Monday, February 25, 2019

Love Your Enemies

Sermon Of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton, VA
February 24, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Text:   Luke 6: 27-38

Wow! What a gospel text. What a gospel challenge: Loving your enemies, loving those who disagree with you. This would have been a good gospel text either right before or right after Valentine’s day. Imagine the greeting card with the scripture verse: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them." Such a card may or may not be a best seller.

Some of you may have offered prayers this last week on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the Methodist Church. (Maybe today as well.) They face a difficult conversation that the Lutheran Church went through 10 years ago regarding “official policy” towards Christians who are in same gender relationships and similar questions of life, scripture, and fellowship together. We offer our prayers and recognize the challenge we face when people of faith disagree with one another. I wonder how the preacher this morning at their gathering in Saint Louis will handle this text. (I wonder) what he or she will say about this gospel truth from Jesus. Jesus tells us to love our enemies as if loving our friends and those close to us was an easy thing. 

For what it is worth, people of faith disagree on many issues. Fairness calls on us to shine a light on disagreements and not act like this is just a Methodist problem. Christians disagree on issues of immigration and refugees. We disagree on issues of guns. We disagree on issues of race, the name of the high school, worship times, Supreme Court nominees, frequency of holy communion and how we spend money, whether or not Jello is dessert or salad. The last one we can laugh about, the others not so much.

Sometimes, I wonder if people might find it easier to love their enemies, typically those they cannot see and never met. I wonder if it is easier to love your enemies than those close to them who disagree with them. Considering it, I have to say "probably not." Most people probably work hard at avoiding their enemies. At the end of the first Harry Potter book, Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster says something to that affect when he praises a rather bumbling first year student Neville Longbottom. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but jut as much to stand up to our friends.”

Jesus tells us to love enemies. The fact that I married a daughter of the Missouri Synod probably doesn’t count. There was an episode of Cheers that poked fun at that when Woody realizes his fiancee is from the other side of the Lutheran fence. Woody Harrelson, apparently, is not was not Lutheran. Bruce WIllis is Lutheran. As is Gary Larson, creator of the Far Side cartoons. Also, Collin Kapernick, who raised a maelstrom when he kneeled for the national anthem.  Kapernick baptized in a Methodist Church, confirmed in the Lutheran Church, attended a baptist church while in college at Nevada. We can all claim him or disavow him. Then we can disagree about that as well.

Love your enemies—not that Kapernick is anyone’s enemy. Though our current national climate seems to create enemies rather easily and makes us wary of the people around us. I pray whoever preaches in Saint Louis this morning finds the right words to tiptoe through that reality. Who are our enemies? I remember another gospel story--the one about the good Samaritan. Jesus and a follower get into a discussion about the greatest commandment. "You shall love your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your self and your neighbor as yourself." And this one follower asks Jesus, well who is my neighbor. What follows is the story of the Good Samaritan. If we could just ask Jesus, “Who is my enemy?”

That might be a dangerous question to ask anyone, but especially Jesus. And we know the crowd around him would have their own answers. Rome is the enemy. The soldiers are the enemy. We always hear about the scribes and the Pharisees who opposed Jesus, and we wonder how close they might come to the enemy category. We also have the obvious answers: Devil, Satan, or Sin. 

Even without our asking Jesus gives some suggestions for who the enemy might be. Some of Jesus’ description you might expect. Those who hate, curse and abuse you. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” I find the mixture of bless and curse amusing, to flip curse into blessing. Some of you remember Julia. She could be colorful at times and had a few colorful stories working at the central office for the school. She had a story about I guess one of the school superintendent that she worked for getting verbally chewed out by a woman and member of the community who was irate about something. He had enough and told her bluntly, “Well this is what I say and that’s the final word on the subject.” Her retort was “Kiss my ___” (you can fill in the blank). To which he replied, “Now, now, this is no time for romance.” "Bless those who curse you." 

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We expect those enemies. The surprise comes not in the who but the what. Bless them, Pray for the, Do good, love.” That seems unexpected, and Jesus goes on, "Give to everyone who begs from you." That doesn’t sound like an enemy. "And if anyone takes your goods, do not ask for them again.” Do we view those who take our possessions our resources as enemies? Maybe. Maybe Jesus calls us out here. As if to underline this point Jesus goes on later. “But love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Love those who take, take, take from you.

And then Jesus gives us his rationale, which we should already know. Does not your father in heaven do the same. “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Probably we more easily remember the Matthew version of this. “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Or maybe your grandmother put it this way, “Kill them with kindness" (sickeningly-sweet, syrup-laden kindness).

This gospel teaching from Jesus about loving your enemies comes to us the same week when the news tells us about two ISIS brides trying to return home with children. One wants to return home to England, the other to Alabama. Not only do we struggle with loving our enemies, we protest when others love the enemy. As if love is a mutually exclusive arrangement. You can love one but not both. I heard the United Kingdom stripped their daughter of her nationality and refused to accept her back. The United States case has entered the court system.

This teaching is hard, perhaps the hardest in the Bible. Perhaps, you find it too hard to love your enemies. Maybe you have a good idea who your enemies are, besides the man or woman who cut your off on the interstate or the driver who gave you the one finger salute for whatever reason. When we recognize the difficulty of loving our enemies, it gives us all the more reason for keeping our friends. To work at not allowing our disagreements to define who is with us and who is against us. In the end, we all have different ideas about how to make this world a better place as well as how to make our community a better place for our children and our grandchildren. Keep in mind, our children will watch us disagree and they will learn from our behavior.

Jesus call to love our enemies, more than anything reminds us how difficult it is to love our friends and those close to us. So Jesus breaks it down into simple steps. Pray for them, Bless them, Do good for them, Give and expect nothing in return. For God has sent you both sunshine and God has sent you both rain and God has given to both of you his son Jesus. And Jesus has loved you to death and bore the cross with kindness. We sometimes forget that Jesus did not bear the cross for his friends, he bore the cross for sinners, all sinners whose actions oppose the will of God. And the last image of this gospel text displays the generosity of God. 

"Forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap." The image is of God pouring an immense amount of grain into your lap. Think of it like a cup running over, joyful excess. Because the joy of the Christ gift comes to us not in his death but in his resurrection. 

We divide people. I pray for our Methodist friends who fear nothing but division is possible. I pray for them knowing some day an issue will pop up in the Lutheran Church that will threaten to divide us. With our disagreements, we divide people into camps and tribes and factions. Christ and God has the power to unite us again and teach us how to pray for others, bless others, do good to others and love.

Bless be God who saves and loves and unites in peace.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Woe To Me

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
February 17, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Text:  Luke 6: 17-26

This passage convicts me. I have to be frank. This passage convicts me. Finding a job out of college was difficult. Those first four years out of college had there struggles, but I would work retail, Sears for a while, Kaufmann’s for a few weeks. I might have been poor but not homeless, not destitute. I had a one bedroom apartment in the old YMCA along the train tracks in East Syracuse. I had food. A month before Elizabeth and I married, I found a career type job and loved it. Elizabeth and I shortly moved to two bedroom apartment in Fayetteville, where we lived for  three years before seminary. Elizabeth worked while I was in seminary. Then I took my first call and Elizabeth stayed home with Jamison when he was a baby. For five years when the boys were infants, we lived off the gospel. She stayed home and I preached. I certainly would not call us poor then. We haven’t known hunger. We have not known true poverty.

Both my parents live. Same true for Elizabeth’s parents. I am going to want to knock on wood for every person on this list who lives. All my siblings, all my cousins. I lost my last grandparent when I was a sophomore in college. We have grieved together. I have mourned with you. I guess that is something, but the frank truth is this passage, this Lukan version of the beatitudes convicts me. Woe to me.

I use to laugh in my sleep. I have eaten more Reese’s peanut butter cups than I care to admit. I am rich enough to consider myself blessed and to that Jesus says woe, woe for me.

And there is nothing that I can do about it. This is not Matthew’s beatitudes with “Bless are those poor in Spirit.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Being poor and hungering in Matthew has these qualifiers which I can wiggle myself into fitting and call myself blessed. Luke makes sure that, if I am frank, I hear the conviction. “Blessed are you if you hunger now.” 

I cannot do anything about it. What? Quit my call, leave my possessions, live among the poor. To be frank, I cannot see how that makes me blessed. Frankly, the same is true about waiting for someone close to me to die. I have witnessed your grief enough to say, I do not know, I cannot see how that makes me blessed. 

And I like all of you crave the blessing of God. All I need is a whisper of God, a hushed tone against my skin, a bit of warm light, a joyful chord of music or two. I crave the blessing. Here comes Jesus with his blessings and woes.

I guess that’s why some people prefer the Law. The law is this fixed point that doesn’t move. I always know where I stand in relationship to the law and I can do something about it. And there is no law that forbids me from eating Reeses Peanut butter cups. And I don’t covet other people’s candy because I can go buy my own. The law, if I am frank about it, often makes me feel safe and protected because I know other people around me live by the law. And feeling safe feels blessed. The law is a fixed point, do this and you shall live. And so far even those times when I have transgressed against that law, my failings haven’t killed me. 

But that law cannot save. The law can protect life and honor life but it cannot save life. No one runs into a burning building because of the law. No one dives into the deep end to save some one from drowning because of the law. Interesting fact in Pennsylvania, lifeguards were not required by law to go into the water to save someone from drowning. The law cannot save. Jesus saves.

And I need Jesus.

We do not preach Revelation enough, that final book of holy awe and wonder. I need Jesus. Not so much his teachings, but I need his death and resurrection that reveals the holy wonder and holy awe and holy glory of God. Jesus pulls back the veil that shields our eyes from the true power of the kingdom. He pulls back the veil and tells us that blessings and woes will be flipped upside down. Right now Jesus just gives us a peek, but the day is coming when Jesus will pull down the curtain that reveals the very throne of the God’s kingdom and it will radiate splendor and we will fall upon our knees and say “woe.” The throne and the power of the Kingdom of God will shine glorious and we will full upon our knees and be humbled and say, “Woe. Forgive me lord for I got it all wrong.” “ And in the moment of glory and splendor our transgressions first will be obviously, painfully apparent, and then they those failings will be wiped clean by the blood of Christ our savior. Jesus saves. Jesus saves me. Jesus saves us.


Monday, February 11, 2019

Anything Can Happen in February Without Lent

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
February 10, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11   Luke 5: 1-11

February without Lent does not happen all that often. It seems like it should be a festival where anything could happen in a February without Lent. So we are going to sing an Easter hymn as the hymn of the day. Because it is February without Lent. A miraculous catch of fish, could it be that this catch of fish actually happened in a February without Lent. Well I got that at least half right as there was not yet Lent when Jesus went out and gathered his followers. Remember last year, this Sunday would have been Transfiguration Sunday and Lent started on Valentines Day. This year we have another 24 days until Lent. It’s not Lent yet.

The NFL held a football game without a terribly blown call or a controversial overturned catch or non catch. Anything can happen in a February without Lent. For the Souper Bowl of Caring we gathered 91 items. And nationwide folks gathered 4 million (Anything can happen in a February without Lent) 4,468,998 pounds of food. Someone estimated the value of what was collected at 7.8 million dollars. A little over three thousand groups like Christ Lutheran participated to benefit 2,000 charities. That is an increadible catch of fish. Anything can happen in a February without Lent.

Some of you last week noticed that the bulletin listed Tom D--- as our assisting minister for today. The Church secretary, treasurer and a volunteer were in the church office. It sounds like a set up for a joke, but this is the way they told me the story. They talked amongst themselves in the church office about snowbirds. (Retirees join the realm of snowbirds when they move to Florida during a couple of months during winter.) The D---’s name came up. They now go back and forth, north-south. And talking about them, Br--- typed into the bulletin Tom D--- as our assisting minister instead of Tom M---. All sorts of things are going on in this February without Lent. Br--- joked with me this week as she told the story that she’s surprised B-- T---’s name did not end up in the bulletin someway, somehow. B--- and R---, apparently were also at one time snowbirds. I remember her as my first funeral at Christ Lutheran ten years ago. He died two and a half years ago. B---’s name ending up in the bulletin. Anything can happen in a February without Lent. The resurrection day has to happen someday. So not just B--- T---’s name in our bulletin but B--- T--- in our gathering, walking in those doors. That is what anything means.

Besides B--- and anything can happen in February without Lent, you have another reason to sing an Easter Hymn as our hymn of the day. The second lesson for today fills our ears with Paul’s words of the resurrection day. 

"For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.... Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

You have to realize when you believe that anything can happen, then you live in anticipation. And if you anticipate the right things, you live in hope. Donuts in the worship space offers us today a small blessing. Jesus rising from the dead, offers us a huge blessing. Anything can happen means miracles become possible, even expected. Anticipation has a powerful effect to move us forward on the edge of our seat.

These first disciples will enter into a life with Jesus full of anticipation. With Jesus anything can happen and this miraculous catch of fish offers just a quick preview of what anything will look like. Jesus will feed the multitudes. He will heal the sick. Raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus will humble the wise and proud with his teachings. He will walk on water and calm the sea and the storms. With Jesus anything can happen and a. whole lot will happen.

Anticipation that anything can happen does not mean it will happen. That anything can happen does not mean everything will happen. I know that is a bummer. Anticipation means that it could happen. That miracles could happen like an incredible catch of fish or a dead man rising up out of the grave. It means we get to live in expectation that miracles will happen, so maybe, just maybe the miracle we want to happen will happen.

D--- and I and friends lived in that expectation full of cautious hope for two weeks before B--- died. D--- sat by his side daily. I drove to the UVA hospital just about every other day. We lived in hope of miracles because we know they happen. B--- reached that point where every day was a miracle. And we wanted one more day and then we dared hope for two, because Jesus teaches us to live in anticipation that anything is possible. 

B--- died Saturday a week ago. We continue to hold you in prayer D---, you and P---, and if you don’t mind, I want to tell folks want happened last week at the graveside service. We held a graveside service on Tuesday and I stood at the head of coffin, my toes three inches from the grave. What a place of holy privilege you give me when I get to stand with my toes three inches from your grave and I get to look down in that space and I think Jesus sanctified this grave. Jesus sanctified this grave, and Boyd’s grave and Rose’s grave and Amelia’s grave and Milton’s and Betty’s and Raymond’s and Anne's. Three inches from the grave and I am looking down into that holy space and D--- is sitting three feet away from me and we hear the grave and the coffin creak, groan. Just like your house groans as it settles and expands in the heat, or whistles in the wind. We heard the grave—somewhere between a creak and a groan. And I think listening to that sound, this grave is temporary just like our homes are temporary. That’s what the resurrection means, graves that are temporary because Jesus will one day come and empty them out, and we will live.

D--- had a similar thought. He heard that sound of the earth and he thought, wouldn’t it just be like B--- to—at his own funeral—sit up and say “fooled ya.” Give us all a heart attack. Anything is possible in February without Lent. Or said another way, the resurrection day has to happen sometime, so why not today. B---- sit up and say “fooled ya” or walk into this worship and say “fooled ya.” Jesus to stretch out his hands and pronounce today, this day, is my victory. We live in that anticipation, that anything is possible, miracles happen and the dead will be raised. All possible one day, some day. 

I do not need to live in a world where anything is possible. Frankly there are some things that I would rather not see. But I want to live in a world where miracles happen, the sick become healthy and are cured, where the dead live. I want to live in a world with miraculous catches of fish and 4 million pounds of food collected in a couple of weekends. I want to live with Jesus active in the world and in our lives.

So I will end this message with a prediction, with a prophecy. The resurrection day, the return of Christ, our judgement day and triumphal entry into the kingdom of heaven will happen in a February without Lent, anythings possible in a February without lent. I anticipate that and I share it with you because then on that day lent will be no more, crying and tears and death will be no more. That is my prediction, my prophecy the resurrection day will happen in a February without lent. One day, someday, you will have to let me know, whether or not I am right.


Monday, February 4, 2019

The Year of the Lord's Favor

February 3, 2019
Prepared by the Rev. Robert McCarty,
Pastor of Christ Lutheran, Staunton, VA

What an interesting contrast between the love chapter of 1 Corinthians and this gospel lesson. Jesus comes home. The image of home should evoke a feeling of love. But when Jesus speaks about a taboo topic, he nearly gets himself killed. He sort of gets himself run out of town on a rail, except that he walks peacefully through the angry mob.

(If you haven’t already, please take a minute and read the gospel lesson. To fully embrace and understand this message, you need the gospel scripture.)

Maybe things have changed, hopefully, but maybe not. In the 1960s, Janet found herself pregnant and unmarried. Her parents arranged to have Janet go live with family out of state, until her child was born and adopted. Then she returned home and her parents never talked about it. When Janet told her story fifty years later, she does not say why. Her parents did what they thought was best so their daughter could move on with her life, but they never talked about the child. Janet could count on one hand the number of people she told. She got married, changed her name, moved out of state, and lied a thousand times when people asked if she had any children.  Some of you remember those days with homes for unwed mothers. When daughters discreetly moved away for six months to a year, and the polite etiquette was to say nothing.

Another story from 1972, Wayne came out of the closet during his freshman year of college. He decided that going back to his home church was not a safe place for him. Again things you do not talk about at home. In fact for 13 years, he avoids church completely.

Jesus goes home, and we might think, his situation is totally different from Wayne, from Janet. Jesus goes home, and he steps into a position of leadership. He reads the scripture. He is invited to sit down and preach. First, Jesus reads this jubilee passage from Isaiah (part of the gospel passage above). This Old Testament scripture prescribes a Jubilee celebration every fifty years. In the cycle of celebrations, year forty-nine would be a sabbath year and then year fifty would mark the Jubilee. The Israelites would mark the jubilee year by forgiving debts, releasing prisoners, sharing their extra with one another. These sentiments live in the Isaiah text that Jesus reads. “Good news for the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind.” 

That last one sounds different. It sounds like something special. How might the blind regain their sight? That image suggests miracles. With Jesus jubilee sounds different and will look different and will be miraculous. “The oppressed go free.”  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” and finally Jesus speaks these words “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What does “the year of the Lord’s favor mean?” This concept anchors what jubilee will look like with Jesus. Jamison and I heard about “the year of the Lord’s favor” at Winter Celebration two weeks ago. “The year of the Lord’s favor” means no more “us” and “them.” I want to emphasize that, no more “us” and “them.”

Jesus spells that out to his hometown friends. Remember how Elijah saved the widow of Zarephath in Sidon. Remember she was a gentile. Other Israelite widows also suffered. They died then for lack of grain, when other Israelites did not share their extra. Remember how Elisha cured Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner. Remember other Israelites had leprosy and none of them was cleansed. Jesus explains what his message means, no more us and them, and his hometown tries to throw him over a cliff.

Here is another way to think about the widow of Zarephath, and Naaman the Syrian, and the year of the Lord’s favor. Friends of Elizabeth and mine, adopted a child from Ethiopia. Their family asked them why they couldn’t adopt a child from the United States? We had friends in common with another couple who adopted two children from Korea. No more “us” and “them” mean an orphan is an orphan. It does not matter where they come from. 

I know you will let me speak to you like a proud papa when I tell you what I value about the church. I guess you could say, why I am proud of the church, what I love about the church.

What I value about the church is how in the last 50 years of our life together as church we have broken down some of these barriers that separate us and them. 

Over the years, decades frankly, we have created a friendlier atmosphere, more tolerant atmosphere, welcoming atmosphere, for the Janet’s and Wayne’s of our community. We have created this Christian atmosphere not necessarily just for our sons and our daughters, but for God’s sons and God’s daughters. The Christian church is full of single mother’s—some because of divorce, some because of widowhood, and some Janet’s of the world who did not give up their children for adoption. The church is here for all single mothers to walk with them as they raise their children in a community of faith. We have long stopped making decision based on how they became single mother’s.

This change, this breaking down of barriers that separate us, it can challenge us. We struggle at times with this. But we struggle together.

Wayne recognized this when he returned to the church Easter Sunday 1985 and the Sundays following. He found a worship home at Alice Millar Chapel. He learned a new hymn “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” He describes the experience this way. 

I thought the image of straying from the fold and being carried home by the Great Shepherd who seeks the lost ones best described that time in my life. 
But now I know I wasn’t lost. The church had left me as much as I had left the church. I wasn’t returning home. I was being welcomed into a new kind of community. 
I don’t recall hearing much about the Holy Spirit when I was growing up. But now I know the Holy Spirit issued the invitation to return. I heard it in the call to communion: “Come to this table, then, sisters and brothers, as you are. Partake and share.”
(Excerpted from “Return” in The Christian Century, November 21, 2018. Pp 22-7.) 

Janet also experienced the joy of God’s grace when she and her 47 year old son found each other. She tells her story this way.
After much considering, I made the contact that led to a reunion with my 47-year-old son. I’ve had the joy of getting to know him, seeing my blue eyes in his, and knowing that my funny side lives on in him. I’ve spent treasured moments with him, my daughter-in-law, and my five-year-old towheaded grandson, in whom I savor the little boy antics I never knew with my son.
After all the years of shame and secrecy, reuniting with my long-lost child has been for me a sure sign of redemption, resurrection, and a return to wholeness.
(Excerpted from “Return” listed above.) 

Janet chooses the word’s of God’s grace to define her experience: Redemption, Resurrection and wholeness. This is the change the church has experienced in my lifetime, an embracing of the whole experience of us. No more us and them, God embraces us, all of his children in all of our complexity. This is the church of my lifetime, not just my lifetime but our lifetime. Thanks be to God; may we continue to embrace the us and break down the barriers that divide.

From the Episcopal Common Book of Prayer - for Social JusticeGrant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.