You Don’t HAVE to Go to Church

(Newsletter article to start summer.)

“I don’t have to go to church.”

My uncle Paul, a pastor, has told me about his Confirmation students and families asserting that worship is optional.

His reply?  “Show me where in the Bible it says that.”

Still, we ELCA Lutherans have to hem-and-haw with this.  If the question is “Do I have to go to church in order to get to heaven?” we might lean toward “No.”  Salvation is from Jesus, not based on perfect attendance (or bi-monthly or semi-annual attendance).  Disabling threats of eternal damnation in hellfire eliminates a fierce motivator.  Neither is there a scale, that God will bless you more.  We just can’t say Jesus plays favorites or won’t love you if you’re not here.  Grace is not conditional or contingent.

Neither do we rank ourselves higher for being here, that the godless sinners are out in the world while the righteous folks are in church.  We can’t prove we’re holier or more moral or really actually better in any way.  Instead, we might even say we go to church exactly because we’re sinners and hypocrites and doubters and in need of help.

Our need also reminds us that God doesn’t require any assistance from us.  The recent lectionary reading from Acts 17 said God “does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything.”  Is it good to give God praise and thanks?  Sure.  Does God need it from us?  Not really.

And God doesn’t live at church.  Nobody has actually used on me the cliché about worshiping on the golf course.  (Maybe you share that comment with Pastor Tim?)  But if God is out there, and if that view of worship means giving thanks for a beautiful day or praying you do something right, then what happens at church that we can’t get elsewhere?

Perhaps the answer starts with assurances of love, forgiveness, and life.  Other places can be more fun.  I can feel more useful in other places.  But to receive the promise of God’s unconditional love, you need church.

With that, church is the only place to learn about who our God is—as one who says the greatest is a servant, one who dies for you and shares life with you, who enters the darkness with compassion.  Those aren’t signs you pick up in the world.  You can only know it through the proclamation of this story, through the revelation of God in Christ.  To quote Bethlehem pastor Mitri Raheb, this is training to “spot God where nobody else can spot God”—in weakness and suffering and sorrow and through death.  Knowing and discovering that God is a vital resource.

That also matters for who God wants you to be, which is known only in community.  Psalm 133 nicely begins, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  Our Christian faith cannot really be understood individually.  Nobody is saved alone.  This is always corporate, always as the body of Christ.

Church community can be different than any other.  Families can become estranged.  Teams end the season or co-workers finish a project.  Even support groups don’t accept faults and brokenness the way we do (or should).  We strive to practice love and sharing peace.  It’s not only that we can accomplish more together (like ending malaria!).  More centrally, our very identity is in that we all have fallen short in countless ongoing ways, but still get to strive together, to breathe and sing together, to live into the promise together.

Finally, you are very truly missed when you’re not here.   Even going a week without seeing you is hard.  In the spirit of Philippians, I yearn for you and long for you.  It’s true!

We can’t force you to be here or tell you you’re wrong if you’re not.  But we will continue to invite and encourage and beg you.  It’s better for us all.  (And amid busy summer travels, if you can’t be here then please find other Christian community as you go.)

See you in church!

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Breaking Commandments — sermon on Exodus 20:1-20

Cue the Commandment jokes. They’re omnipresent. So if it’s not Mel Brooks breaking 5 of the 15, then it’s the line that the Commandments can’t be posted in a courthouse because saying “thou shall not lie, not steal” in a building with lawyers, judges, and politicians, as George Carlin said, creates a hostile work environment. Or even the tongue-in-cheek statement that they’re not the 10 Suggestions.

So if we take these as the Big Ten and expect that they somehow indeed are supposed to shape our lives, guide every action of our behavior, where do we begin to take them seriously?

It might be worth noting first how timeless they really are, compared with a lot in our Old Testament that’s not very useful in our time and place—regulations about stonings or sacrifices or instructions for worship furniture. These Commandments came from a moment of exodus, on the way out of slavery under Pharaoh, before entering freedom and new life in the Promised Land. They are guides, creating what that community, that nation would be. Yet they’re still able to function in a substantial way for us with life in our community, our nation.

That constancy makes it all the more interesting to notice the flexibility. Excuse the pun, but the Commandments aren’t exactly written in stone. There are three different times God gives the Commandments: this first one. Then in Exodus 34, after Moses has come down from Mount Sinai and found that the people made the golden calf, he got so peeved he smashed the tablets, and so God had to write out a second set. Then in the book of Deuteronomy, which means “repetition of the law,” the version there actually changes. Women made at least a small improvement, no longer grouped with the donkeys and oxen and rest of the livestock and implements, there at least the women head the list and stand alone in the 9th Commandment as “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”

That also raises the issue that God didn’t number the list clearly. Presbyterians count them differently than we do. (Following Augustine and our Catholic history, we don’t count graven images or making idols as 1 of the 10, but instead split coveting into double emphasis.) In Jewish rank, the 1st Commandment or 1st “word” of importance, is the line, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of slavery.” So we could break the list into 12 Commandments, though the other two places specifically label them as the “10 words.”

As we are trying to organize our lists, it might make us further wonder how we rank the Commandments, with what is most important. I often hear parents emphasizing #4, as a little reminder that God tells their children they ought to honor and respect them.

Martin Luther said that #1 was most important, because if you could rightly fear, love, and trust God, then the rest would just fall into place.

Here during summer, there might be extra reason to pick out #3. You might claim that you need some summer vacation as rest time, as sabbath to relax. And Tim and I would argue back that #3 is also about observing holy days, which means that your vacations should not be a vacation from the worshipping community, that you need to be in church and only by being here will you get closer to #1 and having the rest of life follow in good order.

Again, continuing to ask what is most important in the Commandments, the topic was brought for us today from our Pick-a-Verse box with an emphasis on #5, “You shall not murder.” Yet you may feel you’re doing alright on that one, but if you’ve been robbed, you may want to highlight #7 on not stealing property. Or if somebody is spreading rumors about you, you may feel strongly about #8 on keeping your good reputation and honor.

(With that, we might pause and notice a way that the Commandments are organized. Overall, there’s a section about how we relate to God, and then a section on relating to each other. In that second grouping, parents stand as a level above, representative of all other subsequent authority, like government. Then the remaining 6 about how we relate to each other go in a descending order. Do not take a person’s life. Do not take the thing closest to a person’s life, that is taking away their spouse in adultery. Do not take away their physical, material goods. Do not take away their emotional, intangible property, that is don’t take their reputation by falsehoods. And finally, don’t even wish to take away from them by coveting.)

Yet that blanket statement to conclude—the prohibition of coveting as trying to control your own thoughts—shows what quickly seems like a larger problem. Where you may feel like you can put the brakes on killing somebody, still how can you stop a thought from entering your mind? It seems doomed for failure, that it’s inevitable that you’ll break the Commandment, maybe frequently.

That point actually also becomes clear with the other Commandments. So most of you haven’t murdered anybody lately (I hope). But this Commandment isn’t only about serial killers. What if it’s a traffic accident? What if you didn’t kill them but injured them, which may eventually shorten their life? What if you scared them half to death?

What if you’re part of a society that uses drones to bomb people and your tax dollars give missiles to Israelis? What if you didn’t help feel a hungry child, or what if the hungry child needs more? Or what if what the child really needed was medicine, or a mosquito net, or education, or a compliment?

Or, noticing that the Commandment doesn’t specify narrowly and say “don’t murder humans,” then what if you include dogs, or bugs you swat, or polar bears on melting ice caps?

You can try to argue there’s a scale, and that some of these things are less bad than others, but the point is that they all fall under the umbrella of taking life away. It may lead to ethical quandaries of when death is inevitable, or if we could even say it’s necessary. How, indeed, do we resolve questions of abortion, or of war, or of the food we eat, or of what to do with detained immigrant children at the border, and on and on.

It all means two things. First, you can’t so quickly say you’ve kept the Commandments, since there isn’t a scale of “only-sort-of-half-break” you really do break them rather repeatedly. You simply are a sinner. But, second, this guides you to be more considerate, that you should be more thoughtful about your actions, that you attend to trying harder.

What we’re noticing is that the law gets used in a couple ways. It restricts bad behavior, but it also motivates better behavior. I had a seminary professor who said the law is 95% effective in getting you to act the way you should. Mostly it stops you from hurting your neighbor too badly.

But not always. Sometimes you don’t listen, and then there needs to be some sort of repercussions, otherwise the law is worthless, the Commandments would be toothless and untruthful.

For example, the speed limit is set for safety. If you stay in those limits, if you obey the law, then you’re working for safety, for yourself and others, for the order of society. But when you transgress the limit, when you go outside the law, when you speed, then a repercussion may be the flashing lights and a ticket, or it may be an accident and injury. We know all-too-well these things can have enormous, life-changing consequences. It’s pretty easy to see the ramifications affecting three or four generations, as God indicated in the Bible reading.

In our language, we may not deem it punishment from God for the sin of breaking a Commandment. Instead, we’d more likely say we have to deal with the consequences of our actions, and may also suffer due to others’ misbehavior or transgressions.

But that does raise a broader picture of God for us. God cares about life, about your life and life in community. The structure and order, the rules are for the sake of that going well. And really, as the expansiveness of a promise of love to thousands of generations indicates, there is nothing that can finally or completely separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So you should act well. You should follow these rules that are for your good and your neighbor’s. You should also, then, be disappointed and remorseful when you fail and fall short. But through it all, you should trust a God whose intention for life is so much bigger.

This is why we’ll turn again to the font in just a moment. Jack Andrew is going to be baptized. With that, his parents vow they will teach him to obey the Commandments and he’ll grow and become part of society. But before has a chance to break or to keep the Commandments, before he proves that he’s going to try to follow the law and not be a murderer, before we know any of the details of what’s to come in his life and actions, God already makes a promise of unconditional love and eternal life. Maybe it’s easier to believe when he’s little and adorable, but it’s true no matter what. Through it all, he will be a beloved child of God.

And really, being grounded in that identity and nurtured by that love is what will best set him on the right path. And you, too. Amen

Hymn: This is How God Speaks

This is How God Speaks

 

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A Woman Needing Health Care — sermon for 6 july 14, on Mark 5:25-34

Imagine, if you can, a woman denied the benefits of health care with background questions about the place of religion in society’s rules of power.

That’s a reasonable summary of the Bible reading today, and you may observe it’s controversial. Controversy is intended to be part of this story, so it is fitting that we hear it. And with this overview of our story, we hardly even need to hear that this hemorrhage, the flow of blood that is at stake for this woman’s health, has been traditionally viewed as a menstrual issue, a matter of gynecological health, to recognize a setting that is around us still. But so we don’t only impose our own current views, let’s start slowly and learn what the story actually says.

First, it says the woman had spent all she had on physicians, but it had accomplished nothing. She was still suffering. That illustrates a direct fact of illnesses and diseases: in spite of our best efforts and grandest expenses and most knowledge, sometimes the problem is not cured or remedied. Some sickness stubbornly persists.

It also indirectly reveals a fact about medical care in Jesus’ time: not a lot of attention was given to caring for women’s bodies. A woman may have spent most of her short life impregnated, from 15 to death around 35. Physicians weren’t always helpful or available for treatment. That left sick women to the many miracle workers and magicians who roamed the countryside.

To some degree, this view of what we might call a medicine man or shaman fits Jesus. Jesus was certainly seen as having special powers for relieving whatever scourge was the trouble. It later says King Herod wanted to see Jesus perform some sign (Lk23:8), so even those who disagreed with him still expected Jesus to do phenomenal miracles. Maybe there’s a pop edge, like contemporary TV’s hysteria around a popular Dr. Oz or a Dr. Phil.

But that leads to another part of our passage today, that it may not exactly be a story of beautiful devotion and deep faithfulness. In a way, we may wonder if it fits the long-standing trusting relationship of you who are sitting in the pews, people who have come to rely on Jesus weekly.

This woman, rather, heard about Jesus and turned to him in a last-ditch go-for-broke effort. She was hoping-against-hope, trying a solution that she hadn’t before, going to the last resort. And for that, she snuck up for just a touch of Jesus’ clothes, hoping that that relic, that magical contact with a holy object would rub off on her.

It’s a bit like my friend who got his teeth kicked out trying to break up a fight, and then showed up in church the next Sunday. He didn’t even really know what he was expecting from the experience. But with nowhere else to turn, he kind of needed some sort of proximity to something right and holy. Maybe that does still describe your hopeful presence here, that God’s blessing will rub off on you in some special way.

Fitting with that, we might unusually notice the desperate woman takes the initiative, not Jesus. He didn’t seek her out; she found him. In fact, he wasn’t even trying to cure her hemorrhage. Her disease was already gone just as he was apparently oblivious and wondered who touched him, realizing that power had gone out from him.

That’s also a surprising statement: Jesus loses power when he heals. We might ask it wears him out or speculate if there was only so much he could do. Perhaps more faithfully, we should say that he is sharing his energy. All that he is capable of is being turned to affect our lives.

So although it began unintentionally from Jesus, though it was not his initiative to heal, we should not call Jesus careless. He proceeded to seek out this woman who’d been ill. And when he found her, when she came to him in fear and trembling, he assured her and offered her something still more. He called her “daughter,” the only time Jesus addresses somebody that way, and told her, “your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

In that is the fullness of healing. See, even though the flow of blood stopped when she secretly touched him, still she was not healed until Jesus spoke in blessing. This is a difference in terms. The earlier term for a medical cure contrasts with a second term, the Greek word (sozo), which means to be both healed and saved, salvation. It reminds us that God’s saving work is not limited by whether or not you have an infirmity. More, like our own word “healing,” it relates to wholeness, to complete wellbeing. It isn’t the absence of germs, but the fullness of body, emotions, and relationships—especially relationship with God—that Jesus is striving for. He doesn’t come for some magical touch that eliminates an illness, but for wholeness and salvation that sets everything right, in our lives and throughout our world.

With that, we should notice the what had been the woman’s place in this story. She was an outcast, untouchable. Those who control society had categorized her as unclean, impure, as substandard. Legally, she was not supposed to be amid that crowd, was supposed to stay away. It meant she was allowed no contact, with other people or with God.

But with Jesus—reversing our expectations still—she proves that one good apple can save the whole bunch. Exactly the opposite of standard beliefs, his holiness rubs off on her. His purity is more contagious than her uncleanness. In her illness, she catches a dose of his health.

Clearly, Jesus does not represent a god who is restricted or off-limits or unavailable or who plays favoritism. By her stealthy touch, and by Jesus’ subsequent blessing, we have revealed for us a God whose saving power and compassion is good not only for those who are already holy enough or strong enough or right enough. It is for those who are left out and those whom society has kicked out and those who are vulnerable and powerless and can’t afford it. And a woman in need of health care.

There was news this week of the Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby’s case against wanting to provide contraceptive coverage for female employees. Before any legal answers about the place of power and religion, just to start it is ironically disappointing or even blasphemous that somebody claiming to be Christian would in the first place turn away from helping and explicitly seek to deny health care to a woman in need, especially as she is in the more vulnerable place. That is exactly the image of God Jesus came to undo.

But that can’t be our only conclusion from this. Merely to be self-satisfied in finding my own opinion to make me (quote) “better” than the “wrong” Christians makes me fall just as short. This needs more of an upshot than that.

Partly, we may hear in this a calling to help those in need. When somebody reaches out, seeking a healing touch, we should respond. Even if it drains us, we could say that our energy should be shared in compassion, in seeking understanding, in striving not only to stop suffering, but to heal relationships and find wholeness.

But this requires still larger meaning than that. After all, I can’t touch your clothes and be healed. It’s good to be together, but not fully true that our simple presence cures each other. We can only be like Jesus to a point.

But Jesus is Jesus always. And that means for your desperate pleas, for your longing reach—even when help seems out of touch—his compassion and saving help will find you. It has no bearing with how qualified you feel, how deserving. There is no limit when you feel excluded and society has told you you don’t belong. There is no barrier, no separation by sin, no illness as a sign of curse. There is no money required, no dream deferred, no justice denied. In your need, in vulnerability, in your straining and suffering, and even in the regular tedium of uncertain existence and a wish you could make a difference, hear and cling to these words from Jesus, words from God, words of salvation and blessing for you: Daughter, son, go in peace. Your faith has healed you, saved you, made you well.

Hymn: O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come (ELW #610)

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