Monday, November 13, 2017

To Serve the Lord


To Serve the Lord
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
November 12, 2017

Scripture: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Amos 5:18-24

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Not many of you were here last week to hear the first part of this sermon series on servant leadership, so I’ll give you a brief recap of what I said in that sermon. I said that servant leadership was a phrase I heard over and over again in seminary. It is the kind of leadership we were trained to do, not that any of us does it anything close to perfectly. I said that the servant part of the phrase servant leadership meant that a leader must lead for the benefit of the people she or he leads and not primarily for his or her own benefit. Servant leadership is leadership that puts the other first, that weighs the benefit of an action or statement for those one leads more than the benefit for the leader. I ended that sermon by saying that there is another word in the phrase servant leader, namely of course leader, that I would focus on more this week. So here goes.
What does it mean to be a leader? It means of course to lead, but in what sense does a servant leader lead? If the servant leader is to look out most of all for the benefit of those led, in what sense is a servant leader a leader at all? That question really boils down to another one: Just what does benefit a group that the leader leads? That question is actually one that sometimes gets the leader sideways with the group he or she leads, perhaps most of all when the leader is a parish minister and the group led is a congregation. I think that happened here between some of you and me. My experience here tells me that getting a clearer understanding of the leadership role of a pastor could do this congregation a lot of good. So let me talk specifically about at least one way in which a good pastor leads as well as serves a congregation. And I want to do that by introducing you to what we call “the 3 p’s” of the parish minister’s office.
I was introduced to thinking about the call of a parish minister in terms of the 3 p’s early in my time in ministry. It is a traditional way of thinking of the parish minister’s call that I find quite useful. The 3 p’s of pastoral leadership designate three roles that a minister of a church is called to fill. The ordained minister is called to be priest, pastor, and prophet. Those are the 3 p’s: priest, pastor, and prophet. Now of course in our Congregationalist tradition the ordained minister isn’t a priest in the technical sense because he neither offers sacrifice nor mediates between the people and God. In our context, however, the minister does perform priestly functions. That means that she presides at the sacraments of baptism and Communion and otherwise leads the community in worship. That’s the priest p.
The pastoral p is the function of caring for the congregation. The minister exercises the pastoral part of her call first of all when she is paying a pastoral visit on a member of her church. That visit may be in a hospital, or at the parishioner’s home, or at the church, or most anywhere. In the pastoral function the minister seeks to be present with and for a parishioner or the entire congregation in every setting in which the minister is in contact with the church or any member of it. The priestly and pastoral aspects of an ordained minister’s call rarely cause friction between the minister and the church. But there is that third p, prophet. That one causes trouble sometimes, and it is the one I want to focus on this morning.
What is a prophet? In common usage prophet has come largely to mean someone who predicts the future. In the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, however, prophet actually means something different. Especially in the Old Testament being a prophet is only partly about predicting the future. Yes, many of the Hebrew prophets whose sayings made the cut into the Bible predicted bad times ahead for Israel and Judah that indeed occurred, but that isn’t primarily why they are important to us. We see a good example of what the Hebrew prophets were all about and of how predicting the future relates to their work in our passage from Amos.
That passage begins with Amos predicting a bad day coming for Israel. He says: “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!...That day will be darkness, not light.” Amos 5:18 He goes on about what that “day of the Lord” will be like, and it isn’t pretty. It will be a day, he says, of darkness, pain, and fear. OK, there Amos is predicting the future. But notice how then the tone, the format of the passage changes. All of a sudden the text has the prophet speaking in the name of the Lord. The text says “I hate, I despise your religious feasts….” Amos 5:21 It isn’t Amos who hates Israel’s religious feasts, although he may well have hated them. It is God who hates them. Speaking a word from God Amos says that all of Israel’s worship, their sacrifices, their songs, their music, God will not accept. The passage ends with God saying “But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24 In that last line we see what the Hebrew prophets are mostly about. Yes, they predict the future; but mostly what they do is proclaim a word of Israel’s God. And that word is almost always about two things. We see one of those two things here. The one we don’t see so much is a demand that the people worship only Yahweh. The one we do see is God’s demand that the people, and especially the rulers of the people, do justice. “Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” That’s primarily what a prophet is, someone who has heard a word from God and is called to share it with the world. And the most important word the Hebrew prophets heard from God was God’s demand for justice.
In the Bible a prophet is less one who predicts the future and more one who brings a word from God. And in the Bible the people to whom the prophets spoke their word from God mostly didn’t want to hear it. Do you think the rulers of 8th century BCE Israel wanted to hear Amos call them on their injustice to the poor and vulnerable? Do you think they wanted to hear him cry that God was going to plunge them into darkness, fear, and pain because they didn’t do justice for the poor and the vulnerable? I very much doubt that they did. Rulers, be they kings or democratically elected representatives, don’t much like being told that they are ruling unjustly, especially when they are ruling unjustly. That the rulers of Israel didn’t want to hear what Amos had to say didn’t stop him from saying it. That the Romans and their allies in the temple leadership more than seven hundred years after Amos didn’t want to hear what Jesus had to say didn’t stop Jesus from saying it. The thing about true prophecy is that the prophet who feels called to bring it has to say it, and does say it, even or especially when his or her audience doesn’t want to hear it.
So what does that mean for the parish minister part of whose call is to be a prophet? It means that when she or he acts as a prophet she or he can and often does get in big trouble with her or his congregation, or at least part of it. There is a fundamental tension in the local parish church in our time between a minister who believes he is called to proclaim all of God’s truth as far as he knows it, to proclaim all of the Gospel as far as she knows it, and people in the congregation who don’t want to be challenged, who want to hear only positive things from the pulpit, who want only to be comforted and lifted up in the worship service. And yes, the word of God’s unfailing love, God’s eternal care for each and every person, God’s presence that can get us through whatever it is we must face in life—all of that is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ too. An important part. A life-enhancing, uplifting, joyous part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But it is not all of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Jesus brought us our ultimate revelation of God’s love, but he also brought us God’s demand that we transform our hearts and our lives from bondage to the ways of the world into the freedom of the ways of God. He brought God’s demand that we live lives of justice and that we demand justice from our rulers, justice for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the ones the rulers don’t hear, the ones the rulers want to ignore at best and suppress at worst. Jesus didn’t think most of the people he preached too were bad people, but he knew that they needed to hear a new word from God. They needed a call to transform their hearts and their lives. Those in positions of privilege and power needed to hear it most of all, but everyone else needed to hear it too. Did they all want to hear it? Heavens no! Did that stop him from preaching it? Most certainly not!
Now, everyone I know in parish ministry, myself included, knows full well that we aren’t Jesus, I probably less than most. No, we parish ministers aren’t Jesus. No, I am not Jesus. Certainly not. We’re not even Amos, but all (or at least most) of us in parish ministry have discerned a call from the Holy Spirit to be ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That call is not limited to the call to be a prophet, but it includes the call to be a prophet. And when God calls a man or a woman to be a prophet, God calls that person to be a prophet whether all of the people of the person’s parish want to hear prophecy or not. That’s why the prophet part of the 3 p’s gets ministers in trouble with their congregation. It gets us in trouble with our congregations, or with parts of them, because people don’t always want to hear what we are called to say.
Which brings us back to the leader part of servant leader. A leader, especially in a church, has discerned a call. A pastor leader in a church has a call that some of his people won’t understand. He has a call to say things they don’t want to hear. If he refuses to say what God is calling him to say because some people don’t want to hear it he is no kind of leader. A leader has a vision, or at least should have. A church pastor has (or at least should have) studied the Bible and other aspects of the Christian faith for years. A church pastor does (or at least should) keep on top of the best recent developments in Christian theology and share them with her people. Even if they don’t want to hear it.
Folks, a parish minister is a leader not a follower. Or at least not only a follower. A parish minister’s call comes on one level from the congregation, but on a much deeper level it comes from God. That doesn’t make us perfect. It doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes. We all do. It does mean that while on one level we are responsible to our congregation, on a much deeper level we are responsible to a power far greater than that congregation. We are responsible to God the Holy Spirit. And if we ever let the fact that some of our people don’t like something we are convinced the Holy Spirit is calling us to do or to say stop us from doing it or saying it we have failed in our response to our deepest call. And if we fail in that deeper call we will fail in the call of our congregation too, for that congregational call to be authentic must be grounded in the deeper call of the Holy Spirit.
So. Being a leader doesn’t always make you popular. It’s not supposed to make you popular. It’s supposed to make you lead, and sometimes you have to lead where your people don’t want to follow. So be it. If the congregation can accept a pastor’s leadership whether they like it or not the pastorate can be a successful one. If it cannot, that pastorate will fail; and many do. That is not to say that anyone in a congregation must or should accept anything any minister says without doing her or his own prayerful discernment. We are all called to do our own work around all issues of faith and never to accept anything uncritically. That work will probably lead you to agree with somethings your parish minister says and disagree with others. That is how it should be. The issue is whether you can accept your minister’s ministry when you disagree with some of the things she or he does or says.
You are or soon will be looking for new pastoral leadership. As you do I hope you will understand that the pastor’s call is to love you, but it is also to lead you; and you may not always like that leadership. So be it. Jesus’ leadership of the people got him crucified. A pastor’s leadership of her people sometimes gets her fired, or causes her to resign. As you look for new pastoral leadership for this church I pray that you will be open to men and women who truly have been called by God to be your leader; and when they lead you’ll listen. Listen critically, but listen. I ask you now to be prepared to be loved, but also prepare to be challenged. That’s what authentic ministry does. Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Servant Leadership


Servant Leadership
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
November 5, 2017

Scripture: Micah 3:5-12; Matthew 23:1-12

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

It’s a phrase we hear over and over again in the ministry business. “Servant Leadership.” It’s what we’re taught in seminary, or at least in any seminary worth its salt. We ordained folk are all supposed to be “servant leaders.” When you think about it, though, the phrase doesn’t make much sense. The two words seem to contradict each other. The first word of the phrase, servant, refers to someone who is at the beck and call of another. The servant does only what the master directs the servant to do. A servant is an employee who simply performs the duties specified in her job description. She performs those duties only as her employer directs, otherwise she gets fired. A servant is a follower not a leader. Clever servants may be able to manipulate their employer at times, but that’s not their job. Their job is to receive directions and follow them.
A leader is something quite different, isn’t she. A leader leads. A leader doesn’t follow orders. A leader may in fact give orders. One extreme example of leadership is military leadership. An officer in charge of a group of soldiers, be it a platoon or a division, gives orders. Those who receive the orders obey them, or at least they’re supposed to. Even in a less tightly structured environment than the military a leader directs. She sets a course. She points the way. She gets others to follower her lead, probably not so much by giving orders as by encouragement and example. In any event, as we commonly understand the term a leader is not the servant of those whom she leads. She is precisely their leader.
So what can “servant leadership” possibly mean? Isn’t that phrase a hopeless contradiction in terms? It sure sounds like one, but actually it isn’t. At least it isn’t necessarily a hopeless contradiction in terms. We can get started toward an understanding of how it isn’t a contradiction in terms by considering a few lines from the two scripture passages we just heard. I’ll start with Micah. The eighth century BCE prophet Micah is vociferously condemning the leaders of the Hebrew people for doing leadership all wrong. He thunders: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money.” I’ve told some of you before that Micah’s line “her priests teach for a price” slaps me in the face every time I read or hear it. That’s because there is a built in tension in the work of a church pastor. We all depend on the compensation package we receive from the church we serve. Most of the time at least we don’t want to get fired (although sometimes we may be willing to be fired, or at least to risk being fired, in order to speak the truth as we know it). So we teach for a price. We preach for a price. I know that some of you don’t think I’ve pulled my punches anywhere near enough here; but believe me, I’ve pulled them plenty. I’ve never given you a sermon expressly on what we call the Open and Affirming movement, though you badly need to hear one. I told you my convictions about Donald Trump as President, but since I did that I don’t think I’ve mentioned him by name even once in a sermon. I have preached a little bit on Christian nonviolence, but I’ve never preached it as strongly as I feel called to preach it. So yes, I teach for a price. I preach for a price. And Micah condemns the leaders of ancient Israel, and me, for doing it.
Then there’s our passage from Matthew. In that passage Jesus condemns people whom the text calls “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees” for not practicing what they preach. They exercise their positions of leadership, he says, only to puff themselves up and to get people at least to pretend to respect them. They place burdens on the people that they themselves will not bear. They make a show of the artifacts of piety—that’s what the line about phylacteries and fringes is about. They revel in being called by the honorable title Rabbi. For these people their leadership is all about themselves, not about they people they are called to lead.
The people that both our Micah and our Matthew passages condemn are leaders, but they certainly are not “servant leaders.” They exercise leadership, but they do it all wrong. They do it to enrich themselves. They do it for the prestige of their office, and both the ancient prophet Micah and the more recent prophet Jesus blast them for it. Clearly both of these passages demand a different kind of leadership than the leadership these passages condemn.
But what kind of leadership do they have in mind that’s better than the leadership they condemn? Jesus gives us the answer to that question right at the end of the passage we heard. He says: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Elsewhere in Matthew he says “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:30 In both passages Jesus is teaching servant leadership, and in those passages we get a good picture of what the “servant” part of that phrase actually means.
It means that true Christian leadership is never done primarily for the benefit of the leader. Yes, the people being led may pay the leader a salary and other compensation; but the leader must always understand that he leads not to benefit himself but to benefit the people he leads. He may be in a position of leadership, but he must always lead only for the benefit of those whose leader he supposedly is. I was taught in seminary, and I strongly believe, that if you’re going into pastoral ministry because you need an ego boost, or because you need people to build you up, or because your ego demands that it be propped up by being the one up front the people are looking at and listening to, get out. Get out now. Don’t even think about taking a call to a church. Why? Because you don’t get what pastoral leadership is really about. You’re going into church leadership for all the wrong reasons, and that way lies only trouble.
None of you were at my ordination service back in 2002, but at that service the Rev. Phyllis Anderson gave the sermon. She was Associate Dean of the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry at the time. I remember her saying over and over again to me in her sermon: “It’s not about you.” Pastoral leadership is servant leadership. No one should exercise it primarily for their own benefit. We pastors aren’t supposed to be doing it for our benefit. We’re supposed to be doing it for the benefit of the people we pastor and to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the Gospel of Pastor So and So.
Most every kind of leadership should be servant leadership. The people are always more important than the leader. Some of you are in positions of leadership of one kind or another. Audry leads 4H groups. John, Jesse, Tom, Dick, and Elsie make up the Admin Board of this church. They are leaders here. The principles of servant leadership apply to them as much as they apply to me. Anyone in any position of leadership needs constantly to remind themselves of what Phyllis said to me in that ordination service: “It’s not about you.” The teachers of the law and the Pharisees in our passage from Matthew thought it was about them. They were wrong. The leaders Micah had condemned more than 700 years earlier thought it was about them too. They too were wrong.
True leadership is servant leadership. It is leadership for the benefit of the led. That’s how Jesus led. None of us will ever do it as well as he did, but he can be our model and our guide. Jesus led the people of his day, especially the poor and oppressed people (and that was nearly everyone) to an understanding that they are God’s beloved. That they deserve better. That God wants them freed from poverty and oppression. Jesus’ leadership got him crucified. Servant leadership often has opponents, sometimes vigorous and even violent opponents. That is does doesn’t change the leader’s call. Serve your people not yourself. That’s the servant part of servant leadership.
Now, of course there’s another word in the phrase servant leadership, namely of course the word leadership. See, a servant leader is not just a servant. She is also a leader. That’s why servant leaders often get sideways with some of the people they are leading. I’ll have more to say about that aspect of servant leadership next week. Stay tuned. Amen.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Always Reforming


Always Reforming
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
October 29, 2017

Scripture: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The day after tomorrow is Halloween. Many people will get dressed up in weird costumes. Children wearing costumes will come to our doors to get candy. Halloween has become a big deal in American culture. We spend more money on it than we do on any other holiday save for Christmas. Halloween is a big deal commercially, but it actually has some Christian roots in addition to the pagan ones it also clearly has. The word Halloween comes from the phrase All Hallow’s Eve. It is the eve of the day in the Christian calendar for remembering the saints, the “Hallows” or hallowed ones, who have died before us, with hallows here understood as all Christians. So even before it became an occasion for kids to get a sugar high, Halloween had at least some Christian significance.
Maybe that’s why, at least according to popular legend Martin Luther chose Halloween as the day on which to post his famous 95 Theses on that church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Whether that’s why he chose October 31 or not, or even if he ever actually posted those theses or not, what he actually did then or some other time sparked what came to be known as the Reformation, a movement that transformed the religious landscape of the world. At the most basic level Luther discerned that the Christian church of his time and place had gone badly astray. It had fallen into significant error. It was leading people astray. It was teaching them falsehoods. Yes, it still taught foundational truths—that Jesus is the Christ for example. But it also taught and practiced falsehoods.
The practice that set Luther off was the practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence was a promise purchased for money that the purchase would reduce the amount of time the soul of a deceased loved one would have to spend in Purgatory before being released to heaven. It wasn’t that Luther denied the reality of Purgatory. He didn’t. He denied that the Pope had any authority over the souls of the deceased. He thought, correctly, that the sale of indulgences wasn’t done for any legitimate spiritual reason but only to raise money for the Archbishop of Mainz so he could pay off his debts and for Pope Leo X so he could keep building the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther saw that the sale of indulgences was grounded in false theology about the power of the Pope and that it distracted ordinary people from worthwhile religious thoughts and actions. Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences led to a broad movement of church reform that swept across northern Europe and eventually spread to North America, brought to this continent most significantly perhaps by our Congregationalist forbears, though they were Calvinists not Lutherans.
Luther saw that the Christian church of his day needed reforming. It needed renewing. It needed correction from bad beliefs and practices. It needed reformation because it had deviated from a true Christian way. It had come to be all about secular power, especially the power of the Pope. It cared more about itself than it did for the Christian people it was supposed to be serving. Beyond that, it was stuck in a medieval way of thinking and acting that was becoming obsolete in the world that began to emerge in Italy in the fourteenth century and was beginning to emerge in Germany in the early sixteenth. Luther saw that the Roman Catholic Church of his day was out of touch with its true mission and out of step with the world as it existed. That’s why it needed reformation, and Luther started that reformation though he probably had no idea at the beginning that that was what he was doing.
Now, Luther addressed the church’s need for reformation and renewal in his time, but let me ask you something: When was the last time someone tried to sell you an indulgence? When was the last time you thought that Pope was teaching you anything at all, much less things about the Christian faith that are just wrong? Yeah, like never. No one has believed in indulgences for a long time. We Protestants don’t generally think that the Pope teaches us anything, for we owe no allegiance to any Pope. The issues that drove the Reformation in its early years just aren’t issues today, at least not for us Protestants.
So is the Reformation that Luther started five hundred years ago next Tuesday irrelevant to us? A lot of Protestant Christians may think that it is, that when we mark the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s provocative act with his 95 Theses that we are only remembering an important but quite distant historical event. Well, let me suggest otherwise. Let me suggest thinking of Luther and the Protestant Reformation this way. Luther understood that the church was failing in its mission. It was failing its people. So he set out to correct it. He established the principle that we humans are capable of seeing when a human institution like the church is going wrong and that we have both the right and the responsibility to do something about it. When he tried to do something about it he met massive resistance from the church and from many secular authorities who were beholden to the church. Nonetheless, he persisted. The basic notion that institutions go wrong and we have the ability and the duty to correct them led to another of the Protestantism’s great aphorisms, one that I think has profound meaning for us today. Two weeks ago we talked about the Reformation’s aphorism “by faith alone.” Last week we talked about the notion that we know our faith by scripture alone. The third great Protestant aphorism I want to talk to you about is “always reforming.” Semper reformanda, in Latin. It is the notion that the church is always in need of reformation.
That’s a notion that few Protestants pay much attention to I suppose, but some do. Many very good theologians today are saying that we are in the midst of a new Reformation. Even if that is a bit of an overstatement, it is nonetheless true that the Christian church (or at least the Protestant part of it and to a lesser degree the Catholic part of it) is constantly changing to adapt its message and the way in which it delivers that message to the people of its time and place. Of course a great many Christians don’t realize that such reformation is a continuous process for the church. Perhaps because they believe, rightly I think, that since the foundational truths of the Christian faith don’t change, therefore the church doesn’t have to change either. It is so easy for us all to universalize what we believe to be the truth and seek to freeze it in time. And perhaps the undeniable truth that Americans generally don’t learn or appreciate much history plays a role too. After all, the changes that are continually taking place in the church aren’t necessarily obvious in the course of one brief lifetime, although sometimes they are if people just know to look for them. Whatever the cause of the phenomenon, most American Christians aren’t really aware of how the church is constantly changing.
Let me give you one example. At least some of you believe that Fundamentalism is “old time religion,” that the Christian faith has always understood its foundational truths in literalistic terms, that the Bible is the literal word of God and that Christians have always understood it literally, that is, factually. Well, will it surprise you to learn that Fundamentalism is a very recent phenomenon in the Christian tradition? Well, it is. The term Fundamentalism comes from some pamphlets that were published in this country just over 100 years ago. Before about the eighteenth century Christians generally understood the Bible to be relating facts, but they also understood that the important truths of the Bible weren’t in the supposed facts it recounts but in the deeper, metaphorical or symbolic truth that it conveys. Western Christianity came to understand the Bible only as fact as a consequence of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Emphasizing the Bible as fact was a change brought about as the tradition sought to speak to people who had come to understand truth only as fact. Now, our culture, or at least the leading edges of it, has gotten over its obsession with mere fact and is rediscovering other, deeper kinds of truth. So the Christian tradition, or at least some parts of it, is reforming its understanding of the Bible from limiting it to fact to understanding it as containing truth much deeper than fact that doesn’t really depend on what the facts behind a story actually were. If you want to know more about how Christianity is changing in that way, read either my Liberating Christianity or Part One of my Liberating the Bible. They’re both on the shelves downstairs.
Folks, it is so easy for us humans to get stuck in our understandings of things. We are taught something or other as the “truth.” We accept it as the truth. We make that truth part of how we see the world and even part of who we understand ourselves to be. For most of us moving from that truth to a newer, perhaps deeper or more productive truth is really hard. I’ve found it hard myself. I remember a conversation I had with my father years ago in which he said that Jesus probably didn’t understand himself as God Incarnate. I said: “How can someone be God Incarnate and not know it?” I didn’t understand then, but do understand now, that my question was grounded in the understanding of truth as fact. Through lots of study I came to realize that truth is a whole lot more than fact. The Christian confession of Jesus as God the Son Incarnate can be, and is, true regardless of the factual details behind that confession.
That is the kind of movement that the Christian faith needs today. The world in which we live and work isn’t so much changing as it has changed. The world of one hundred years ago that gave us Fundamentalism isn’t there any more. At at the higher levels of the culture it isn’t. The world that gave us biblical factualism isn’t there any more either. A faith that clings to a cultural norm that has passed into history will itself pass into history. Luther saw that the church of his day wasn’t speaking truth to the people of his day. The Protestant Reformation was the result of that insight. The Christian norms of a century ago no longer speak to a great many people today like they did in times past. That is the insight some have had today and that a great many more need to have today if Christianity is to survive. Luther introduced the principle of reformation into the Christian tradition, but reformation isn’t a once for all thing. It must be ongoing for any faith to survive. That’s why some of the Reformers said “semper reformanda,” always reforming. Our faith needs reformation today as much as it ever has. Sure, we can just be comfortable in truths we’ve held for our whole lives. But if that’s all we do our faith will not outlive us, or at least not outlive us by much.
So let’s recover that old Protestant concept of always reforming. Let’s understand how the world in which we live has changed and how the great, eternally true Christian faith must speak to that world today. Always reforming. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary. May we all truly understand that reality. Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

By Scripture Alone


By Scripture Alone
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
October 22, 2017

Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Matthew 22:34-40

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Poor old Martin Luther. He knew that his soul needed salvation. He did everything the Roman Catholic Church of his day, his church, told him he had to do to procure it. Nothing worked. He was still convinced that he deserved nothing but eternal damnation because he couldn’t possibly do enough good things to make up for his sin, whatever he thought his sin was. His church, the only church of any consequence in western Europe in his day, had all kinds of things it told people to do to save their souls. Mostly it said be a good Catholic. Do what we tell you to do, and don’t do what we tell you not to do, and you’ll be fine. So brother Martin did what his church told him to do, and he didn’t do what his church told him not to do; and still his soul was not at peace. He still feared eternal torment in hell. Last week we talked about how he found the solution to his crisis in the New Testament writings of St. Paul, especially in the book of Romans. He found that salvation doesn’t come from anything we do or don’t do. It comes from God as a free and unmerited gift of grace. The Bible did for him what his church could not do. It assured him of God’s love and forgiveness. In other words, it assured him of God’s grace. He found an assurance of salvation not in the church but in the Bible.
Luther’s finding of an assurance of salvation not in the church but in the Bible led him to what we can call the second great insight of the Protestant Reformation. We talked about the first great insight last week. It is “by faith alone.” It is the understanding that grace comes freely from God not as a reward for our good works. The second great insight of the Protestant Reformation is “by scripture alone.” Sola Scriptura, the early Reformers said in Latin. By scripture alone. By scripture alone do we find the truth. In the scriptures alone do we find the means of salvation. Everything necessary for salvation is there in the Bible. Truth is in the Bible, and nothing is true that is not grounded in the Bible. That’s what the Reformers proclaimed. It has been a foundational confession of Protestant Christianity ever since.
It is perhaps hard for us Protestants to understand just how revolutionary the proclamation “by scripture alone” was when the Reformers first made it. Yet it was revolutionary. It was revolutionary because it contradicts one of the central teachings of Catholic theology. The Roman Catholic Church taught in Luther’s time and (in somewhat modified form) teaches today that it is what it calls the depository of the faith. The content of the faith and the truths of the faith are found in the Church. In Roman Catholic theology the traditions of the Church are an central source for finding the truths of the faith. Yes, the Bible is part of the Catholic tradition, but it is not all of the Catholic tradition. Because the Bible is a part of the Catholic tradition but not all of it, the Bible is one place where we can look to find divine truth, but it is not the only place where we can look for such truth. We look to the Church for truth, not just to the Bible. And because the Church is the depository of the faith we must understand that the Bible says what the Church says it says. The Church has always directed Catholic Christians to look to the Church for truth and not to go off reading the Bible on their own. That way, the Church teaches, lies error. You avoid error by listening to what the Church says is true and then believing it.
That surely is what Martin Luther was taught as a child and later as a monk. Yet he did not find the assurance of salvation he needed in the teachings of the Church. He found it in the Bible. But how could that be? The Church is the depository of the faith. The Church holds the truth. The Church knows what’s right, what’s true. The Church guards against falsehood. Yet the Church’s truth didn’t take away Luther’s dread over eternal damnation. The Bible did that, not the Church. Something was wrong. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Yet Luther couldn’t deny his own experience of salvation, and because he couldn’t deny his experience of salvation he had to deny one of the primary teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He had to deny that the Christian faith was grounded primarily in the teachings of the Church. No, Luther discovered that the Christian faith is founded in the Bible not in the Church. The Church said, and says, we have what you need for salvation. Luther said no, you don’t. The Bible does. Luther went on to say that the faith is grounded in the Bible alone. In scripture alone.
When the Reformers reached that conclusion they overthrew the existing religious order in Europe. If people don’t need the Church to be saved that power, importance, and role of the Church in the life of faith are greatly diminished. The power, importance, and role of the Bible greatly increased. Luther wanted ordinary people to read the Bible more than listen to some priest from the pulpit. So he did what Wycliffe had done in England before him. He translated the Bible into the language of the people. The Church used a Latin Bible that relatively few people could read and understand. Luther translated it into German so that anyone who could read or who heard it read aloud could understand it. He translated both Testaments. In doing so he essentially created what became high literary German.
The Church taught, and teaches, that the priest stands between the people and God and mediates between them. Luther said no, every Christian can have a direct, personal relationship with God. And the primary way we tend that relationship is through studying the Bible. The Church taught, and teaches, that people need the guidance of the Church in order to understand—and not misunderstand—the Bible. Luther said no, each Christian can read and understand it on her own. Luther never went as far as some churches do today when they call themselves “Bible churches” rather than Christian churches, but he elevated the role of the Bible in the life of faith in dramatic ways.
Luther and others Reformers after him said “by scripture alone.” By that they meant that all we need for salvation is the Bible. God’s truth is in the Bible and not anywhere else. That’s what they said, although they didn’t entirely mean it. Luther and others held on to some things that aren’t really biblical. The best example if infant baptism. No one ever baptizes an infant in the Bible. Adult believers are baptized in the Bible, but not infants. Perhaps Luther and the others held on to infant baptism because they still believed that the soul of a child or even of a baby who dies unbaptized can’t get to heaven. Not even the Roman Catholic Church teaches that today, but it was a common belief in Luther’s time. Lutherans and all other reformed traditions other than Unitarianism also kept the traditional understanding of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity has a few relatively weak biblical roots, but it is never really developed there. The phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” appears only once in the Bible, at Matthew 28:19. Yet Trinity is so essential to that other foundational Christian confession, that of Incarnation, that the Reformers kept Trinity despite it’s tenuous connection to the Bible. So they said by scripture alone, but they never quite went as far in their thought as that phrase suggests they might have.
So here we are 500 years later. Like Luther we believe that everything that is necessary for salvation, or for understanding the dynamics of salvation, can be found in the Bible. In some ways the Protestant focus on the Bible has problems. The Bible is an extremely complex book, and it’s not as easy to understand as on its surface it often appears to be. Still, the Protestant proclamation by scripture alone is very good news. The Bible is indeed something that anyone who’s literate can read. It has been translated into virtually every human language that there is. In the Bible everyone can have access to the foundational truths of both the Jewish and Christian religions. We may disagree on whether or to what extent the Bible is the inspired word of God as our passage from 1 Timothy says it is, but we all agree that our Christian faith is grounded in it and could not exist without it. I believe that it is useful for all of us to read the Bible with the help of a good guide of some sort. That’s why I wrote my book Liberating the Bible. Yet we also believe that reading the Bible is a worthwhile activity for every Christian. We don’t look for divine truth much of anywhere else. We look for it in scripture. In scripture alone.
Yet the complexity of the Bible is why I included the reading from Matthew in this morning’s service. It is Matthew’s version of the Great Commandment, the commandment to love God, neighbor, and self with our whole being. Matthew has Jesus say the “the Law and the Prophets” depend on that great commandment of love. OK, but what are the Law and the Prophets? They are the two parts of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, that were already considered to be sacred scripture in the first century. Jesus tells us here that all scripture depends on the commandment of a threefold love, love of God, neighbor, and self. And indeed they do. There are certainly passages in the Bible that don’t sound much like they’re directing us to love God, neighbor, and self. But I once read that the great rabbis of the Jewish tradition say that everything in the Bible is about love; and if you can’t see how some passage is about love, keep working at it until you discover how it is. That’s good advice for us Christians too. We say our faith is guided by scripture alone, and for us our understanding of scripture must be guided by Jesus’ great commandment of love. By scripture alone means by love alone. I don’t know if Luther would have put it quite that way. Probably not, if only because he was such a horrible anti-Semite. But for us, today, by scripture alone must mean by love alone. That’s what Jesus says in Matthew. I pray that we will take his word to heart.
So there we have one of the Reformation’s foundational principles. By scripture alone. Most Protestant churches haven’t ever lived that notion to the full. Most, including the Congregationalists, baptize infants, which isn’t biblical. Still, we know that the Bible is our surest guide to the Christian faith. It gives us most of all Jesus’ commandment of love. If we will always remember to interpret the Bible in the light of that great commandment we can’t go wrong. May we always live by that overarching truth of the Bible. For us by scripture alone must be by love alone. May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

By Faith Alone


By Faith Alone
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
October 15, 2017

Scripture: Romans 3:21-24; Philippians 3:4b-14

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

According to popular legend at least, on October 31, 1517, a German monk and professor of moral philosophy named Martin Luther posted a document known as The 95 Theses, or as Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He didn’t intend to start a new church, much less a whole new branch of Christianity. He wanted to help the Roman Catholic Church, the only church there was at the time in western Europe, to clean up some bad theology and some bad practices that Luther believed (correctly I think) were harming ordinary Christian people. At the end of this month we will mark the 500th anniversary of that event, which turned out to be monumental in the history of the world though Luther had no reason to believe that it would be any such thing at the time. Luther posting his 95 Theses on that church door 500 years ago is seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. We’ll only see the 500th anniversary of the beginning of our kind of Christianity once, so for the next three weeks, starting today, I will give three sermons on three of the defining characteristics of Reformation Christianity. Today I’ll talk about the Protestant belief that we are saved by faith alone. Stay tuned for what the other two sermons will be about. So here goes. By faith alone.
Though he lived at the very beginning of the modern age, Martin Luther was a thoroughly medieval man in at least one important respect. He agonized over the eternal fate of his soul. He agonized over the fate of his soul because he believed himself to be a terrible sinner who God would and could neither love nor save. The eternal fate of souls was the major preoccupation of medieval Christianity in western Europe. The Church taught and people believed that the eternal fate of most souls was to spend eternity being tormented in hell. Luther was a man of his time, and he feared deep in his soul that eternal torment was going to be his fate too.
So he tried to do everything the Church told him he had to do to be saved. Basically the Church taught that to be saved you have to do “good works,” and by good works it meant doing whatever the Church told you to do. That’s what Luther did. He prayed really hard every day. He confessed his supposed sins all the time. He beat himself. He deprived himself of many of the pleasures of life, neither marrying nor having children for example. He became a monk. He read the Bible, studied the faith, and even taught it at the university. He tried and tried to do enough to make God forgive him and save him. It didn’t work. He still believed himself to be a wretched sinner who deserved nothing but eternal damnation for his sins. The poor man must have been miserable. He knew his Christian faith as his church taught it inside and out. He did everything the church told him to do. Yet following the beliefs and practices it taught him did nothing to relieve his dread of eternal damnation as well-deserved punishment for his sins. Just what he thought his sins were I don’t know, but he sure thought he had them. And he thought he had to overcome them through good works if his soul wasn’t going to spend eternity in hell.
One day Martin Luther reread Paul’s letter to the Romans and changed the world. Luther read passages in Romans like the one we just heard. It’s worth hearing again:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (emphasis added)

Righteousness, that is, being in right relationship with God, comes from God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Luther read lines from Paul like these and finally got it. He couldn’t put himself in right relationship with God through any good work, through any act of charity or self-deprivation. The bad news was he couldn’t do it. The great good news was that he didn’t have to. Justification or righteousness (for our purposes they mean the same thing) didn’t come from good works. They came through faith in Jesus Christ. By faith alone. That’s what Luther found in Paul. That our salvation comes from God’s grace through faith and not through good works was the major insight of the Protestant Reformation. So as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s act that started that Reformation let’s consider just what that major Protestant confession means for us today.
The first thing that this great confession means for us is that we don’t have to worry about the eternal fate of our souls the way Martin Luther did before he reread Romans. Paul’s major insight, the one Luther found in him, is that salvation does not come through good works. That’s why Luther called the book of James in the New Testament a “book of straw,” for it says that faith without works is dead. Luther read that line as meaning salvation comes through works. It’s possible to read it as meaning something else, but Luther rejected anything he thought confirmed the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of his time that salvation comes through the good works that we do. No, he said. Salvation comes from God’s grace, and we live into that salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t have to work to save our souls. God has already done that in Jesus Christ. Our salvation doesn’t depend on us. If it did depend on us we’d all be lost, but salvation comes from God not from us. We know that we are saved through faith, not because we think we’ve done enough good works. Thanks be to God!
That salvation comes from God’s grace through faith has great meaning for how we live a Christian life. It means we don’t have to live in fear for our souls the way Luther did before the great insight he found in Paul. God has given us salvation in and through Jesus Christ. In other words, God gives us God’s grace; and God gives grace as a free and unmerited gift to everyone. Neither Paul nor Luther is entirely consistent on this point, but underlying the theologies of both of them is the idea that God effects our salvation through Jesus Christ. Our role in the economy of grace is recipient not cause. We don’t bring about our salvation. We receive our salvation from God in Jesus Christ. Once we really understand that profound truth we no longer have to live in fear. We don’t have to fear hell. One twentieth century Catholic Pope, Paul VI, said it pretty well when he said that believed that hell exists but he wasn’t sure anyone is in it. If God’s grace is truly grace and not an earned reward then indeed if hell exists no one’s in it. No one’s in it because we all stand in God’s forgiving grace. At least at times both Paul and Luther caught sight of that truth. Thanks be to God!
Once we get it that salvation comes from God and not from our own actions we are freed from excessive concern with ourselves. We don’t have to worry about our eternal fate because God has already taken care of it. When we don’t have to worry about ourselves we are free to live out of our selves for God, God’s world, and God’s people. We are freed from a fear grounded in our awareness that we can’t save the world, for we know that saving the world isn’t our assignment. We don’t save the world, God does. But God does it at least in part with and through people like us. Because we stand always in God’s grace we are free to risk ourselves for the benefit of others. Because we stand in God’s grace we can give to others with no demand or expectation of reward. We already have our reward. Our reward is God’s grace, and it is a reward that comes first not afterwards. It is a reward we can never lose because God gives it freely to everyone.
When I’ve preached and taught that we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation because God has already given salvation as a gift of grace I’ve gotten the objection that I’ve taken away people’s incentive to lead good lives. It certainly is true that the Christian church in all or at least most of its incarnations has told people they have to behave or they’ll go to hell. How people who stand in the Protestant tradition can believe that has always escaped me. We are not saved by what we do or don’t do. We are saved by God’s grace, and we know that grace through faith. And really, neither I nor Paul or Luther takes away our incentive to live good lives, we just change what that incentive is. We don’t live good lives in order to be saved, we live good lives because we know that we are saved. We don’t act to earn grace, we respond to the grace we receive from God through Jesus Christ.
We don’t have to respond in order to be saved, but if we truly know in our hearts the great blessing of God’s salvation how can we not respond with lives lived the way we know God wants us to live them? That’s what Paul said. That’s at least implied in what Luther said. When we really get “by faith alone” we strive to live good lives not out of fear of a harsh, judgmental God but out of love for a gracious, forgiving God. And also out of love for the people that gracious, forgiving God loves.
“By faith alone” is the most liberating, enabling, empowering truth that we learn from Protestant Christianity. Luther discovered it in Romans. He proclaimed it as the foundational truth of Christianity. When he did he changed the world. Today, 500 years later, we are the beneficiaries of his great, revolutionary insight. We are not saved by our good works. We are saved by God’s grace made known to us through our faith in Jesus Christ.
Frankly, I can’t imagine living by any other truth. Not by works but by faith alone. When we know that truth everything else falls into place. When we know that truth everything else begins to make sense. That’s how it was for Martin Luther. That’s how it can be for us too. So as we celebrate 500 years of Protestant Christianity let’s know that truth. Let’s live into it. Let’s live out of it. We are not saved by our works. We are saved by faith alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Wicked Tenants?

This is the sermon I gave the day I told the congregation I was resigning at the end of the year. One person called it the best sermon she ever heard me give. Others thought it was entirely inappropriate. Perhaps that gives you some idea of why I resigned.


Wicked Tenants?
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
October 8, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 21:31-46; Isaiah 5:1-7

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

You all know that I see the Christian faith differently than some of you do. For one thing, I am much more willing to look at its failings and shortcomings than some of you are, and I’m willing to preach on them even when some of you don’t want to hear it. Well, for better or for worse I’m going to do that again today. Don’t worry. I don’t intend to give many more sermons like this one; but this one has to be said, for the passage we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew cries out for a response. That’s what I’m going to give it here. Now, there is good news in what I have to say, and I’ll get to that too. But please understand first of all that I am going to deny what this Gospel passage says. Please understand that I consider it to be un-Christian. Please understand that I agree with the scholars who say Jesus never spoke this parable. It comes from the later Christian community for whom the Gospel of Matthew was written, and they were really mad at the Jews in a way that Jesus never was. I’m going to try to explain why I find it to be so false and why seeing the matter it addresses differently opens up great good news for the world and for our Christian faith. So here goes.
The Gospel of Matthew presents this passage as a parable of Jesus. The passage is set in the temple in Jerusalem after Jesus has entered that city riding on a donkey. Matthew says Jesus is teaching in the temple, and he says that this parable is one of Jesus’ teachings. The parable posits a vineyard. A landowner develops it, then rents it to some farmers and goes away on a journey. At harvest time he sends his servants to collect his share of the harvest from the tenant farmers. The tenant farmers beat up and even kill some of the owner’s servants. So he sends another group of servants, and the tenants do the same horrible things to them. So the owner sends his son, saying those tenants will at least respect him. Of course they don’t. They kill him. So the parable says that the owner will “bring those wretches to a wretched end” and will rent to vineyard to others who will give the owner his share of the crop at harvest time.
So far there isn’t necessarily anything objectionable about this parable, although the tenants killing the owner’s son is kind of a red flag. What really makes the parable objectionable is how it ends. Matthew ends the parable this way: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him....” The way the Gospel of Matthew ends this parable turns it into a piece of nasty early Christian anti-Judaism. The Jewish leaders, the story says, knew that Jesus was talking about them. This story is of course a parable, so we need to consider just who the various figures in the parable represent to see why Matthew would say those Jewish leaders thought he was talking about them.
In Jesus’ parables a figure like a landowner can often be seen as representing God. That certainly seems to be who the landowner in this parable represents. It says he planted a vineyard. Now, Hebrew scripture sometimes portrays Israel as God’s vineyard. We saw that way of thinking about God and the people in our passage from Isaiah. There a landowner described as “my loved one” built a vineyard, tended it well, but instead of getting good grapes he got only bad fruit. The owner asks what more he could have done for his vineyard. The implied answer is nothing, but the vineyard did not produce good grapes; so that owner is going to destroy it. Then the text tells us directly: “ The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.” So a vineyard representing Israel and its owner representing God are images the original audience for the Gospel of Matthew would have known well. We are on solid ground when we think of the landowner in Matthew’s parable as representing God.
If the landowner is God, and if the vineyard is Israel, then the tenants to whom the landowner rented the vineyard are pretty clearly the religious leaders of the Hebrew people. They are the ones in charge of the Lord’s vineyard, that is, they are the ones God has chosen to shepherd God’s people. The parable says they have done a terrible job of it. They refuse to give the landowner, that is, God, his due at harvest time. They kill the servants the landowner sends to collect his crop. Matthew’s audience would immediately have heard an echo of how the Jewish scriptures say Jerusalem kills the prophets. Then the landowner sends his son. Now, for the author of the Gospel of Matthew the landowner is God, and that makes his son Jesus Christ. The parable says the wicked tenants killed the son the landowner had sent. Matthew’s audience would have heard that the Jews kill Jesus Christ the Son of God. Never mind that it was really the Romans who killed Jesus not the Jews. The New Testament tries again and again to shift the blame for Jesus’ execution from the Romans who did it to the Jews who didn’t. This parable is part of that effort. Matthew is saying the Jews, or at least the Jewish leaders, killed Jesus, the Son of God.
The parable says that God will punish the Jews for having killed Jesus. It says “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The early Christians thought that God’s anointing of a special people had passed from the Jews to them. That’s what the text is claiming here. The Jews have botched the job God gave them of tending the Kingdom of God, so that task has now passed to the Christians.
Texts like this that blame the Jews (or at least their leaders) for having killed Jesus and having been unfaithful to God are common in the New Testament, and they have a long and bloody history. The Holocaust didn’t spring from a vacuum. It sprung from century upon century of brutal Christian anti-Judaism. Christian anti-Judaism is a heritage we must all admit the church has, and it is one of which the church must repent in clearest and strongest terms possible. The last day of the current month is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and beginning the Protestant Reformation. Over the next three Sundays I will have some very positive things to say about Martin Luther and his theology, but there is one aspect of Luther’s thought that we must unequivocally condemn as we praise other things about him. Luther was a horrible anti-Semite. He hated Jewish people with a passion. His writings against them are among the most disturbing—and false—writings in Christian history. Luther could use New Testament passages like the Parable of the Wicked Tenants to justify his condemnation of Jewish people. That’s why we must reject this parable.
Folks, it simply isn’t true that God abandoned the Jewish people when they declined to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Jewish faith was a valid, rich, and treasured way of connecting people with God before Jesus, and it has been a valid, rich, and treasured way of connecting people with God after Jesus. Jewish faith, worship, scholarship, thought, and writing are as grace-filled as the best Christian faith, worship, scholarship, thought, and writing ever were.
Let me offer the following piece of writing by a Jewish rabbi as proof of that statement. It is by Rabbi Will Berkovitz, Executive Director of Jewish Family Services in Seattle. Rabbi Berkovitz sent it to Ed Meyer, and Ed sent it to me. Ed procured the Rabbi’s consent to my using it here. At the time of the Jewish High Holy Days this year Rabbi Berkovitz wrote:
We are living in an era when attention spans are assumed to be 140 characters or less — two bits as my dad would say. That’s how much we are willing to “pay” for our attention. In Hebrew, “pay attention” is literally translated as, “place your heart..” Placing our hearts requires effort. It requires us to focus beyond the chaotic white noise that fills so much of our lives.
Like many people, I witnessed the total eclipse. With the coyotes howling and geese taking flight, experiencing that 360-degree, midday sunset was profound. But the awareness that millions of people were experiencing the same thing was even more profound.
We were doing more than merely looking up at the same time. We were sharing a transcendent experience, a bending of the natural order. It was extraordinary that so many people, with so many different beliefs and perspectives, could pause, step outside and have a collective, uniting experience. Imagine what could happen if we made that choice again.
With the Jewish new year and the communal season of reflection upon us, we have an opportunity to make that choice. We can choose to start placing our hearts with the people around us, willingly and freely. We can choose to look up and look beyond ourselves. To have a collective moment of reflection. To place our hearts outside our expectations. To seek a fuller, deeper understanding of those around us.
Placing our hearts requires a measure of humility and an openness to encountering something beyond our expectations. Placing our hearts means imagining a world where we see people for who they really are, where we seek to understand the lived experience of those around us, from their perspective. Not with judgement (sic), but with compassion.
And then, rather than penciling in their lives from our assumptions about who they are and what they believe, we pause. We place our hearts, as individuals and as a community. We truly listen — with openness, curiosity and vulnerability. And with those first rays of new light, we can, if we choose, see our world and those around us, as if for the first time. That is the hope offered with each new year, if we are willing to choose it.

That, folks, is a grace-filled proclamation of how God calls us to live with one another. God calls us to “place our hearts” with the people around us, to listen carefully, and to accept all of God’s people as they actually are without reducing them to our own often prejudiced understanding of what we think they should be.
Does it matter that Rabbi Berkovitz is Jewish not Christian? Are his words less true because he is Jewish not Christian? Certainly not. Is he a “wicked tenant” of God’s world? Certainly not. He is a man of faith who speaks grace-filled truth and works hard to serve people in need in this area—all people in need not just Jewish people in need. Are the Jewish people with whom he serves wicked tenants of God’s world? Certainly not. They certainly are no more wicked than most of us Christians are. Thanks be to God!
So when you see the New Testament heaping scorn on Jewish people, please do not take that scorn as divine truth. It isn’t. It is rather the centuries old anger of small communities of people who were angry at larger Jewish communities from which they were being excluded because of their confession of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus never heaped scorn on Jewish people. He was one of them. Their faith was his faith. Their scripture was his scripture. He wanted to reform Judaism not destroy it. Judaism and Christianity developed into separate religions, but Judaism is still our mother faith. It always has been. It always will be. We are grounded in it. Christianity is impossible without it. My Hebrew scripture professor in seminary was fond of saying “Christianity is one way of being Jewish, but it isn’t the only way.” He was right about that. Israel’s God is our God, the one and only true God.
So when you hear anyone disparaging Judaism or Jewish people (or any other great faith tradition and its people for that matter) just say no. No, that’s not how it is. Every religion is true to the extent that it connects people with God. Judaism connects a great many people with God, and it has done so a lot longer than Christianity has. No, Jews are not wicked tenants of God’s world. They never were despite what the author of the Gospel of Matthew thought. They are as faithful people of God as the best Christians are. Getting beyond the horrible history of Christian anti-Judaism let us see how great God really is. How much God loves all people not just Christian people. Getting beyond the horrible history of Christian anti-Judaism opens our hearts to love all people, especially all people whose commitment to peace, justice, and care for all people is grounded in the love of God however they kn0w and worship God.
Folks, Christianity isn’t about discrimination against anyone. It certainly isn’t about hatred of anyone. So let’s not learn bad lessons from bad parables like the one about the wicked tenants. Let’s open our hearts and minds to all people who love God and work for good in the world. If we can do that we be truer disciples of the Jewish man we call Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Water From the Rock


Water From the Rock
A Communion Meditation
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
October 1, 2017

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

We were dying of thirst in the wilderness of Sinai, and to say the least we weren’t happy about it. Oh sure. We had suffered in Egypt. We were slaves there. We had no freedom. Our masters abused us the way slave masters always abuse slaves. They did it in your country too not all that long ago. Our masters forced us to do all the backbreaking work that they didn’t want to do themselves. They forced us to do more of it than anyone should ever have to do. We worked from sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer than that. They beat us if they thought we were slacking off. It was a hard life, and unpleasant life, quite a brutal life back in Egypt where we were slaves; but here’s the thing. At least we had water to drink and food to eat. Maybe our masters gave us water and food only because they knew we couldn’t work without them, but at least they gave them to us. We suffered, but we didn’t die of hunger. We suffered, but we didn’t die of thirst. Maybe you who have never been really hungry don’t understand what that means. Maybe those of you who have never been close to dying of thirst don’t get how important water is. Maybe you take it for granted. We took it for granted until we didn’t have it, out there in the wilderness of Sinai where it is so dry it’s hard to see how any life survives at all. We very nearly didn’t.
So along comes this fellow Moses. We didn’t know who he was, but he said our god Yahweh had sent him to lead us out of Egypt and take us to a good land flowing with milk and honey. Let me tell you, to a Hebrew slave in Egypt that sounded awfully good. And besides that, the Lord kept doing all of these terrible things to the Egyptians trying to force them into letting us go. When they finally did let us go they changed their minds and came after us with all of their massive military might. We thought we were done for, but Yahweh saved us with that nifty trick of parting the Red Sea to let us pass, then closing it down and drowning all of those wretched Egyptians. So we thought we had it made.
We thought we had it made, that is, until the food ran out. God took care of that one with the manna from heaven. Nice, although it did get a little boring after a while. Then there was no water. We had children to take care of. We had cattle to tend. And of course we needed water ourselves, and there just flat wasn’t any water anywhere. And there was old Moses leading us around in circles in the desert with no apparent plan for where we were going or how we were supposed to survive on the way there. So yes, we complained to him. We said “Give us water to drink. Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Moses didn’t like when we complained of course, but that sure seemed like a reasonable question to us. Why indeed? Is dying of thirst better than living as a slave? We sure didn’t think so.
So it turned out that God had Moses go and strike a rock with his staff. Just how that was supposed to produce water escapes us, but it did. Hes whacked something called the rock at Horeb, and out came water. Lots of water. Enough water for all our people and all our animals. Weird I know, but that’s what happened. And eventually Moses did lead us to that good land flowing with milk and honey though he never quite got there himself. Water from a rock. Who knew?
Folks today a lot of us are a lot like those ancient Hebrews nearly dying of thirst in the desert. Yes, most of us have enough physical water. Lack of literal water isn’t our problem. But a great many people today are dying of thirst nonetheless. They are dying of spiritual thirst. Their bodies have plenty to drink, but their souls do not. So many of us today thirst not for actual water but for righteousness. For truth. For some reliable source of strength, courage and hope. Those deep human needs are in awfully short supply today. You see the effects of that drought all the time. Violence. Violence on the world stage, in our cities, in our homes. Hatred. Hatred of anyone different whom we can so easily if so wrongly blame for all our problems. Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Family breakup. Consumerism that tries to water the soul’s dryness by buying things the advertisers say will make your life complete, only those things never do. We end up as thirsty as before but with some new bangle, some new gadget, and probably a sizable credit card bill to go with it. Oh, we have water all right, but we sure don’t have all the water we need. We sure don’t have the kind of water we need.
The Hebrew people got water from a rock in the desert. We don’t live in a desert, but we have a rock too. We call him the Rock of Ages. Jesus Christ is our Rock. He is our help and our salvation. He forgives our sin. He lights the way in a world of darkness. He gives our lives meaning in a world in which so many lives seem to have no meaning. He gives us hope in a world where things so often seem hopeless. He waits to receive us at the end of our lives though death seems so absolute, so final. The ancient Hebrews had the rock of Horeb. We have Jesus the Rock, the rock of our lives, the rock of the world.
The rock of Horeb gave the ancient Hebrews water. The Rock of Ages doesn’t give us water exactly, but he gives us something else. He gives us the bread and wine of the sacrament of Communion as signs and symbols of his unfailing presence with us and for us. The ancient Hebrews slaked their physical thirst at the rock of Horeb. We can slake our spiritual thirst at the table of our rock, at the table of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave us the table of Communion on that last night of his earthly life. He said take and eat. He said take and drink. He said that when you do you make me part of your life. He said that when you do you enter fully into communion with him and with the God he knew, the God he was. He said when you eat the bread and drink the cup remember me. He said come, partake, and remember. Just as the water from the rock of Horeb gave water to thirsty bodies so long ago so Jesus gives food and drink to hungry and thirsty souls today.
So in a few minutes come. Servers bring the elements to you, but as you receive them imagine yourself coming to the table of Jesus Christ. Feel his presence. Feel him lift you up. Feel him lift you out of whatever is heavy on your heart today. Feel the peace, the strength, the hope, and the meaning that only he can give. Peace, strength, hope, and meaning are the water from our Rock. Water for our thirsty souls. Water to get us through the day, through the night, through the week, through our lives. There was water in the desert for our ancient brothers and sisters in faith. There is water here this morning for each of us.
So come to the table. Eat Christ’s bread. Drink Christ’s wine. Know that Jesus loves you more than you can possible comprehend. And know that that love is truly the water of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.