of Bethlehem, then we thought we were dreaming and our overflowing pews were filled with laughter…Those who plant their seeds with tears will come back carrying the sheathes, rejoicing – their harvest, that means, bringing in all the new members into Bethlehem, rejoicing! “Bringing in the sheathes, bringing in the sheathes, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheathes!” That’s a song for Bethlehem Missionary Lutheran Church!
Our Old Testament lesson tells us to choose life! The death wish is very strong, but the power of the Holy Spirit is stronger. Christ came to bring life, abundant life! St. Paul in First Corinthians reminds us not to have divisions, but to be one in Christ like the family you’ve become; and the Gospel takes each commandment and increases it to the Nth degree. Thou shalt not kill: don’t even insult anyone or call them names! Thou shalt not commit adultery: don’t even allow lust to take hold of you. If what you are looking at makes you stumble: cut it out. If what your hand is doing, those things you do that make you stumble: cut it out. Old primitive punishments like plucking our eyes and cutting off hands were crimes in and of themselves. The Gospel has lifted us up so we don’t take those words literally. But if you are a doctor and someone has gangrene in his or her leg, you have to cut it off to save the person’s life. The medical sense would make it different.
But think of a poor addict: we can feel powerless and like St. Paul says, the good that we would do, we don’t do; and the wrong that we don’t want to do, that’s what we do. “Who can save us from this body of death. Thanks, be to God,” St. Paul exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” The Holy Spirit gives us the grace and the strength to overcome the treachery in our cheating hearts. I usually pray: “Dear God, give me grace, so I don’t fall on my face.”
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, there’s no obligation: we can’t help choosing life, can’t help walking the straight and narrow, can’t help loving one another, can’t help bringing ourselves and others together, strengthening our congregation. And of course, one member that you really need is a pastor. But don’t forget: Christ, the Good Shepherd is really present among you and you are also the priesthood of believers – meaning that you are all ministers.
You are all ministers. Now that is a big thing that makes us little. We can seat our pastor at a head table and that love and respect is good; or as some congregations do, buy him a Rolls Royce. But look at the word “minister” carefully. Do you hear “mini” in it? “Mini” means little. St. Paul was called Saul after the King who was six inches taller than anyone in Israel. (He would have been a good basketball player.) When Christ stopped him in his tracks, he called him Paul from the Latin Paulus-a-um, meaning little, little one. So being ministers means making ourselves little and doing little acts of kindness and sharing blessed assurances of love.
And those little things mean a lot. (You may know the song.) And the little things, like feeding the hungry, which is not so little here, come from Bethlehem’s big heart. I know because I have experienced it. And when that kind of love, service, and respect well up in a congregation, even spring up like a fountain, then people will come to quench the thirst of their souls and the fill the hunger of their hearts. When people experience it, they get out of their death wish to which they are addicted and choose the abundant life in Christ. They yearn for oneness, where people are one heart and soul together – by the grace of Christ. And we will not kill, we will not hurt, we will not insult one another. We will not let lust give us an impure heart. We will not swear and our word yes will be yes and our no will be no.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew intensifies each commandment. Martin Luther of old redirected the commandments to their positive side. Thou shalt not kill means that we should love our neighbor as ourselves through the grace and strength that God gives us. Thou shalt not commit adultery: husbands love and respect your wives and wives love and respect your husbands, mutually. You can mutually say to one another: Be my Valentine? When we dally outside of faith and allow our faith to decrease, we can easily become tempted away by the world. We have to take time to pray, read our bibles, come to church, and encourage one another.
We can say: “What’s the use? We have had one pastor after another and look where we are today?” Now I don’t know whether for the Super Bowl you were a Falcon or a Patriot’s fan, but what if Tom Brady had said “What’s the use?” 25 points behind? They said it could not be done! They said nobody could do it! But when you realize Christ is really present with you, making you one heart and soul together, you have a quarterback greater than Tom Brady. It does not matter how far behind you’ve come. The Holy Spirit puts you out front again. The Holy Spirit makes it so that we get back into the game, “the wonderful game called love.” In the Holy Spirit, we can’t help doing little random acts of kindness and senseless acts of love. When we no longer live, but Christ lives in us, then we too can sing the song, “I can’t help loving you. I’ve made up my mind.” Because that is the mind of Christ, which we share. The mind of Christ, mind you, makes us one heart and soul in Christ, with a power far greater than any addiction.
The Gospel is that God writes straight on crooked lines. Hey, we’re sinners, but God must have loved sinners, because he made so many of us. But when Christ lives in our hearts and lives our lives, then we become saints, the saints of God. So, let’s pray that Bethlehem catches a new pastor, a pastor who is a mini-ster not a magi-ster. And that the Holy Spirit give Bethlehem’s members the grace, resources, and power to call that pastor – so that by God’s grace Bethlehem increases in strength and numbers. Because Bethlehem needs to have that powerful life-giving and loving impact on this neighborhood, on Oakland, and the others places that you come from.
You are named after the tiny city of Bethlehem in Judea and look at the impact it had on the whole world. That’s because Christ was born in that Bethlehem of old and imagine the impact of this congregation because Christ gets born in your hearts here in Bethlehem on West 12th Street in Oakland? And then Christ will come again and say, “Well done, you good and faithful servants. Amen.
 From my song: “Turn, Turn, Turn Them around Who are Turning Away.” (Psalm 126)
 An old Portuguese saying.