Sermon on September 10, 2017

SERMON Lectionary 23a 2017

Matthew 18

By  Pastor Leo E. Longan

I’m not sure I would have chosen Matthew 18 for a Rally Day sermon, but as an obedient son of the church, I’ll take it on.  It’s a good place to dive into the Reformation, which will be our theme in the run-up to the 500th anniversary next month.

 

So: here goes.

 

Have you noticed our tendency to turn nouns into verbs?    It’s become so common these days.   Have you googled yet today?  Did you facebook anybody this morning?  Or did you text someone who had friended you?  A prominent restaurant chain has come out with an advertising campaign that asks “Do you Soup or Sandwich?   Let’s go down Memory Lane: does anyone remember saying “I hoovered the living room this morning”?  Now there’s: I blogged, he was tasked, the storm impacted.   I’ll skateboard downtown to workshop my play on and on it goes …

 

Well, I’ve heard a new one recently that takes us into the lesson this morning: speaking about a disagreement among colleagues, a friend said: “I can’t believe he Matthew 18ed me!  That was a new one on the nouns-to-verbs scale.

 

To be Matthew 18ed means to be called onto the carpet for something one said or did in church.  It refers to a procedure written into our church constitutions for handling disagreements and problems in the church: go first privately to an offender, then with witnesses, then take the matter to the whole church.  Then, if the problem is not resolved, turn him out.    Sounds pretty good, and there’s actually a lot of love in Matthew 18, if we look for it; but there’s not much love in the way we use it in the church.  It’s all law.   By the time you get Matthew 18ed, it’s all over but the shouting.

 

Forty years of working in the church – as musician, teacher and pastor – has taught me that Matthew 18, as law, never works, never heals the problems to which it is applied.   It didn’t work when the Roman church tried to shut Luther up in 1517, my guess is that it’s never worked since and I know it doesn’t work now.

 

This is what happens when we make the gospel into law – there’s a gravity that pulls that way, a gravity that pulls us down, and when we give in to that gravity we distort the faith.

 

It’s not important to me to litigate Matthew 18 today.  What’s important to me, is that we understand the spiritual forces that we have to contend with: the gravity that pulls us down, and what I will call heavenly gravity that lifts us up.  This goes right to the heart of what the Reformation means.

 

The church has been around a long time, and by the 16th century, everything about the gospel had yielded to the gravity of the law:  God’s grace was quantified and sold for money.  Confession and communion became obligations, enforced with penalties.  Love was not a factor.  The faith became all about avoiding hell.

 

Simply put, the Reformation, led by Martin Luther, turned all that upside down.  He was mired in the law, mired in guilt, he believed in God, but he was hopeless.  Luther discovered the gospel, the good news about God’s love, and the gospel has its own gravity, it’s own power.  Luther gave in to the heavenly gravity of the gospel and discovered a loving, forgiving God.

 

Read Matthew 18 – or any of the gospels for that matter – with love in mind, and you will feel the pull of this heavenly gravity.

Taking the love out of it, though, turns it into a baseball bat and that is how it has been used.  “I can’t believe he Matthew 18ed me!”  That’s what the church did to Luther when he began to preach the gospel, and Luther lost that game.  Luther and those who chose to follow him against a corrupt and rapacious pope were officially thrown out of the church.

 

The Reformation exposed the sin of the Church in yielding over centuries to earthly gravity of law and things, thus distorting the faith.  Simply put, the church needed to be reformed. By Luther’s time, the church had been taken over to the rapacious billionaires of the day – the pope and the bishops – and they played the church for money for themselves.   Like just about every sin I know about, including those of the present day in America and around the world, it can be traced to greed for money.

 

When Luther attacked indulgences, a gross swindle that purported to sell God’s grace for money, he was doing God’s work.  He was responding to the pull of heavenly gravity in his soul.  He felt that gravity operating in his own life when it dawned on him – one day in the toilet as it happened – that God really, really did love him, sinner that he was, sinner though he remained.   His encounter with the gospel brought a personal healing that, when he began to preach about it, was a nuclear explosion in the 16th century Europe.  It changed the direction of western civilization.

 

That heavenly gravity, the power inherent in the gospel to lift us into God’s love, is still operating within and among us, in spite of the forces pulling us down, and they are many.  Heavenly gravity can be felt; we all have felt it.  God has lifted our hearts time and time again when we needed that lift, has he not?

 

Matthew 18, read as gospel, brings humility, patience, and love into the process of healing disagreements.  We, however, have turned it into law, and law does not heal.

 

The gospel heals.  It heals the little things, like depression and disappointment, by lifting us spiritually into the abundance of God’s grace and the certainty of God’s future.  It heals the big things, by challenging the greed and lust for power that pull civilizations down.

There is great power in the gospel, a powerful, heavenly gravity that lifts us into God’s own heart.  Let us yield to the power, let us gravitate to God.  As we do so, we will find the healing we need for ourselves and for our world.

 

Have you gospelled today?  Have you graced yet this morning?  Think about it: maybe God … is a verb.

 

Let us pray.

Sermon on September 3, 2017

SERMON Lectionary 22a 2017

Get behind me, Satan

By  Pastor Leo E. Longan

It has been a horrible week in America, no doubt about it.  Millions of people are displaced by the storms on the Gulf Coast, many lost everything, about 35 people have lost their lives so far.  How many of us know that exactly the same thing is happening right now in Southeast India and in Bangladesh, where there are already 1000 dead, and there is no FEMA and no national guard to help.  It is a dark time on planet Earth.

 

The worst story I heard coming out of Houston was this one: as the water rose in their house, a grandfather put his five grandchildren in the car and tried to escape the flooding.  He made it over the bridge across the bayou, but somehow became trapped in the flooding on the other side and the car was swept into the bayou.  The grandfather was able to escape through his window, but then had to listen helplessly to the children scream as the car sank into the water and they all drowned.  Imagine carrying that memory for the rest of your life.

 

The reason I tell you that story is because what Jesus says to Peter about himself in this morning’s gospel is just as horrible:  the Messiah will suffer and die a humiliating public death at the hands of sinners.  Of course, Peter is horrified and immediately announces, That will never happen to you.  Peter says that because he loves Jesus; he wants to protect him from danger and harm; he thinks he has God on his side.  Of course he says this to Jesus. But he has no idea how wrong he is.  I imagine that poor grandfather, trying to protect the kids, said something like that to them: go get in the car, let’s get out to where we can be safe. So desperately, tragically wrong.

 

Both these terrible things happened.  Jesus suffocated in his own blood on the cross.  The kids drowned.

 

The difference between the two events is that one is the will of God, and one is not.  This always has to be said when natural disasters strike:  the tragedies and accidents large and small that we suffer in this life are not the will of God, they are not punishment for human sin, they are the consequences of living in a broken world.  Some preachers have already said that Texas was being punished by God because the legislature failed to pass one of these ridiculous transgender bathroom bills.   And Katrina hit New Orleans because of the wicked lifestyles practiced there.  Same with Sandy.  People actually stand in Christian pulpits and say things like that.  Worse, people sit in Christian pews and believe it.  Well, don’t believe it.  It is blasphemy. God does not traffic in hurricanes and bathroom protocol.  If you want to look for God in the storm, look for God in the rescue and in the recovery, in the response of people as they help each other.   God did not cause the disaster, God is at work in the response that the disaster brings out of people, out of us.

 

I hear that they are now airlifting some of the refugees to my home town of Dallas.  I know exactly what they will find in Dallas: ample, clean, well-managed shelters and thousands of church people descending on them with blankets and clothing and hot food.  Dallas is full of church people, and that is what church people do.

 

They do that – we do that – because of what Jesus describes to Peter today, because of what Jesus did on the cross:  Jesus was God’s rescue force, sent to save a world drowning in its own sin.  To effect that rescue, Jesus had to die.  Jesus’ death was the will of God.  Jesus was sent to die to save us from death and give us life.  Because we know that, because God has written it on our hearts, we can rescue others in his name, a rescue effected by relieving suffering and by sharing the gospel.   In both ways, the church is God’s rescue team for a drowning world.

 

So when Peter says what he says this morning, he doesn’t understand what God is doing.  He is speaking out of love for his friend.  But for Jesus, who does know what God is doing, Peter’s words are blasphemous.  “Get behind me, Satan” (the biblical equivalent of “kiss my grits”) is about the worst thing Jesus ever says to anyone.  Without knowing it, Peter is denying the very thing he confessed a few sentences earlier in the gospel; he is denying Jesus’ mission as God’s savior.  Peter said lots of knuckleheaded things.  But this one was too important to let it go without the rebuke Jesus gave.  Jesus knew he had to walk into the meatgrinder of the Jerusalem Jews and Romans.  There, on the cross, he would destroy the power of sin and death from the inside out.

 

This is something that only Jesus could do.  When he says to Peter and the others, take up your cross and follow me, he is speaking with bitter irony.  Of course they weren’t going to do that; nobody did that.  We can’t do it.  We might die, but our death does not save us; certainly our dying does not rescue people drowning in their own sin and helplessness.  This was something only God could do.

 

And God did it, just as Jesus told Peter today.  And because of what God has done by carrying the cross for us, we can carry our own sufferings and the sufferings of our brothers and sisters.  We cannot save ourselves or others on our own; that’s God’s job.  But we can, as Jesus teaches so plainly and often, relieve suffering.  That is the work assigned to us: we can bring food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, blankets and clothes to those who are wet, we do this, we give what we can because we have received our life and salvation from God, through Jesus’ work on the cross.

 

So, perhaps as we begin our program year here at Trinity, we who know ourselves to be God’s rescue mission can read our agenda in our newspapers and in today’s lesson:  where people are suffering, let us do what we can to lift their burdens.  Where people do not know what God is up to – as Peter did not – let us share the gospel, let us tell the old story of Jesus and his love.

 

Let us pray.

Sermon on August 27, 2017

SERMON Lectionary 21a 2017

Confession of Peter/OUR TOWN

By  Pastor Leo E. Longan

Our gospel today, the story of Peter’s confession, for some reason reminds me of a beautiful moment in Thornton Wilder’s play OUR TOWN, in which a young girl, Rebecca, tells her brother George about a letter a friend of hers received from her minister.  At that moment, at the end of the first act, they are gazing at the full moon.  This is how the passage goes:

 

Rebecca:  I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick.  He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this:  it said:  Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners, Sutton County; New Hampshire, United States of America.

George:  What’s funny about that?

Rebecca:  But listen, it’s not finished:  the United States of America, Continent of North America, Western Hemisphere; the earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God – that’s what it said on the envelope.

George:  What do you know!

Rebecca:  And the postman brought it just the same.

 

OUR TOWN is one of the greatest of great plays..  In it, the daily life of ordinary people has been framed by eternity, and even the boundaries between the living and the dead have dissolved.  The circle of life is unbroken, from Grover’s Corners to the Mind of God.  So the characters in OUR TOWN discover that there little home is a very large place, indeed.

 

Something like that happens today in the gospel, when Peter discovers in his own heart that God is hiding in the man walking with him, his drinking buddy and bosom friend.  He realizes suddenly that Jesus is God’s Messiah, God’s beloved Son, and says so, out loud, for the first time.  It is a breathtaking moment that lifted them from a little town on the slopes of Mount Hermon 2000 years ago into the Mind of God.

 

We are here today to be lifted as Peter was, to discover God hiding in our lives, in the ordinary, distracting business of managing our lives as best we may.   We are here to discover another place that is somehow also this place: another home where cares dissolve, sorrow and sighing flee away, and universal, healing love is all there is: the Mind of God.

 

The wonderful point of OUR TOWN is exactly the point of the gospel: whether we know it or not, we live and move and have our being in the Mind of God now, right now.   We do not have to ascend to some ethereal dimension of mystic moonlight and disembodied bliss to know God.  God hides in the tasks and chores of everyday life, in the familiar faces around us, in the opportunities we have and the choices we make.  God is closer to us than our own hands and feet; God is hiding in the breath we are taking right now.

 

Does that sound strange, to speak of a “hiding” God?  Actually, scripture is full of such speaking.  In Exodus 33, for instance, God hides from Moses by allowing him only a glimpse of his backside as he passes.  The Psalms and the Prophets constantly ask questions like, “Why, O God, do you hide your face from your people?”  And, as a teacher, Jesus deliberately hides God in his parables, requiring people to discover God in them for themselves.  Our God is a hidden God.

 

Most importantly, God hides in Jesus, as Peter discovers this morning:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Like all faith, like all truth, it was something Peter had to discover for himself with God’s help.  “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father in Heaven.”   Peter discovers God hiding in Jesus.  Luther teaches this firmly: “God hid in the despised man, Christ.”  Luther even invented a term for this hidden God, Deus absconditis.

 

For Luther, God’s ultimate hiding place is the cross, in that deadly swamp of evil and suffering.  Through the lens of the cross, we can see God hiding in our own suffering and the suffering of our world.  God is hidden today in the suffering in Syria and Yemen and South Texas.  God is hidden, and God is very near.

 

Peter “outs” Jesus as God’s son this morning, and Jesus seems glad of it.  But he also sternly orders the disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah.    For the time being, he wants to remain hidden in the humble teacher and healer the world knows as Jesus of Nazareth.

 

It’s different now, of course, here on the other side of the cross and the resurrection.  We, God’s church, proclaim Christ from the housetops, we seek him and preach him and sing about him and celebrate him.   We advertise him!  Nevertheless, for the whole business to be more than a fractured fairy tale, we still have to discover him, to find him ourselves inside our lives and hearts and relationships.

 

God is hiding in us today as God hid on the cross – inside our happiness, certainly, though happiness can be distracting – but also inside our fear, our anxiety, inside our need. There, God waits anxiously for us to find him.  So, if you are hungry to know God, face your fears, acknowledge your need.  Look at what is on your heart right now.  The God who hid on the cross in his despised and suffering Son will come to meet you where you are.  God doesn’t have far to go; God is already closer than our own hands and feet.

 

In OUR TOWN, the wonderful girl whom George marries, his neighbor Emily Webb, dies young.  But she is restless in the cemetery and, unwilling to be dead, goes back to Grover’s Corners to live her twelfth birthday over again.  It only lasts a couple of minutes. There is too much beauty, too much joy, too much love hiding in that day.  It’s hiding, and 12-year-old Emily realizes as she relives her day that nobody knows it’s there.  In the scene, Emily begs her mother (who, of course, doesn’t hear her):

 

EMILY:  O Mama, just for a moment we’re happy.  Let’s really look at one another!  

And then she says to the Stage Manager, the Narrator of the play:

 

EMILY…. I can’t.  I can’t go on.  It goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another.  I didn’t realize.  All that was going on and we never noticed … O earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER:  No.  (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

 

Well, saints:  Emily’s question is really our question.  Do we realize that God is hiding in our lives, our hearts, our relationships, our sufferings, our joys?  Right here, right now?  Can we, gathered today as God’s church, knowing what we know as Christians … can we recognize God hiding in a wafer and a sip of wine, as Jesus taught us to do?

 

Let us pray that as our lives unfold we discover our hidden, hiding God all around us and inside us and in those who share our lives with us, and to confess with Peter the beautiful Savior who opens to us the Mind of God.

 

Let us pray.

Sermon on August 20, 2017

SERMON Lectionary 20a 2017

The Syro-Phoenician Woman

By Pastor Leo E. Longan

 

It’s been a pretty rough week in America, since the debacle in Charlottesville last Saturday, when many appalling, vicious, racist things were said, shouted and chanted.  No wonder we are, as a nation, profoundly upset by them.

 

But on the scale of appalling, vicious, racist talk, none of the neo-Nazi clowns in Virginia had anything on our Lord this morning.  What he says to the woman in the gospel is as ugly as anything they brought to the their “rally.”

 

It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.  This is Jesus speaking to a desperate woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter.  The woman is a not a Jew.  She is a gentile, a pagan, a citizen of the wicked pagan city of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast.  Jesus spurns her.  He calls her a dog.  Being a polite Southern boy, I can’t bring myself to say it, but he might as well have said the n-word to her.

 

If anything, it’s worse than that.   When Jesus calls her a dog – and we have a word in English for a female dog – he’s not talking about FIDO, man’s best friend.  These are the wild dogs of the streets, living by tearing apart dead animals and licking their blood.  These wild street dogs appear elsewhere in scripture, in the famous story of the wicked pagan Queen Jezebel and her fight to the death with the prophet Elijah.  She ended up dead in the streets, with the wild dogs licking up her blood.

 

All of that is in this insult Jesus throws at her today.  I can hardly believe that anything like that could ever have come out of his mouth.

 

So I always took it as a joke: Jesus delivered his shocking line with a wink.  The woman understood perfectly and came back with that great line worthy of Shakespeare: True, but even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.  And then Jesus heals her daughter as he always planned to do.

 

But after Charlottesville, I’m not so sure.  Maybe we are witnessing Jesus learning something about his mission, learning something about the kingdom of God.

 

As a white Southerner of a certain age, I can remember how things were before the civil rights movement challenged our comfortable social habits at home.  I can remember “whites only” drinking fountains and bathrooms, I can remember separate waiting rooms for – as we said politely – “colored” people.  I remember all white schools, all white cops, all white churches.   There wasn’t anything openly hostile about it, that’s just the way things were.  The normal thing was to be white and to live among white people in white neighborhoods.   We didn’t need to hate black people for them to be different and lower than we were.   It wasn’t white supremacy, exactly, but it was white complacency.  We white people surfed our wave of white privilege, and took the whole arrangement completely for granted.

 

Now, I’m wondering if something like that isn’t the situation with Jesus this morning.    The Jews of Jesus’ day maintained a strictly segregated society.   One wasn’t supposed to talk to or touch or eat with, let alone marry, outside the tribe.  Doing any of those things rendered one ritually unclean and therefore unworthy to worship God.  One could argue that the whole point of the Jewish law was to keep the Jews separate from everybody else and their evil, false gods.  As with the Jim Crow south, the racism was in the ground water.

 

And then also, there was a point in Jesus’ ministry in which he forbade his disciples from crossing racial lines.  Go not among the Gentiles or Samaritans, but seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  This thing that Jesus says to the woman today, It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, sounds to me like a saying that might have been repeated to reinforce the boundaries between the races.  God knows, we had lots of such sayings at home, none of which I, as a polite Southern boy, can repeat to you here.

 

My point is that perhaps Jesus’ horrible answer today is simply the reflexive racism of his time and place.  Ugly as it is, it rings true to me, it is congruent with the complacent, groundwater racism of the American south, and the clown-college, Charlottesville nonsense.

 

If that is so, if that’s what’s going on in the gospel today, then we owe the woman a statue.  Her answer – gracious, humble, noble, splendid, immortal – changed Jesus’ mind, changed the direction of his ministry, changed the whole project that became the Church.   Suddenly, instantly, Jesus abandoned the obstacles of race, nation, and religion that separated them, recognized her faith as the one thing needful, healed her daughter, and went on to open the kingdom to all believers.   All are invited to the feast.

 

I know I don’t have to tell you that that’s what Christianity is: not a tribe or a nation or even an empire, but the universal church of God.  No one is left outside.  No one lives on the wrong side of town, nobody is the wrong gender or has the wrong skin.  All these things that seem to matter (still!) to us human beings have no meaning at all with God.  The God who once chose one particular people has changed his mind and chooses all.

 

Did Jesus learn that today from the descendent of Jezebel?  Maybe; it’s one of those things we’ll have to ask at the cocktail party in Heaven.  Today, meanwhile, perhaps this story can remind us that we still have some learning to do, some assumptions to challenge, some privileges to share, some complacency to abandon, some new experiences to have of one another in our diversity.

 

The gospel today ends with a healing, that the woman had to fight for.  Let us pray that we will have something of her courage, her poise and her wit as we seek the healing we need in America.

 

Let us pray.

The PAX DOMINI

The PAX DOMINI  By Rev. Emmanuel N. ILAGAN

My personal circumstances have limited the meaning I ascribe to the greeting “Peace be with you” — until a few days ago.

I have always thought of the greeting  that we say to each other during Sunday worship as referring to  inner peace or peace between myself and other individuals.  A recent experience reminded me that for some people it means so much more.

A few weeks ago I was in Mindanao Island, the big island in the south of the Philippine archipelago. I have been invited to co-facilitate a government-sponsored planning workshop among youth representatives from the island. The workshop was part of the Philippine government’s 5-year development plan focusing on the needs of 1/3 of the country’s population — the youth.

Although most of the 52 participants were Christian, some came from the Lumads, an ethnic minority, the Federation of Muslim Youth Organizations, the Philippine Youth for Peace Movement and the similar organizations.  Their colorful Muslim / ethnic attire contrasted with the casual clothes of the Christians.   Despite the cultural and religious differences the youthful participants carried on lively, sometimes funny discussions.

But what especially touched me was the opening prayers of the Lumad and the Muslim youth participants.  They specifically prayed for peace – for Mindanao, for Marawi City, for their own community.  I may not share their religious beliefs but I do share their yearning for peace.

To these young people the absence of peace is real and personal. To them inner peace is important; but it best thrives in a community where they can study, work, raise a family in safety and security – free from violence and strife.

On the evening after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples huddled in a locked room. Afraid of the Jews, they sought security and comfort in being together. Jesus came to them and His first words to them were “Peace be with you!”  The Lord knew the that peace of the Lord, the pax domini, was what they needed at that hour.

As we receive  the peace of the Lord during worship from the pastor and share it with others, let us remember those who long and work for a just and tangible peace in their communities -– in the Philippines, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Africa and other parts of the world.  We all need the Pax Domini these days more than ever.

Bear One Another’s Burdens

Jesus the Good Shepherd

FROM THE PASTOR: “BEAR YE ONE ANOTHER’S BURDENS AND SO FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST” (GALATIANS 6:2)

The current health care crisis in our beloved country weighs heavily on my heart. Though I don’t expect it will affect me personally (I just went on Medicare), I find myself having to confront a sense of helplessness, confusion and depression because of all those whose lives will be injured by this legislation. (Remember: from the heart …)

I am surprised that I feel this so deeply. I have to confess that, though I have been a church-going Christian all my life, I have never been particularly drawn to the kind of direct service to poor and suffering people that Christ demands and expects of his disciples. No, the familiar words of a hymn by Timothy Dwight (dropped in our latest hymnal) describe what drew me to the church:

Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heavenly ways,
her sweet communion, solemn vows,
her hymns of love and praise.
(“I Love Thy Kingdom Lord”, vs. 4)

As a young child I was drawn to the church’s worship, devotion and music. Wrapped up in all that beauty was a deeply personal assurance of God’s unconditional love for me. That’s what I came for; that’s what I needed. God loves me. I believe it. That settles it.

So, like many in my deeply narcissistic generation, I stopped there. As a white, middle-class kid living in Dallas (still one of the most segregated cities in the world), I never saw poverty or misery, never missed a meal, never went without the medical care I needed. So almost by default I was indifferent to the sufferings of people who weren’t like me, people I never saw.
Meanwhile, I attended a church or churches every week. As a young adult, I became a Lutheran organist, founded several Lutheran choirs, taught music in a Lutheran school. I made a hobby of saving and restoring pipe organs. At seminary, I studied in the Institute for Sacred Music; my thesis project was to direct a play; I majored in liturgics. I sang Rachmaninoff with the Russian Chorus. When eventually I came to ordained ministry it was very much as a worship and music guy.

In the actual practice of ordained ministry, however, I discovered that half the work (the more important half) is with the old and sick and dying, with those who struggle and suffer. The painful transition to life in a nursing home, the relentless approach of death, the anguish of chronic pain, the falling-apart of families – such ministry brought me face to face with problems and situations I would not otherwise have faced (unless and until they happen to me). In the process I had to discover in my own heart the patience, compassion and courage I needed to do this work.

Only twice in 27 years of ordained ministry have I been called to work with people living in deep poverty and squalor, unable to afford food or medical treatment. More often I worked with white, middle-class people who, though facing bankrupting terminal illnesses, still were usually able find a decent level of care for themselves. How often, in the face of a despairing recital of how much they had lost, have I carefully and patiently encouraged my people to count their remaining blessings, and to cherish the promise of the blessed future that God has prepared for all who love him. That’s what ministry is made of, but I secretly suspect that 80% of its value is in my just showing up at all.

Be that as it may, we who do this work never become inured to suffering, we really do carry some of the pain of those we serve. “Bear ye one another’s burdens…” Some experts tell us we’re not supposed to feel other people’s pain, but I’ve never known a minister who didn’t.

So when I hear that many millions of sick and poor people not unlike those I serve are at risk of losing the health insurance that helps them live, I feel it. I feel it in my gut. It is second-hand suffering – perhaps the word is empathy – but it is suffering nonetheless.

To handle it, I have had to look for guidance to my faith, to the gospels. There I find no ambiguity at all: Jesus commands us to relieve the suffering of others, and puts himself inside that suffering. I came to all this by a back door (the one leading to the organ loft) but here I am. Because of Christ, I simply have to stand with vulnerable people. As Luther is supposed to have said, my conscience is captive to the word of God. “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

My problem is compounded as I learn from the news that this withdrawal of health care is being driven by a project to deliver some $800 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest people on earth. Ouch. For people of faith, this is obviously and completely upside down, as when Mary sings: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) Et cetera.

Meanwhile, I am called to be a preacher, to speak the gospel boldly and publicly and often, and that task brings its own set of issues and challenges. I think all of us preachers want to speak the truth and to be liked for doing it. But what I am finding is that I hurt for those who suffer, and I suffer for speaking of that hurt.

I thought I had framed this health care horror pretty well when I asked the congregation on Sunday to answer a hypothetical, rhetorical question: You are offered a choice (the choice that our many American millionaires are facing): you can have a $54,000 tax cut, but only if you take away the Medicaid-paid nursing home bed from a penniless Alzheimer’s patient. What would you do? I thought the answer was so obvious that I told the people to cherish the answer they heard in their hearts.

Apparently I was wrong; some said they would take the money. This adds to the sadness I feel. Not only has my path brought me from indifference to empathy for suffering people, but along the way I have learned to love the people who remain as indifferent as I once was. They are indignant with me, and I feel their indignation. I feel it in my gut.

I am approaching the 27th anniversary of my ordination (St. Michael’s Day, 1990. It also happened to be Yom Kippur). Two years ago, my 25th anniversary passed without acknowledgment of any kind by anyone, including my bishop. But just the other day, a gift arrived that would apparently have been given to me at the 2015 synod assembly had I been present (I was in a play that weekend). This really quite lovely gift is an icon of Christ the Good Shepherd: the Lord has a sheep draped across his shoulders. Everybody with 25 years of ordained ministry received one.

What struck me first was the expression on Jesus’ face: he doesn’t look happy. (Could it be that he is not only cherishing the lamb but smelling it…?) Looking deeper into Jesus’ very serious expression in the icon, he seems not so much to be inhaling a bad smell as reflecting the darkness of his own real suffering. He should know. Certainly he knows how much saving that smelly sheep cost him.

What I want you, my dear readers, to understand from all this, is that — in speaking out about people whose sufferings are likely to be increased by our Congress – I am not trying to walk on anybody’s political water. It is because of Christ, for Christ, in Christ that I have to speak: we are called to bear one another’s burdens. It’s who we are. It’s what we do. Bearing one another’s burdens is not optional; it is the urgent business of God’s people.

This is because we, who have been rescued, are being sent to the rescue. We who have been blessed, are being shaped to become the blessing.

Pastor Longan

Sermon on July 16, 2017

Parable of the Sower

By Pastor Leo E. Longan

If you remember anything about how Pastor Longan taught the bible, I’d like for you to remember this: always ask yourself “Where am I in this picture?”   Whenever you read scripture – and I hope that you will read at least some scripture every day – your first question should be this one: “Where am I?”

Scripture is about us, and for us.   It is for us that scripture was written and compiled and edited and preserved in the first place.  Contrary to how it must seem to my confirmation class who have been made to learn a lot of facts about people who are dead and places that are gone, the real subject of scripture is you.  You and me.  Us.  It is God’s living word, shouted out to us in real time, here and now.

That was never more true of anything in scripture than it is of today’s magnificent gospel, Jesus’ parable of the sower.  This is a wonderful story. Jesus gets it; Jesus gets us.

SO:  We’ve heard the story.  Where are we in it?

Easy: we’re the dirt.  When Jesus talks about dirt this morning, he’s talking to us about ourselves.  That’s good news, because there’s nothing wrong with the dirt in this story.  No, unless something gets in its way, the dirt does exactly what God made the dirt to do: to receive and nurture and grow the seeds that are planted in it.  That’s the holy work of dirt.   Dirt is good.

And so is the seed.  Jesus teaches us that the seed is the word of God, the word about the kingdom of God, the gospel, the good news.   The seed belongs in the dirt where it can grow and thrive.  The seed and the soil belong together; they were made for each other.  Jesus is teaching us that God’s word and God’s people were made for each other and that they belong together.  Like seed and soil, God’s word subsisting in and nurtured by God’s people is a deep structure of creation.

So far it’s all good.  But Jesus teaches this parable to explain a problem:  in nature, sometimes the seed doesn’t sprout and grow.  Sometimes God’s people cannot hear, do not receive, do not nurture the word that God gives.  God made the soil, God sows the seed, but somehow the plant doesn’t grow.

Jesus is describing something that we all know: the world as we know it is a sinful and suffering place, where many souls are far from God, where greed and anger and hatred thrive and the word of God is barely heard, often ignored, sometimes scorned.   What’s wrong?

Let me just cut to the chase here, because I’m sure you’re already way ahead of me.  In his explanation of the parable to his disciples, Jesus offers four reasons why the word doesn’t take root in us.  These four reasons are 1) misunderstanding; 2) fear; 3) distractions; and 4) greed.   All of these things operate in each of our lives, and they are a pretty good list of the obstacles we encounter in seeking God and growing our hearts..

Often we just don’t understand.  (Like that moment in the Monty Python film LIFE OF BRIAN, where the people at the back of the crowd listening to Jesus think he’s saying “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”  To get to us, God has to meet us in the tangle of our minds, where we have accumulated all sorts of bad ideas; it’s really easy for us to misunderstand God’s word to us.   In the parable, this is the seed falls in the path where the soil is hard and packed down by the traffic; the seed can’t get into the soil.  It doesn’t stand a chance against the first hungry bird, the first evil idea that comes along.

Then, the word of God challenges us, comes up against our hard surfaces, our rocks.  That may sound good at first.  But if it means we have to “change our way o’doin’” as my grandmother used to say, and – in the language of the parable – have to start pulling familiar rocks out of our garden, we quickly lose interest.   That takes work.  We don’t like work.  It means change. We are allergic to change.  Change means trouble and we run from trouble.   Of course the real bottom line here is fear.  Fears are to our hearts what rocks are to a garden; until they’re gone nothing will grow.  And they don’t just leave on their own; they have to be taken out one by one.

Likewise inimical to the word of God are the distractions and cares of the world.  They choke the life out of us like the weeds choke the begonias.   We are full of worries and anxieties about our money, our health, our kids, our country … worry and anxiety leave no room for God, for love, for peace, for hope to take root and grow.   Meanwhile, we are hideously overstimulated in our society.  Everybody wants our attention; everybody wants a piece of us.    The voice of God is a still, small voice that gets lost in the roar of the world and our own anxieties about it.

But maybe the most dangerous and destructive obstacle to the word of God taking root in us is greed, as Jesus says “the lure of wealth.”  Our world today is obsessed with money, to the exclusion of every claim of God or humanity.  The idea that we exist only for ourselves, that winning is everything and that our worth can be quantified by things that can be counted and numbered, like cars and houses and dollars is a sick lie that is ravaging our world.   Greed is just evil.  The truth is that nothing that can be acquired by greed is even real.  The only real thing is love: the love that is God, the love that we are privileged to share with one another, the love that crosses the boundaries of race and tribe to meet human need, the love that “feels want, tastes grief, needs friends.” *

These are pretty serious obstacles that Jesus lays out in his lesson for us today, and they affect our lives in real time.   But here’s the good news:  obstacles can be overcome.  Soil can be turned, rocks can be removed, weeds can be weeded out.  Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with the soil; we are the soil.  There is nothing wrong with the seed; the seed is the precious and life-giving word of God.   The seed and the soil were made for each other.  The word of God was made for us.   Careful listening untangles misunderstanding.  Faith conquers fear and quiets anxiety.  Generosity evaporates greed.  A little gardening, a little heart-work, and the good seed of God’s love will take root and grow in us.

And at the harvest, the whole world will be blessed, and we will be who God made us to become.

 

*(Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III, Sc.2).

Are You Afraid to Love?

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
By Doris Tegge
On May 22, 2017, a terrorist exploded a shrapnel bomb in a crowded venue in Manchester England just as the concert goers were getting ready to leave. 22 innocent persons were killed, including many under 16 years of age. Many in the area rushed to the site, instead of running away, to help the victims by providing medical aid, shelter or transportation. Some accounts attribute this bravery to a show of solidarity, but I would also say it was love. Love for fellow humans, although strangers, pushed aside the fear that they might also get hurt.
A few weeks later, Arianna Grande returned to the scene of the attach to give a benefit concert that was attended by 50,000 people. Concern for the injured and families of the victims pushed away the fear for personal safety.
As Christians, we are commanded to love. However, in many ways fear can keep us from loving as Christ commanded. We fear what is different from us. We fear what we do not understand. We fear that we may be taken advantage of. We fear that we may be hurt, either emotionally or physically. The writer of 1 John reminds us that it is perfect love that casts out fear. This is the love that comes from God through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can love perfectly because God loved us first.
Let us remember this and love fearlessly.
1 John 4:18-21
. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Sermon on July 9, 2017

Restlessness

By Pastor Leo E. Longan

There’s so much high beauty in the lessons this morning I hardly know where to begin.

The first words of the first lesson and the last words of the gospel are both set to glorious music in Handel’s MESSIAH: Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion; Shout O daughter of Jerusalem; Behold thy king cometh unto thee. And: Come unto him, all ye that labor, Come unto him, ye that are heavy laden and he shall give thee rest. High beauty, as I say.

But perhaps the most beautiful thing on offer this morning is the Prayer of the Day, that little prayer we say as we prepare to hear the scripture every Sunday. It goes by in the whoosh; we hardly notice it. It’s just a ripple in the rhythm of the service.

But today’s prayer is really old and really beautiful. “O God, you have made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in thee.” Doesn’t that ring true to you? O God, it rings true to me. It takes us into the beating heart of today’s gospel.

At the risk of telling you more than you want to know: this prayer was written many hundreds of years ago by one of the greatest of the so-called Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine. Augustine had the honor of being bishop of a place in north Africa called Hippo. (When I die and go to heaven, maybe God will let me be titular bishop of Hippo) Augustine wrote a lot and he wrote beautifully. His writings rang down the centuries and profoundly shaped the inner life of the church. Luther was an Augustinian friar, and if ever there was a restless heart, it was Martin Luther. Luther certainly prayed this prayer.

“Thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

It takes us into the heart of today’s gospel. It is a gospel of restlessness.

Today, Jesus is restless about his mission. All through these passages we have read from Matthew’s gospel over these last weeks, Jesus has been commissioning and training his disciples for ministry. He gives them power, he gives them rules of behavior, he tells them what to expect if they fail. His expectations are high. Off they go to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God.

They were in for a rude awakening: they discovered that most people could care less what the preacher has to say. “To what shall I compare this generation” Jesus says, “You are like children sitting in the marketplace calling to one another. We piped for you but you did not dance, we wept and you did not mourn.” Not only do people not care about Jesus and his disciples have to say, but they get personal with the recreational complaining: “Look at him! He hangs out with sinners and he drinks with them. A glutton and a wine-bibber! Ha, ha.” Jesus notices that they complained about exactly the opposite behavior with John the Baptist. He learns what every pastor of every congregation knows well: complaining is a very popular team sport.

The other night I read a hilarious play called THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE; this situation in today’s gospel is the preacher’s nightmare. And it hurts. If you care about people, if you want to bless them and lead them to God, if you speak the truth and call them home and they don’t seem to care, it hurts. For myself, after doing this for 27 years I’m still waiting for it not to hurt.

I don’t know, but after burying a great Mother yesterday – Lois H. – it occurs to me that mothers will know what I’m talking about. Mothers are really engaged in the lives of those they love, they give their lives to protect and nurture and teach them, and therefore, eventually, they come to know what disappointment means. No one lives up to their mother’s hopes. (I certainly didn’t.) So it is with Jesus: he really loves the people he preaches to, he opens his heart to them, he proclaims God’s word to them. And today they disappoint him. He discovers that, like a mother, to be a preacher – to be the savior! – is to have a restless heart.

Where does this lead him? To the same place that restless–hearted mothers are led: to humble compassion and love. Compassion and love are the real high beauty of this day: “Come to me, all who labor and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus opens his arms and calls in, not the scoffers and complainers, but the needy and the suffering: Forget about the sermon; come first and be healed, be comforted, be loved. Bring your restless hearts to me; come and find your rest.

And so if your ears can hear teaching, I teach you this: live close to your need, whatever it is. Bring that need to Jesus. This is where Jesus comes to meet us; this is where God finds us. “Come to me, all who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We are restless until we find our rest in God. God is restless until we do.

As with our God, so with us: the heart of the church is a restless heart. We cannot be comfortable, as God is not comfortable, until all suffering is lifted and the circle in heaven is unbroken. The best expression I know of this Christian heart-restlessness is the beautiful prayer of my friend the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux. I pray it every day: “O Lord, lead all souls to heaven, and let me be the last.” My happiness cannot be complete as long as anyone is suffering. Like a mother, God is restless until all her children are home.

 

Sermon on July 2, 2017

Independence Day / LIRS
By Pastor Leo E. Longan

In honor of Independence Day this year, I’d like to lift up one of the most important ways that the United States government encourages, supports and pays for Christian ministry.   Maybe you think the government doesn’t pay for Christian ministry.  The government also pays for Jewish ministry, and Bhuddist if they’re in this particular business.

I’m talking about an organization called the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.  It was founded after the second world war to resettle refugees from Europe.  Maybe they helped some of you; we have quite a number of WWII refugees in our church.  For this holy work of refugee resettlement, the bulk of the money has always come from the federal government of the United States.   LIRS is not alone; most of the resettlement work is done by faith-based organizations, and this being the United States, most of these are Christian.

When I worked at LIRS as a lowly secretary in the early 80s,  (at that time the national headquarters was on Park Avenue South) they were mainly resettling Hmong refugees from Vietnam.  The Hmong people had been fiercely pro-American during the Vietnam War, and therefore were in danger for their lives when we lost the war and withdrew.

So the way this works is: our government contracts with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and groups like it to fine homes, jobs and support for legally processed refugees, fleeing persecution in their home countries.    There was a set price per family, paid by the government to the agencies.

Now here’s the Christian part of it: the government is paying us Lutherans to do exactly what Christ describes in today’s gospel: a offer a ministry of welcome, a cup of cold water to the stranger in Christ’s name.   Christ commands us, Christ empowers us, to shelter and care for vulnerable people, to give food to the hungry and a home to the homeless.  But maybe the most distinctively Christian thing about it is that this help was given across lines of race, religion, nationality – without reference to any category of human variety.  Those things matter to many people; they have no meaning for Christians.   Not for Americans either, who hold that all men (and women, etc.) are created equal.   We all still have a ways to go on that.

So this work of refugee resettlement and immigration support is Christian ministry, and 95% of that ministry is done – not by the people sitting behind telephones at 360 Park Avenue South, but by Lutheran congregations all across the country, doing what we Lutherans do best:  nesting.  A congregation in, say, Nebraska,  agrees to take on the support of a refugee family – I’m not talking about a long time ago; this is what LIRS is doing today, though now mostly with refugees from the Middle East) – A congregation agrees to support a family: finds them a place to live, assembles furniture, dishes, bedding, appliances.  Stocks the fridge.  Helps with enrolling in school, navigating the system, learning the language.  In other words, offering hospitality unconditionally to the stranger in the name of Christ.  Proselytizing is not allowed, of course.  But among us, there is no need for any cheap proselytizing.  We Lutherans are faith people, who know to show our faith by our works, and to let those good works speak for themselves.   Who we are and what we do speaks more loudly than what we say.  That’s pretty much how we Lutherans roll.

As I say, I worked at LIRS in the 80s.  I am proud of the wonderful ministry that LIRS allowed our people to do, and, frankly, I am proud to have been a very small part of it myself at one time.  This ministry continues today, and it is on my mind especially because of course the travel ban affects its work instantly and seriously, leaving perhaps hundreds of refugees stranded in the pipeline.

Nevertheless, on Independence Day I am proud to be an American, son of a country that, like this church, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of Middle Village, was built by immigrants.  I hope we remember to cherish our immigrants and refugees here – as I say, it’s more than a few – and some of them are our most faithful servants of Christ.   Right now, Trinity has immigrants and refugees from Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania, Estonia, Austria, Guyana, Antigua, the Phillipines, China, Japan, Texas …

But no matter where we happen to be from, or when we came, we all came from somewhere and prospered here because of our own hard work, but also and inevitably because of the kindness of others.  None of us did it alone.  It is appropriate on the day when we celebrate our political independence from the British crown, that we also celebrate the material and spiritual dependence to which we owe everything that we have and are.   By the grace and mercy of God we are all in this together.

So I think that today we can thank God that this American project has been fabulously successful, on balance a tremendous force for good in the world, and that it has certainly been good to us.  We should thank God that we have shoes – millions do not.  That we will have lunch today; millions won’t.  That we have the freedom to seek and to know God according to the light of our own hearts; again, millions don’t have that freedom.   There are still places in the world where Christians are persecuted and even killed for their faith.

So we have a lot to give thanks for, a lot of remember, a lot to love, and a lot of work still to do in God’s world.  God bless America!  God shed His grace on thee.  And please God, help us to remember who we are, to be grateful for what we have, and to do cheerfully and faithfully what you have so graciously given us to do.