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Month: February 2017

What the World Needs Now

What the World Needs Now

What the World Needs Now

Sermon for Epiphany 6, Feb. 12, 2017
Based on Matthew 5: 21-26
The Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Pastor George Martin

The title of my sermon is “What the World Needs Now” — what I’m going to talk about isn’t love. If you can please turn off the song in your heads.

I like to tell you that the sermon was one where all the pieces just flowed together, but that wasn’t the case. I would personally mistrust the preacher who said oh it’s easy to preach on Jesus’s message. I certainly wouldn’t trust a pastor and I hope you wouldn’t either, one who said “We should never get angry.” I can’t say that. I do get angry.

Jesus does say that anger that continues can make one liable to a hell of fire. I do have trouble with part of this gospel.

Actually in my office I have a copy of an old ad that I was somewhat responsible for creating back around 1979. I have in my hand and the headline says “if all you want from churches hellfire and brimstone, burn this ad.”

I don’t think I’m alone and having trouble with some of the harsh and difficult stories in the New Testament where violence is done to those who have done wrong. There actually are eight stories in Matthew, four of which are original to Matthew, and four of which are shared with the other synoptic Gospels in which we find some kind of violence — with weeds cast into a hellish wire or saying that there are those who are sent into eternal punishment. We will have to confront stories like this from Matthew’s gospel later this year.

Right now I’m teaching about the St. Paul in our Forum time and I’ll lead a Lenten bible study on Galatians. I got into this work because there was a Paul I didn’t like. That’s Paul in the first three chapters of Romans, especially where he says that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” Maybe I’m not alone in being troubled by what clearly is called “the anger of God.”

So maybe what the world needs now, is really some sense of anger about all the injustice and the oppression that goes on in this world. There are some deeds that ought not to be tolerated. And as Eli Weisel said at the trial of the Nazi criminal Klaus Barbie, we must not forget what happened. He said, “Justice without memory is an incomplete justice, false and unjust.”[1] So not only is there something called righteous anger, there is also memory of what happened.

When Jesus, compared anger to murder, and said that we should come to terms quickly with another person when there’s been a disagreement, is he saying we should simply forget what happened? Don’t we usually have a very clear memory of various wrongs done to us? Aren’t we able in a narrative form able to reconstruct the conversation or the series of deeds that caused us to feel wronged? Don’t we keep reconstructing that story over and over again? And yes, we do. And maybe it’s that’s the reality Jesus wanted us to understand.

But he compared “anger” to “murder”? That can’t be right. But isn’t that what happens over and over again? Story after story of someone who loses their critical ability to think and all the emotions in the frontal cortex of their brains take over and they lash out in violence. We’ve all been prone to do that. Later we look back, and we may ask, “What was I thinking.” And the answer is obvious. We weren’t thinking.

Let’s go back to the story of anger. The repetition of what went wrong is what one philosopher described as “Resentment is a storytelling passion.”[2] We all know people who do this. I do it too. And, truth be told, it’s very easy to reconstruct the wrongs of life into good stories—but not necessarily healthy stories. And sometimes we tell those stories over and over.

The author Rebecca Solnit said that we tend to “grant immortality to an old injury.”[3] Ah that’s the danger. They live on. They aren’t forgotten. They are enhanced, even embellished in memory, still stirring even in the night when they even appear in our dreams. Indeed they may become a malignancy. The geography of our emotions leads us on the positive side of things to make new friends. That same geography, though, in the context of anger, especially the anger nurtured in constant repetition, may end up preserving and strengthening the walls we created at first with the anger. Nurtured it can become resentment and the story that drives us away from each other. We know those who once were friends and are no longer, by what they did to us.

Notice by the way, the progression in what Jesus understands about human nature when we are angry. He said, If you get angry with a brother or sister, your liable to judgment.

Then: If you insult a brother or sister, your liable to the council.

Then: If you say. “You fool” which in Greek is “Moria” or our word for Moron. So “If you say You Moron, you’re liable to the hell of fire.” There it is again. I don’t like it, but it’s there.

I think there’s a three fold progression meant here. “Liable to judgment.” First, from the one with whom you are angry.

Second: There is the council. That means the community matters. And that is a critical theme throughout Matthew’s gospel. We are the ekkesia, Cburch, those called to be in Christ, and we are always affected when someone in community isn’t living the Christ story. Especially is they are continually angry.

Third, the hell of fire. The part I don’t like. God in the wings, so to speak. I think we can find some redemption though here…just not yet.

Then we have this curious example of Jesus. It’s a little parable he told. “When you’re at the altar, in worship, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go; be reconciled to you brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Notice the amazing 180 degree shift in the anger story. It begins with me. My anger, my insult, my name calling. And how does it end? This is actually where it starts to hurt, but hurt in a good way.

For the first time, maybe in a long time, and this is what Jesus said, “You remember that your brother or sister has something against you.” How could this be? You mean there are always two sides to this story? Do you mean that my story of what happened, my story of the wrong, isn’t the only story?

And finally, as far as God is concerned, is there just one story we should be able to tell? And the answer is “Yes.” Just one story.

So in 1986 I took my nineteen years of being a pastor and offered to start a new church in Eagan for the Episcopal church. Many new churches were planted then and I became really good friends with Pastor Larry Smith starting All Saints Lutheran church. I think you know I came here with lots of Lutheran connections.

One of the gifts of God to our new church was Sarah who played a marvelous guitar, and she knew lots of good contemporary church music. [Sarah isn’t her real name, by the way.] For years our new church community grew and grew and her music was a major part of that story. She really loved the Lord, appreciated liturgy, and sang like an angel.

And then we had a difference of opinion. It’s part of life. You can think back to the past week when you had a difference of opinion, and you’re still in touch with the one who differed with you. I can’t tell you what it was that caused Sarah and I to see our relationship rip apart as it did. I know that I had my narrative of wrong, and I knew she had hers. It turned out we both carried with those memories a sense of deep regret and loss. Sarah and her family left our new church, and we did not speak to one another for years.

My friend Mark is part of this story. (Mark isn’t his real name.) Mark was a former Lutheran pastor. He was in secular work when I met him. We discovered that we both loved White Castle hamburgers. We usually went to the White Castle at the corner of University and Lexington in St. Paul. Then Mark was discovered to have what turned out to be un-curable cancer. His funeral was at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis, and it was a large turnout for a great man. After the funeral service I hesitated about going to the reception, but decided to go. As I stood in line for some coffee and the luncheon sandwich, I saw Sarah across that crowded dining room. She waved, and without hesitation, almost like, she was leaving her gift at the altar, she came and said, “I have to talk with you. Will you join me?”

“Of course,” I said. Breathing something like relief. Starting to let go of a burden.

And there we sat, hands reaching out across the table. Two people, alone in a very crowded noisy room, with the years we had traveled together and then for years had gone our separate ways. We now met again. We sat across from each other with tears in our eyes, saying “I’m sorry.” Echoing one another. Asking “Can we be friends again?” And nodding our heads as you do when say “Amen” and say “God be in this moment.” It wasn’t a prayer that God might be, it was a prayer of blessing that God was in that moment. It was Eucharist with coffee, sandwiches, and tears.

We talked just the other day. And I’m sending Sarah a copy of this sermon. It feels so good to do so.

It is our anger, not God’s, that creates the hell into which, I believe, we condemn ourselves. My image of God waiting in the wings, is simply that. The Holy One waiting until we discover that what the world needs now, and always has, and always will need is reconciliation. And with reconciliation comes forgiveness. But one more thing can come and that is “forgetfulness.”

The anger harbored in memory keeps the hurt, the moment, and the self-righteousness alive —even for years. But when there’s true reconciliation and forgiveness, we may enter a time when the forgiven sin is forgotten.

It was Isaiah, the prophet who declared

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

God forgets the former things.

And Jesus who said that what we all need is to be reconciled to one another.

[1] Miroslav, Volf, Embrace and Exclusion

[2] Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

[3] Ibid.

Salty Christians

Salty Christians

Salty Christians
Sermon for Feb. 5, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Matthew 5:13
Pastor George H. Martin

What did Jesus mean when he said “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt as you know can be used to flavor food. Or you can salt a piece of steak before it’s grilled and it will make the texture of the steak easier to chew.

Up here we salt our roads and sidewalks. For centuries people salted meat and fish as a way to preserve the food itself. It was used in religious ceremonies, even in the Jewish temple. And Jews made deals with each other or what we call a covenant by throwing salt over their shoulders to seal the deal.

We have the expression to be worth your salt. In Roman times soldiers were paid in salt, and the word salary is derived from the Latin word “salarium” which was the soldier’s allowance for buying slat.

We have expressions like the nautical term “salty dog” for an experienced sailor who’s spent most of his life aboard a ship at seas. And someone who might be considered trustworthy or maybe a little curmudgeonly might be called an “Old salt.”

Ironically salt is composed to two substances, sodium and chlorine, which separately can kill, but which combine to make salt. Salt too, though, in too large of a quantity can also kill.

Salt was also used as a fertilizer and still is in places. It can help crops to grow and may even kill some weeds that grow close to the surface.

And I learned it is still a tradition in some places to put salt into a coffin, because Satan hates salt, because it’s a symbol of incorruption and immortality.

I also learned from Zack that the adjective “salty” has a particular, and rather different meaning, in the world of the Internet and among millennials. If someone makes a post on a Facebook page like “You’re feeling salty,” it may mean you’re mean, or upset, or angry. I you say “I’m salty” it might mean something didn’t go my way, or turn out like I wanted it to.

So to those of you under 25 in the congregation let’s get something clear. Jesus didn’t know anything about Internet language. He did know what actual salt was, how much it cost, and what good things and bad things could be done with salt.

So if I say that I think we’re called to be salty Christians, I don’t mean we’re suppose to be mean, angry or upset. But we just might have an edge to us with regard to what’s right and wrong. And we might take part in moments of truth, even uncomfortable moments of truth, that reveal God’s concern for justice and what’s right.

And I thought of a time which I call one of my salty Christian moments. Years ago I went to a weekday Eucharist at a bookstore a few blocks from the White House which was an outreach ministry to the poor and homeless in Washington. It was a ministry of the Church of the Savior, and that day it’s pastor, one of the real saints of the last century, Gordon Cosby was there. A few of us were Episcopal clergy, there were government workers on their way home, members of the church, and lots of street people, who knew that what was called the Potter’s House offered them hospitality, warm soup, guidance, and the love of God. Potter’s House, it was said, was the nation’s first Christian coffee house.

Gordon Cosby preached on a passage we’ll hear in a few weeks when Jesus asked,

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Pastor Cosby said we would share communion just passing the bread and the common cup. We were to give to the person next to us the bread and say “Sister, help take the log out of my eye.” And then give them the cup and say the same, “Help take the log out of my eye.”

A friend gave me the bread and the wine and asked for my help in taking the log of his eye. I never thought he had one.

And I turned. And I’ve never forgotten her. A homeless woman from the streets. Deep lines on her face. Intense eyes, perhaps with some fear, maybe from me. Probably just living and struggling had added years to her life. She was African American. And she held out her hand and I said, “Sister, help take the log out of my eye.”

And it hurt to say those words. I wasn’t so much saying them to her as to myself. I knew the prejudice that had surrounded me in my youth and my young adult life. I knew the privilege I had that I took for granted. I knew that I didn’t have a clue to what her life was like and what she faced on a daily basis.

And then it hurt again as I gave her the common cup from which we all drank. I said, “Sister, help take the log out of my eye.”

What I wish I had done is to ask her name. But I’ve never forgotten her. And never forgotten that salty moment.

I don’t think I told that in ancient times when someone was wounded in war, or when they had cut themselves, salt was poured on and rubbed into that wound. And it really hurt. But it also started the healing process.

Here’s something else I learned. Luther preached on this text and said that salt bites. He even said, and this sounds awful at first, that a pastor’s job is to rub salt into the wounds of the sins of a congregation. What he was getting at is that there are truthful words—words or truth we may not want to hear. But hearing them, facing the truth, it may lead to change, and change for the better.

There is something called Prophetic Ministry which is about speaking truth that may not popular or well received, but which is truth. Jesus said blessed are those in this ministry. And that was the passage just before Jesus said you are the Salt of the earth.

We need to back up to last Sunday. I want you to see the connection between the last of the beatitudes, which we heard last week and the first declaration of Jesus in this week’s gospel.

Listen to this version, from the bible translation The Message:. These are the last of the beatitudes from last week.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

And then, in today’s gospel we hear Jesus say: “You are the salt of the earth.”

I think we’re called to be Salty Christians. At times giving gifts of seasoning to others, which can mean, as we heard the translation from The Message “bringing out the God flavors of this earth.” But maybe our salty call is also to speak a word that makes someone come to terms with their prejudice or their privilege as happened to me so long ago. Maybe it’s to help someone get up and move in a different direction in their life, one that really brings them life, hope, and joy.

I heard Ton Brokaw reflect on his life in a long documentary about his news career with NBC. He wondered if the color of his skin was just a little darker, would he have had the same opportunities as he had? And he reluctantly, almost with a tear in his eye said, he knows from the racial divide in our world, that he wouldn’t be able to tell the same story.

Speaking of tears they also have salt in them. The wounds, the hurts, the disappointments—that makes us cry—we cry salty tears.

One more thing. Our bishop, Tom Aiken has written a letter about immigration and refugee resettlement in our country in light of the recent actions of our President. We’ve placed a copy of it out in the narthex that you may take home and read. For the most part he reminds us of the strong continued ministry of our church under the auspices of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. His letter seems to me to be a salty Christian missive. It’s sobering.

I know this is strange. And I must admit that after almost 50 years of preaching this indeed in a first. Rubbing salt into a open wound? Facing, in my case, my own sense of privilege and opportunity denied to others. Reminding all of us about the lives of immigrants and refugees, nearly all of whom are innocent victims of war and persecution. We’d like to turn off the news. Turn away. But that’s not the way of Jesus who said we were to be the salt of the earth.

Salt that can lead to healing. Yes. But first poured into our wounds. Salt that stings. Salty encounters that lead us to see our neighbor—to see our neighbor as our neighbor. Not as an other. But as a child of God. I know I’m not preaching comfort. I think Jesus knew that if we truly became the salt of the earth, we’d be on our knees praying more.

Let us pray

What Does It Mean to Be a Disciple

January 22, 2017 Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Pastor George Martin
Based on Matthew 4:12-23

This past Wednesday morning, at our church’s text study group, I asked “What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?” There was silence around our table. They looked to me for an answer, but I was looking to the 12 or 13 around the table. At the moment I just couldn’t think of an example of a disciple. Later I remembered this story.

It was around 1990 that I was the President of the Board of Trustees of Bexley Hall Seminary, from which I had graduated in1967. The seminary had moved to be in an ecumenical setting in Rochester New York. It was connected to Colgate Rochester a seminary connected to the American Baptist Convention. And then Crozier Seminary, where Martin Luther King had been, joined the complex. It even had connections to the Roman Catholic diocese at the time.

We were installing the new President of the seminary, James Evans. He’d invited many of his Baptist clergy friends to be there with him—including James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, one of the most famous Protestant churches in America. Along with James Forbes the other clergy were all veterans of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. They had marched in Selma. They road buses and were at lunch counter sit-ins. And they all have known Martin Luther King. I asked some question about Martin Luther King, and then the stories started. Stories of struggle, times of doubt, and dangers they had faced. But what I remember was the laughter. The joy. The reality of disciples who had endured through some dark nights, and emerged years later without wanting retribution, and fully able to sing and laugh and dance. And dance, I think we did, in that procession that evening. I walked with some true disciples.

This Sunday we hear Matthew’s version of the calling of the first four disciples—all fisherman by the sea of Galilee—Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee who were left mending nets in his boat. We heard in that lesson, as well as the first reading from Isaiah, all kinds of place names. Land of Zebulin and Naphtali. The sea of Galilee. Jesus left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum. At the end were heard the news had spread to Syria.

Many translations begin this passage by telling us that Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Withdrew sounds like he was getting away. Going off on a retreat. Maybe hoping to hide out? I think not.

Let me tell you about where Galilee was. We did a little geography lesson on Wednesday. It’ll be good to do the same. (Jersusalem is in our back right corner. Those near the sound room are on the other side of the Jordon River and the sound room itself is in the Dead Sea. Those of you sitting on the right side up front? You’re in Samaria—not a place where Jews wanted to travel. Those on the West side you’re in Judea, flatter, more farm like, and you look up toward the East to some mountains and that’s where Jerusalem is. And to the north, in the far right transcept, that is the northwest region of Galilee.

Galilee is a fertile bread basket producing grain that is heavily taxed and sent to Rome. The fish in the sea are taxed as well. When those fishermen unload their fish each day a large portion of what they caught belongs to Rome. A few years before Jesus came to Capernaum to live there had been an uprising by the Galileans against Rome. The re-conquest was brutal and traumatic. Many were killed, more were enslaved. Two thousand had been publically crucified.

Galilee was also far away from Jerusalem. Not a religious center at all. To say Jesus withdrew to Galilee? No, I think he choose to begin his ministry at the region of the holy land which was the most oppressed; where there was the greatest poverty and where the traditional community life was most threatened. And where the pagan presence of Rome was the strongest.

And he came saying “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” The word “heaven” is a circumlocution for the word “God.” Jesus meant that the Kingdom of God was a stark bold contrast to that of Caesar. Jesus was about to create a living communally-based demonstration of the Kingdom of God in action. So what is sometimes translated as “the kingdom of God is at hand”, or near” isn’t that at all. It’s not about to come. It’s breaking in. Watch Jesus in action and you’ll see evidence of God’s rule as a kind of energy, creative loving forgiving power that touches people where they hurt the most. The new world of God isn’t an idea you learn in a book, it’s a story to be lived with others.

And it begins with a call. Turn your life around. It’s a call to change the way you worship. It’s call to live into the future right now, and not sit on the sidelines waiting for the future to come to you. Yes it’s a “Word” but not words on a page, but words that call to you, to come, to change, to belong. And yes it’s about a different life. Not staying in the boat. Making a move. Acting differently. And finally it reaches into ongoing history in actions that relate to issues of peace and injustice.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus?

We are all baffled by the quick response of Andrew and Peter who got out of the boat and left their fish and their equipment behind. Then James and John do the same.

Up here, of course, while we gather to worship on a Sunday there are many who go fishing. A week ago as I pulled into church while it was still dark, a car ahead of me headed up the road. I saw a flashing sign for bait. And I realized not much is open early on a Sunday morning except bait shops and churches.

Back to those four who start to follow Jesus. Do you think they could have told us on that day that they already knew what it meant to follow Jesus? I don’t think so. “We just accepted the call,” is probably all they could tell us.

In that world when a Rabbi had students they didn’t learn from him by attending classes and writing term papers. They lived with the rabbi on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t just learning the Bible but how to live the story of God.

If we have someone with us this morning who’s wondering if they should came back here. Or keep looking for a Jesus community somewhere else, all I can say, is Welcome.   We’re glad you’re here. Some of us know a little about following Jesus, but we might have trouble putting it into words.

We really only know our story of being his disciples because we can look back at the road we’ve traveled with Jesus. And there were times when we lost our way. There were times when we worshipped things that weren’t at all connected to God’s story. But then there was forgiveness and love. Or some healing. And we came back. Many a disciple story is about coming back and coming back. Back again and again to a story of unconditional love and acceptance.

But one thing about this following Jesus needs to be noted. Jesus didn’t offer success. Not some big successful enterprise that would make those disciples famous or important. There is nothing here in this disciple enterprise that can add to your worldly security—it won’t get you elected to office, or a better job. This disciple business really doesn’t fit with the world as many people know it.

So when we talk about having been a disciple of Jesus and when we look back maybe we wonder about the ways we might just have shared in the healing ministry of Jesus. Visits were made to someone with a serious illness. Hands were held in a loving prayerful circle as someone died. We waited with others while their loved one was in surgery and that waiting lasted a long time. Or we shared in a hot dish ministry over a period of months for a family.

Maybe we can look back and see how we passed on the story. Holding hands and saying grace with our children and guests at the evening dinner table. I’ve seen some grandmothers and grandfathers sit on little chairs in a pre-school class on a Sunday morning. Big grown up disciples with little disciples to be. Or maybe you went on a boundary waters trip with some teenagers and had Bible study around the evening campfire.

Perhaps there was a time we stood up against some bully. Or went to a town hall meeting knowing that our lakes needed to be preserved for generations to come. And in a few cases protesting laws that were unjust and wrong.

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

I’m afraid my answer isn’t very profound. But I answer it this.

It’s to follow Jesus, as best as we can. And then look back. Then to follow. Then look back.      Let us pray.

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