A homily on the greatest commandment.

When is the last time you sat down and had a candid conversation with someone with radically different beliefs? Perhaps it was on the job, during a lunch break with a coworker. Or perhaps it was at school, chatting with a friend. Or perhaps it was just last week, talking with a relative over Thanksgiving dinner. Wait, radically different beliefs, among family members, gathered to celebrate the holidays? That never happens, we *always* agree with relatives on the really big topics of our day, right? Right! 🙂

Or – and again I’m fairly new to the area – perhaps it was at one of those caucus thingys Iowans have. A caucus is defined as a “gathering of neighbors” I learned recently, neighbors that meet in schools, churches, libraries, even individual houses. Given today’s scripture reading the notion of a gathering of neighbors seems, well, downright fitting.

Phone Calls
As a high schooler I remember meeting a new friend during a marching band trip 20 years ago, her name was Sharon. At face value we didn’t have much in common. We went to different schools, played different instruments – I mean really, what does a flute player have in common with a trombone player – and, I soon found out, we had racially different religious beliefs. I was a bible-believing, three-times-a-week church attending Pentecostal Christian. And Sharon? Well, she was an atheist. And for some reason, this topic of belief, or lack of, well, it fascinated us both.

And before we knew it the two of us found ourselves talking on the phone for hours on end about questions of belief. She wondered what I saw in Christianity. At the time I was preparing to be an engineering major in college. “Aren’t you too logical and practical for these silly beliefs,” she wondered? For my part I was super curious about atheism, and asked her things like “how do you find meaning in life if we’re all here by chance?” We both answered our questions as best we were able. And for years after that I kinda forgot about the whole thing.

Today’s text from Mark isn’t too unlike those high school phone calls chatting up beliefs. Here we see Jesus having yet another conversation with the religious leaders of his day. Religious leaders that found themselves disagreeing with him more often than not. Jesus always seems to be up for conversation, no matter who it is, and what their background may be. This lack of regard for the religious and cultural rules of his day is downright scandalous. Don’t dine with certain groups he was told. Jesus did. Don’t go to certain towns, he was advised. Yet he did. Don’t talk to women, that’s not proper, he was told. Time after time Jesus did anyways.

Christ was really good at bending and breaking social conventions, and that’s something I’ve always admired when reading scripture. Perhaps we don’t talk about that enough in our churches, this wild-side of Jesus. But when you’re the Son of God, sent to earth to save the world, you have to save the world from, well, us. And that has to involve challenging the status quo.

The status quo challenge we have in Mark 12 is actually the tail-end of several other conversations Jesus has with religious leaders. So while we get a great conclusion – that’s the love God, and love your neighbor as yourself part – it’s worth backing up some looking at what led up to this moment.

First, in chapter 11, verses 27-33 the chief priests, scribes and elders question Jesus’ authority. He responds by telling them a parable. Next, in the first 12 verses of chapter 12, Pharisees – that’s an ancient religious group – try and trap him with a question of allegiance. Jesus counters instead with a question and a command. Finally, in verses 18-27, Sadducees – that’s another ancient religious group – suggest a hypothetical resurrection scenario to see how he responds. Jesus points them back to scripture, instead turning it into a conversation about the power of God.

It is only then that we get the grand payoff, a conversation between Jesus and a scribe. These are two people, from separate religious backgrounds, that find themselves identifying common ground. Agreeing, together, on the greatest commandment of all, to love your neighbor as yourself. As was then is now, that commandment has all sorts of implications on how we go about our daily living. That one statement, love your neighbor, contains the power to upend the world in some amazing, beautiful, ridiculously impactful ways.

As we gather for mid-week service my thoughts at times wander to our confirmation program. The Wednesday scripture used here is the same text our confirmation kids will hear later tonite, there’s some nice synchronicity in that.

And in this text specifically Jesus gives us a how-to lesson on what it means to live in, and to transform, a religiously complicated world. And with that I’d like to break down what that looks like, just a bit. This is geared to our confirmation kids, tho hopefully there is some takeaway for the rest of us too 🙂

  1. Learn your faith Up until recently it was your parents faith, and now you’re given the chance to make it more your own. As you age you’ll grow, and evolve, and challenge all you know, and that’s good and healthy. You may end up landing near where you are, as a Christian of Lutheran persuasion, and your parents would probably be thrilled with that. Or you may not, that can happen, and that’s ok too. But, before any of that, dive in, with both feet, and learn scripture. Study the catechism. Jesus knew scripture, and spoke of it often. Confirmation is an educational endeavor that will open doors, and open valuable conversations for the rest of your life.
  2. Have those conversations Have them with people that believe differently. Be curious. Ask questions. Don’t judge. Seek to understand. There is a depth of wisdom available to you that can only be experienced when around people very different from you. Jesus transformed the world by having open, honest conversations with people from all sorts of backgrounds. Model that. Do the same.
  3. Find common ground I don’t care who you find yourself sitting down with, there is always common ground to be found. Identify it. Then celebrate it. Then live into it.

From memory, my conversations with Sharon landed on a shared caring for humanity. She ended up being a doctor, and cares for God’s people every single day. And, after a windy career path I now find myself a pastor, doing similar, or at least aspiring to as best I’m able. Belief-wise I’ve changed, this Lutheran identity is far, in some ways, from the faith setting I was raised in. And Sharon? A few years ago she reached out via Facebook to tell me of her kids being baptized in an Episcopalian church. I think we’ve both been surprised by our own transformations and how different we are from our high school selves. Belief can be a journey, and a rewarding one.

For when we take these steps, as Jesus modeled, of learning our faith, having conversations with those different from us, and finding common ground, we arrive at the same conclusion Jesus did in today’s text. Upon hearing the scribe agreed with Jesus – they both conclude the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself – in this moment Jesus exclaimed to the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Well how about that.

The kingdom of God can be found alongside others. The kingdom of God can be found among people very different from us. The kingdom of God can be found among people where we find unexpected common ground.

And the kingdom of God, my friends, can be found in our shared call to love our neighbors as ourselves, regardless of who exactly those neighbors may be. Now go, and do likewise. Amen.

Drawing Life

A sermon drawn, quite literally, from John 15:1-17 .  The message was prepared as part of a virtual sermon exchange this past weekend with good friend Pastor Sara Bishop.  Pastor Sara delivered this message to her congregation in Estonia, while I delivered a message she prepared for my congregation, Bethesda Lutheran, in Ames Iowa.  

What do you have to do to become Christ’s chosen one? The answer fortunately is simple: NOTHING.

So often we view relationship with our Creator as something to be worked for, to be earned. We find ourselves occasionally believing that to connect with the cosmos is an achievement, an act requiring considerable effort on our part. It’s almost as if we’re trying out to make the divinity football team, hoping our talents in running, passing, and ability to shoot on goal are enough to be chosen. Do you, right now, have what it takes to make the professional divinity team? If you answer no then more perhaps more practice is in order.

Fortunately this mindset, of the need to practice, to do works, all in the hopes of making the celestial All-Star divinity team that lands directly in the heavens, well, it just doesn’t jive with John 15. You did not choose me, but I chose you, Christ reminds us.

And how refreshing that seems when much of our day-to-day is lived within a transactional framework. If you want something, usually, you have to give up something in return.
To earn money requires your time, your mental capacity, your physical body.
Other transactions involve not you, but things. Things that, if you have enough purchasing power, can be attained. To put food on the table you must give up some of those hard-earned wages. To have housing, have electricity, to access the internet, to give your children Christmas gifts, all of this involves trading one thing for another. Things are scarce resources, involve careful decision-making, all in the hopes they meet needs, for you, for loved ones. And, if you are lucky, sometimes you even get to acquire a few wants and throw those into the mix too.

And then there is my favorite type of transaction, one where not money is exchanged, only goods. A decade ago I had an old 1994 Volkswagen Jetta, and was looking to sell it. After advertising locally very few people were interested. I lived in South Florida at the time, a tropical climate, about three hours south of Disneyworld, and this car had no air conditioning. In the summer it got HOT.

Our family had already purchased another vehicle, and this old VW, gathering dust in the garage was essentially worthless to me. One day, after months of inaction, someone called and expressed interest in trading, one vehicle for another. He had a super sweet metallic-blue 1973 VW Super Beetle, the kind that’s air-cooled, engine in back, trunk in the front. He asked if I’d be interested; sure, I’ve always wanted one of those. We then prepared to exchange paperwork to make the trade official. But as we looked up the value of our Volkswagens it turns out his, even though 20 years older than mine, was worth about 500 dollars more.

Not wanting to spend money I asked if he liked video games. Why yes, he did, and an hour later he drove off in the ‘94 VW Jetta with a trunkload of Atari, Nintendo and Sega video games, leaving me that super sweet ‘73 Super Beetle. Transaction complete, we were both extremely happy.

The family 1973 Super Beetle – so miss it!

Chosen Ones
But – and this is amazingly fortuitous – none of this transactional mindset, as central as it is to our daily lives, none of it applies when we speak of our relationship with Christ. For all that’s needed has already been done through the life, death and resurrection narrative that culminates in Easter.

So instead of a to-do list with ample check-boxes needing to be crossed off we are instead given a blank slate, a clean, empty piece of paper. Already chosen children of God what then shall we do? We take that blank paper, and, just as a bright-eyed, high-energy child given a fresh, unused box of new crayons would do, we pick a few favorite colors and get to the business at hand: we create.

We draw, we doodle, we make masterpieces. Over time we grow into those masterpieces. But we are not left alone in this endeavor, the handbook containing all the tips and tricks of creating our life’s artwork is only an arm’s length away.  What handbook is this?  Ancient scripture, of course.  And the handbook’s author can hardly wait for us to turn divine revelation into here-and-now practice.

So what, dear child of God, a masterpiece in your own right, what masterpieces shall you, in this life, create? Today’s drawings come right out of the handbook of John 15.

Stay connected
First, from your box of crayons remove four colors; ready them for use: the blue, the green, the purple and the brown. Prepare to draw the first 8 verses of John 15.

God the Father is the vinegrower, we’re told, the gardener with endless skills. God waters, giving life, and prunes branches devoid of life too. Christ is the vine, growing alongside us, full of life, bearing much fruit. Abide with me, Christ beckons, for apart from me we can do nothing. As you begin to draw consider green for those branches with life, brown for those without. Pick up the blue crayon, create raindrops from the heavens, those drops spur the vine’s growth. Finally add in some purple, drawing fruit, hanging from the green branches, making them grapes, or berries, or the exquisitely exotic passionfruit.

Step back, consider your masterpiece. Reflect on how the handbook asks you to live into it. Prepare to be watered by your Creator, prepare to grow. Abide with Christ, stay close, for therein you yield fruit. And where branches wither be open to pruning, even if it hurts a little. Hint: It will hurt a little. Once pruned God’s celestial raindrops redirect to Christ’s life-giving branches, spurring new growth, new fruits, new beauty in your masterpiece.

Live (and Love) as Friends
Now turn the page, let’s color the next nine verses in the handbook of John 15. Jesus does something unprecedented, unique in scripture, he calls us not slaves, but friends. Draw yourself with Christ, perhaps you’re walking, or talking, or laughing. The word love is used *eight* times here in just a few sentences. Repetition signals importance, and here a command: love one another as I have loved you. Pick more crayons up and draw more friends. Connect those friends to you. Friends connected, in turn, to Christ. What about all that love? Perhaps a red crayon and hearts aplenty in this image are in order.

Drawn by my daughter, Hannah Arnold, age 7.

For as chosen ones, already the Son of God’s hand-picked elect, the spiritual activity of your days is not transactional in nature. And it isn’t spent seeking higher heavenly rank. Instead you are called to create a masterpiece, in the here and now, drawing on a deepening of relationship, between you, our Creator and our Savior. And equally as important you are called to connect to others, as friends, modeling the love, and the friendship, of Christ.  Amen.

The Good Neighbor

A homily on the parable of the Good Samaritan of Luke 10:25-37, more recently called the parable of the Good Neighbor.

Ahh the story of the Good Samaritan, what a classic parable. The story is probably Jesus’ most familiar story in all of scripture. Kids, if this is the first time you’ve heard this one then get ready to hear it a lot more of it as you age. The story is told in Sunday school classes, is part of most children’s bibles, and widely preached on by pastors.

If you would, take a second and estimate how many times you’ve heard this story. Get that number in your head. Who thinks they’ve heard the story in one form or another: 5 times? 10? 25? 50? Even more?

Whatever your number it’s likely a lot, right?

Even the phrase Good Samaritan is so common that many a hospital goes by that name. And the phrase so common that laws are named after it here in the US. Those good laws protect people from being sued when they help another person.

The parable, and the phrase, are so common that I wonder if we recognize how shocking this story truly is. At a basic level the takeaway is fairly clear, the entire New Testament can essentially be summarized into the two commands found in Luke 10:27

  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

The lawyer in the text then asks Jesus who is my neighbor?  Jesus responds by telling the parable. You know the rest, someone is robbed and injured, left for dead. Three people pass the man on the road, and the least expected person of the lot is the one that helps out. And the helper, the one who showed kindness, at his own personal expense, *that* is the neighbor. That neighbor, that helper, that is who we are to emulate, even, or perhaps especially, when it costs us.

But it’s the nature of the three people walking down the road, and what they represent, it is the meaning contained *there* that may get lost on our modern ears. Sure we know what a priest is, but what’s a Levite? A Levite is a member of the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, that part I knew off hand. But beyond that I found myself looking for more information, trying to figure out why this particular person is included in the story.

And the term Samaritan? Heck, who knows, it must one of those ancient groups of people we don’t know much about anymore.  John 4:9, says, rather bluntly, that Jews and Samaritans don’t associate with each other. Theologian Karoline Lewis suggests this is perhaps the greatest understatement in the entire Bible. Jews and Samaritans, both culturally and religiously did not share much of anything in common at the time. The two groups generally got along so poorly that, if a Jew came in contact with a Samaritan, the Jew would be required to return to Jerusalem. And once arrived they’d need to undergo a ritual cleansing at the temple.

Yet here the Samaritan is, helping another, in the midst of what appears to be extreme religious tensions. That kind of seems like a big deal.

The Retelling
What I’d like to do is to retell this parable by swapping out the names of the three characters that walk down the road. The name used instead of priest likely won’t surprise you too much. But listen for what is used instead of the terms Levites and Samaritans. A Samaritan from this era was considered a religious outsider in an extreme way. If you would, consider for yourself what person or group you see often considered as a religious outsider, culturally, in the U.S., in 2017. I’ll use the term that comes to my mind in the retelling, tho keep your word in mind as you listen as well. Here we go.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer then asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers. The robbers stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a pastor – not unlike myself or Pastor Bryan – was going down that road. And when the pastor saw the man, the pastor passed by on the other side.

So likewise a church musician – perhaps not too unlike those you see gathered here today – also came to the place and saw the injured man. And the church musician, too, passed by on the other side.

But then a Muslim, while traveling, came near the injured man; and when the Muslim saw him, he was moved with pity. The Muslim went to the injured man, bandaged his wounds, and poured oil and wine on them. Then the Muslim put the injured man on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day the Muslim took out two days of wages, right from out of his own pocket, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Good Neighbor
With those more modern terms does the story hit you a little differently?

To be honest, my wife Kathi is a better helper when it comes to urgent medical care situations like this. She’s a trained nurse, and naturally dives right in. But this particular pastor? He’s a little slower at times, occasionally needing to be coaxed to action.

And how about the inclusion of church musicians in the tale? One of the roles of Levites, I learned earlier today, is to be temple musicians, who knew? But really, this new narrative shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – you may be church musicians, but you’re musicians all the same, and that’s a rather rough lot, sorry 🙂

And then there is the hero of the story, the religious outsider. The one we, as a society, treat as unclean. The one we, at times, fear. I used the term Muslim for this unexpected hero, as that’s the group that comes to mind, at least for me. Another group may have come to mind for you, and that’s just fine. Regardless of what group is used here the takeaway is the same: Christ asks us to emulate this person, that we love our neighbor as ourselves is at the very core of our faith.

The parable here, surprisingly, asks us to emulate someone not of our own religious tradition, to be a good neighbor as they are. To love them as we love ourselves. To care for them as we care for ourselves. And to even receive care from them, just the same as anyone else. We are to do all this regardless of their religion, be they Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic or atheist. And that, my friends, coming from the words of our savior, is downright shocking. Now go, Christ implores, and do likewise.  Amen.

Where is God?

Where is God? To help prepare for this message I typed those three words – where is God – into the Google search engine, just to see what would happen. Amazingly, to me at least, the top search result has a fairly clear, definitely concise answer: God is in Europe. No, I’m not kidding, hear me out. More specifically God is in Central Europe, in the country of Budapest. You were thinking Jerusalem or perhaps the Vatican, weren’t you? Nope! And more specifically than that God is the name of a town in Hungary, with a population of around 18,000. It’s about a 45 minute drive north, and slightly east, of Budapest, located right along the beautiful, historic, serene Danube River.

So if you’re looking for God, and have some time, and enough spending money for a transatlantic flight, well, you’re excused from the service – go, FIND GOD. It’s ok, you can go now. We just ask that you take some photos, collect some stories, and come back and share those experiences with us, that’d be kinda fun.

For the rest of us not traveling to Europe today, my apologies, we’ll have to talk about this notion of where God is a little longer. I’ll try to keep you awake as best I’m able 🙂

This week we begin a brief three week series on Jesus: who he was, who he is, who Jesus is to come. Today we’ll tackle the backstory, of who Jesus was. But before we do that we need head back even further in the family tree and start with God the Father.

God in the O.T.
Similar to a Google search result that answers the question Where is God, in Old Testament times God was location-specific. In Genesis chapter 3, God walks in the garden, right alongside Adam and Eve. But after original sin God arguably became less mobile, more elusive, more difficult to access for we humans. God was around, sure, but it depended on time, and place, and sometimes on who you knew. God was often in the mountains, which is where Moses was handed the 10 commandments. Or, if you’re a fan of Mel Brook’s 1981 film History of the World, Part I, perhaps there were originally 15 commandments. In that satiric story Moses drops one of the tablets, shattering it, before he can present them to his people.

Some of my favorite God spottings in the O.T. are event-based, in a specific spot, like in a burning bush, in Ezekiel’s dry bones, or where God speaks to God’s people through a talking donkey. And when God could be found consistently it was often in a single, isolated location, like a tent only Moses could enter, or the holy of holies. That’s an area of the temple only accessible once a year by the high priest. God was here, on earth, but it was a limited access deal.

God in the Neighborhood
The location of the divine, and how we can access it, changes, rather radically, with the arrival of God’s son Jesus. That’s the focus of today’s scripture from John chapter 1, a powerful, poetic text that offers a unique birth narrative for Jesus that doubles as the creation story too.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, John begins. Here the identity of God is inextricably linked to the Word, the first spoken, later written story of God and God’s people.

He was in the beginning with God, verse two continues. This ‘he’ reference here is to God’s son, the soon-to-be revealed Christ. Here John isn’t speaking of the earthly birth of Jesus, but instead ties it to the implied presence of Jesus with God, and alongside God, from all eternity.

The focal point of today’s text, and the turn that makes our gospels relevant, comes to us in verse 14.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, we’re told, the glory of a father’s only son. I t is that moment, of Word become flesh, of God present with us, in the form of God’s son Jesus, both fully human and fully divine, that literally births Christianity. And it is that moment that unshackles our understanding of a limited access God, instead transforming it into a here and now, in the flesh, available to all through the life, death and resurrection of Christ kind-of-God.

In the Message, a modern biblical paraphrase that came out in 2002, author Eugene Peterson provides fresh, vivid language in verse 14, rendering it as the Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. I love that. God’s son Jesus as not only human, but neighbor. Not only walking the earth, but living locally. Not only a divine role model but someone residing next-door, someone you can literally break bread with.

Someone who removes, once and for all, this concept of a limited access God, expanding it to a God available to all tribes, all peoples, all social classes, accessible, in the flesh, right in your neighborhood. This was a colossal shift in understanding of the divine two thousand years ago, and it continues to inform us today.

God in Heaven
This notion of where God and Jesus can be found became more personal on February 29, 2016, when our 15 year-old dog, a rat terrier named Salsa, passed away. Our daughter, in kindergarten at the time, wanted to know where Salsa went. To heaven of course, Kathi and I replied, to be with God and Jesus. This explanation seemed to work for all of us; we found comfort knowing Salsa was safe and cared for. But saying goodnight to everyone at chez Arnold is part of our evening routine, and with Salsa no longer with us, well, this created a problem. Fortunately our daughter had the solution.

Each evening, after bath-time, story-time and the brushing of teeth, our family ends the day with a hug and a kiss. Our other terrier, Chips, who is 17 and still with us, joins in on this too; we humans give the hug, in return she often provides not a kiss but more of a lick. Shortly after Salsa passed away our daughter had the grand idea that, as part of our goodnight routine, we should do something similar for Salsa. So each night since then we now head out to the front porch, look to the heavens, notice the stars, search for the moon, and say goodnight to Salsa, and God, and Jesus. We then thank God and Jesus for taking care of Salsa. And then thank God and Jesus for taking care of us. For our family it’s a warm fuzzy moment.

This worked well for the Arnold clan for about a year, at least until a few months ago, when the time came for us to move from South Florida to Ames Iowa. Three-year old Graham seemed worried, I noticed one night before bed, so I asked him what the matter was. “I don’t want to move away from Salsa and God and Jesus,” he replied, “because then I won’t be able to say goodnight to them…I’ll miss them!”

“No worries,” I respond, trying to provide some comfort, “Salsa and God and Jesus are moving with us. When we move they do too. We’ll be able to say goodnight to them from the porch of our new home. They will always be with us, and they’ll never leave us.” And for the last three months, each evening, from a new porch 1,500 miles northwest of the Florida one, our sacred evening ritual continues. God and Jesus have moved into our new neighborhood, and we can connect with them any time we like.

My takeaway from this, a lesson that came from our children, is that deep down, we want to be close to our creator, close to the provider of all we have. Close to those we care for, those with us now, those that have gone before. As we commemorate All Saints day during this service we experience that closeness, that presence of those we love, through memory, prayer and the lighting of a candle. It’s a presence that cuts across time and celestial distance, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

So who was Jesus? Jesus was as John chapter 1 implies, the Word, with God, from the very beginning. And even more Jesus was Word became flesh, the Son of God that lived among us. The Son of God that desired to be so close to each of us that Jesus up and moved right into our local neighborhood. Jesus was, and is, in no small way, our divine next door neighbor.

As we close I’d like to end with a bit of song, you likely recognize this tune, it’s the theme from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the children’s television show that came out in 1967. The star of that show, and the author of this song, is Fred Rogers, who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. As you listen to this familiar tune, I ask you consider it a bit differently, from the perspective of Jesus, speaking to you, as neighbor.

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?

Good day, neighbor.  Amen.

Faith and Football

There is something sacred about Sundays. Of course, coming from a pastor, that may not sound too terribly surprising. If, as people of faith, we didn’t feel some sort of sacred attachment to this day we probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now. But for clergy Sundays are a little different; Sunday mornings, and sometimes other parts of the day too, these are work days. Now don’t get me wrong, I love playing an active role in worship. So much so I made a significant mid-life career change to do a lot more of it. But Sundays, for clergy, well, they are indeed work days.

And when that big workday Sunday morning is over, and after forgiving and preaching and communing and blessing and smiling and shaking hands with a few hundred people, this particular pastor does as many pastors do; he heads home and crashes on the couch. And, during Sunday afternoons in the Fall, from late September to the end of the year I spend that time sitting alongside my wife enjoying some NFL football.

For the last couple of years, and definitely the last several weeks, NFL games have been experienced a little differently than usual, both for our family and tens of millions of others in the US. Instead of just focusing on the game itself, there’s a national conversation about what happens before the game. If you’ve been anywhere close to a newspaper, or a newscast, or social media, or had even coffee with friends this past month you likely know *exactly* what I’m talking about. We’re talking about conversations of standing, kneeling or linking arms. Conversations of flags, veterans, and patriotism. Conversations of skin color, equality, and justice. These conversations all stem from what does, or does not, happen in the two minutes leading up to that opening kickoff on the gridiron.

And, selfishly speaking, I really just want to relax and watch some football.

But if there is anything divisive about this message, please Lord let it be this: as for me and my house, we will root for the Chicago Bears.  Not the Minnesota Vikings, not the Green Bay Packers. And certainly not the New England Patriots. The CHICAGO BEARS. So if you find yourself rooting for an NFL team whose colors are not dark navy and orange, well, you’re rooting for the wrong team. Tho no worries, you are also forgiven. You are loved. But you are not rooting for the right team. We’ll have to agree to disagree, at least on that.

So what do conversations of football and flags, standing and kneeling, skin color and justice have to do with our scripture reading today? Stay tuned, we’ll come back to that a bit later.

The Five Solas
For the past six weeks we’ve been celebrating, via sermon series and a ton of related events, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We’ve had fun trying out new greetings like Good Morning Saints! Good Morning Sinners! Both, for all of us, at all times, are true. We’ve talked of another paired paradox, a staple of Lutheran identity, law and gospel. The law condemns, the gospel frees; we live in the tension between the two.

And, for the last four weeks, we’ve learned some Latin together, including Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Solus Christus. These mean, in English, scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone. Taken together these solas represent the core of protestant Christianity. And when taken together they lead nicely to the last of the five solas, Soli Deo Gloria, or Glory to God Alone.

Soli Deo Gloria

In reformation times there was a perception that the Catholic Church lifted up many figures, from Mary the mother of Jesus, to the saints, to the angels, all higher than perhaps they should be lifted. This lifting up of some people over others carried into reformation-era society as well, from the popes to the church hierarchy all the way down to the average citizen. The church of this time arguably operated as more of an ivory tower of sorts, as an intellectual pursuit.

Again, imagine what it must feel like to speak one language all week and go to church and hear another language, a language that you don’t understand. This intellectual pursuit, while absolutely of value, when prioritized above all else, had the effect of disconnecting the church from practical concerns of everyday life.

And this concern certainly concerned Martin Luther.

Luther, who we enjoy celebrating as Lutherans, had a very good grasp of soli Deo gloria. In fact he was so sensitive to who should receive glory he’d really rather we all go by another name. Less than five years after the launch of the protestant reformation, in 1517, his followers began to be mockingly called “Lutherans” – a label those followers happily embraced. But Luther wanted none of that, writing in 1522:

“I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone. St. Paul, in 1st Corinthians 3, would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am—come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold… I hold, together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master.” (LW, vol. 45, pp 70–71)

Poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am, I love Luther’s playful use of language here, just gorgeous. Let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, Luther writes. Hold on to that notion as well, let it linger in your mind, just a bit.

Scriptural perspective
Today’s scripture passage from Philippians also speaks clearly to this notion of soli Deo gloria. First, in chapter 2 verses 3-5, Paul gives a four part cliff-notes version of what it to be Christian.

  1. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. Very good words to live by.
  2. In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Egad that can be tough.
  3. Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Yikes! This isn’t getting any easier.
  4. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ. What an aspiration. Lord, please make it so.

Paul then goes on to describe what it is to be of the same mind as Christ. Though he was in the form of God, Christ emptied himself, Paul writes, taking human form, the form of a slave. And he humbled himself, obedient even to the point of death on the cross.
And from that, Paul concludes, God exalted him, giving him the name above all names. A name that, when spoken, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, that, to the glory of God, Jesus Christ is Lord.

We could almost end the message right there, give it a hearty AMEN!, and call it a day. But I can’t. At least not yet.

I can’t because when I hear that phrase, every knee shall bow, my mind wanders, back to Sunday afternoons and the NFL. More specifically it wanders to the two minutes leading up to opening kickoff.

I can’t give a hearty amen right now because as I watch, as you watch, as we watch, every knee is not bowed. Every anthem is not stood for. Every arm is not linked together in unity.

And if you’re not familiar with this particular football-related national dialogue, that’s ok, there are plenty more examples to draw from. If you would, briefly consider these words, and see what images and opinions bubble up from within you: Charlottesville, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas. Tweets, immigrants, which lives matter, which do not. What you find yourself thinking, and believing about each of these is likely different from the person sitting next to you.

We remain, and have for a while, a nation divided. And that isn’t likely to change any time soon. At least with the current track we’re on.

Our media has perhaps oversimplified the issue, forcing us to choose a side to this national football dialogue; either stand for the flag, or bow for justice. What is a very necessary conversation, when mixed with divisive politics, and blended with a favorite sporting pastime, well then it becomes a dangerous, caustic, painful brew.

We can’t just watch some football.

And maybe, if we’re honest with ourselves, maybe we never really could.

So, instead of those starting points, of football and politics, of kneeling, standing or linking, of race, equality and justice, I’d like to propose something:  Choose a different starting point. Start with soli Deo gloria, glory to God alone.

With that starting point, as Christians, every knee should bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. And then, after bowing your knees, in prayer, take another look at the world. Look at the world both as it is – fallen, broken, in need of some fixing – and compare it, through scripture, to how Christ wants it to be. Where not just some, but all of God’s children are valued, loved, and cared for. And then go, and participate, in that reformation, in 2017, to make it so.  Amen.