The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Sermon for our People

Sermon for Our People
At Augsburg Lutheran Church, Winston-Salem NC                                   by Rev. Daniel Pugh

The following sermon was given on the day that Augsburg Lutheran Church voted in favor of allowing same-sex marriages 236 to 150. The audio can be found here.

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.
Many of you have been relaying your vote to me over the last several weeks, wondering where I will stand today. Of course I’m talking about if I preach from the pulpit or the center, what were you thinking about? And I’ve politely told many of you that you don’t get to decide where a pastor should stand. Why are you laughing? I’m sorry, that’s how I feel. Here I stand.
I’ve been immersing myself in Luther’s writings  I’ve been trying to get into his mind, to find something that would help today.
And here’s the God’s honest truth- if Luther were 500 years younger, if he were 32 years old today, would he be for same-sex marriage? I genuinely don’t know. None of us do.
I bet he’d be against it in 1515, given his late-medieval setting and their understanding of anthropology.
But I cannot say that Luther would be for or against same-sex marriage if he were born in 1983 instead of 1483, because cultures evolve. But I can tell you that he was a pioneer of marriage equality in his day, insisting that Priests be afforded the right to marry.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7 that it is better to stay unmarried unless you are burning with Passion.
 The catholic church was basing their tradition to not allow Priests to marry on Paul’s example to stay chaste and thus, no one should get married.
Luther points out that Paul here admits this opinion that it is better not to get married comes from him, not God, and that marriage should be seen as a “concession” not a “command”.
Paul separates his opinion on the subject from God’s command. How many of us can?
Luther easily makes the claim that forcing priests to remain unmarried, against their will, even when they are burning with passion, is a bad idea.
I read this to Pastor Rinn because it’s classic Luther.
Luther says that a priest can have 100 mistresses, and remain a priest. [1]But marriage- Luther says sarcastically-in-cheek- is “The greater sin”
Luther, obviously, did marry, and he encouraged others who were burning with desire to marry.
Many priests were already in committed relationships, many priests had children.
But because their marriages weren’t accepted by the church, the priest’s lover and children were forced to live a life a life quietly and in the shadows.
Here I am immensely grateful for Luther standing up for marriage reform, as I can’t imagine leaving my wife and kids in the shadows, and we know my kids don’t stay quiet very well.
Today’s debate is quite different from the one Luther dealt with 500 years ago, but a compelling discussion is where Luther would stand, if he were born 500 years later.
Some of you are convinced that Luther 500 years ago or 500 years from now would stand by solo scriptura, even despite the amount of biblical scholarship that have moved beyond inerrancy since Luther’s time. 
And based on that reading of the authority of the bible, you would be convinced that Luther would remain against same-sex marriage in any age, including in 2015.
Others of you view Luther as a mover and a shaker, and can easily see how marriage reform in his day builds a bridge for us to permit marriage to all who “burn with desire” in our day.
But the truth is- we will never know how a modern-day Luther would feel about this topic.
We will always live in that mystery.
But if Luther were here, preaching to you, I’m most confident that he’d sink his teeth into this gospel lesson about who is the greatest,[2] and deliver a rousing sermon about what happens when we think of ourselves too highly.
Luther- not me- would rebuke you all for poor behavior over the last weeks. He’d call you to repent from slander, for your abuse of community, repent from name-calling, grand-standing, anger and hostility on both sides.
We all fall short of the glory of God, Luther would say. He’d rebuke the pastors too, I’d think, for allowing such dissension to emanate.
And he’d quote scripture extensively to make the point,
Maybe 1 Corinthians 1:10 “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”[3]
Or use Romans 12 “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”[4] 
If Luther would here, his sermon would start with something like that.
Pastor Rinn and I have prayed over you all, for this congregation, and for the Holy Spirit to give us a sense of its peace.
And last Sunday night, we both received that peace with the same realization- this whole matter is in God’s hands.
Pope John Paul was famous for saying after a long day- something like, “God this is your church, not mine. And I’m going to sleep.”[5]
This is God’s church. Not ours. If God wants to bless same-sex marriages, he will. If he doesn’t, he won’t.
So we can relax from thinking we are in charge. If Augsburg’s pastors cannot perform same-sex marriages, then someone else will. Our vote will likely have zero effect on the number of same-sex marriages performed, nor on the number of same-sex marriages that God blesses.
Moreover, I know lots of people who were married by a judge, and not in a church, and I think God can find a way to bless those, if he so chooses, whether officiated by a justice of the peace, a sea captain, a friend who got ordained for $20 online, or even a guy who kind of looks like Elvis. If God wants to bless something, or not to bless something, there is really nothing we can do about it. We simply voted on whether or not most of us want to bless these unions, and we will never have unanimity, but the church doesn’t thrive on unanimity nearly as much as it thrives on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.[6]
The disciples are seemingly never unanimous about anything other than being in fear. They bicker behind Jesus’ back because they are afraid of Jesus and what he will say next. The last person to speak up was Peter, and Jesus snapped back with the greatest rebuke ever uttered, “Get behind me Satan.” 
Jesus had said that the road ahead is long, and it involves submission, subjugation, and even crucifixion.
That can’t be the way- Peter says. And Jesus tells him to shut-up and fall in line.   
And since that rebuke at Peter, none of them dare speak up to Jesus. Their fear is palpable.
And here’s what I’ve brought back from my study and meditation on this text.
Fear is the opposite of faith.
It’s true- the opposite of faith isn’t doubt- faith and doubt are dance partners- the opposite of faith is fear.
Faith is an action to act like Christ. Fear is the self-made state of emergency that leaves us paralyzed.
This happens over and over again- in the calming of the storm, Jesus asks the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
And to Jarius who’s daughter has died he says, “ “Do not fear; just have faith” “
Faith is to act like Christ. Fear is the self-made state of emergency that leaves us paralyzed.

I have never seen fear like I did as a chaplain for AIDS care alliance.  AIDS is a terrible disease. And the fear that people around AIDS victims made it all the worse.
A pastor friend of mine in California during the AIDS epidemic, was leading communion using a common cup, and saw people refusing the wine out of fear of getting the disease. So the next week the pastor gave everyone communion first, and she would be communed last. She’d drink after everyone else to show that you can’t get AIDS from communion. The last will be first, and the first will be last.
…So I began to work with people with AIDS who were broke from the expensive medication- out of work from the side effects- and shunned by society who feared what they didn’t understand.
I was assigned to Mr. Lewis because I was the white chaplain, and Mr. Lewis was popular in the African American community. And his church didn’t know he had aids. If they found out, he’d be banned from attending there.
I spent the summer making visits to Mr. Lewis as the last part of my week, on Friday afternoons. I’d help him in the house, and we’d laugh about how young I was and how white people look funny singing gospel music.
Mr. Lewis’ son was 18 and had just graduated from high school. He came home one day and while he was coming to through the door, Mr. Lewis told me- “he doesn’t know.” If he asks, you’re with the hospital.
I said a prayer with Mr Lewis and his son, who then went upstairs to his room.
Daniel, I’m dying. It’s aids that’s killing me, but my son thinks it’s my lungs. My son doesn’t know because he don’t need to know about my “lifestyle.”
I spent the summer watching him die slowly without the help of his family and faith community, from whom he had to hide his “lifestyle.”
Since his church couldn’t accept him, I was there to be his chaplain. To walk him to death. To lead him to grace. To show him that death doesn’t have the final word.
And I was mad- people shouldn’t have just any pastor at their bedside- they should have THEIR pastor.
And I vowed to insure that there was a place for everyone in God’s church, as equally sinners in search for God’s grace. 
Watching someone lying there at the end of life, you realize how frail we are, and with such a short span of life.
By Mr. Lewis’ bedside, I found myself letting go of my disappointment in his church for not accepting him.
Life is too short for anger. I’ve seen the end, and I’m here to tell you, fear and anger in life leads to fear, anger, and regret at the end of life. If you don’t want to spend your last days that way, don’t spend any days that way.
It’s going to be OK. God is good. All the time. All the time, God is good. 
Jesus is making the slow walk to his death. And the disciples are scared to talk to him. They fear that Jesus is the kind of guy who punishes those who aren’t worthy, that Jesus does not suffer fools. The disciples fear that Jesus comes to bring condemnation and anger and vengeance.
They don’t know that Like all fears, these are unfounded.
They don’t know that Jesus’ life is too short for anger.
They don’t know that the Cross is not the end.
They don’t know that Jesus stands for love. For perfect, unconditional love.
What they don’t know can fill a warehouse. But God’s love can fill the world.
God’s love always wins.
I had the second reading changed for the first time in 3 years. Because we need to hear these words from Paul about boasting.
Paul writes, on my own behalf I will not boast, except in my weakness.
“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”[7]
Our greatest strength is in our self-emptying. When we feel half empty, that is when God can fill us up.
As the children sing, they are weak and He is strong.
And perhaps the greatest view of the cross is from on our knees.
If Luther were here, after asking for our sins to be confessed and forgiven, he’d make sure to preach about grace.
In his Heidelberg Disputation, on theology, Luther writes, “the person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him add sin to sin and he becomes doubly guilty. He seeks himself in everything.”[8]
He continues

Now you ask, “what then shall we do? Shall we go our way with indifference because we can do nothing but sin? By no means. Fall down and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection. Through the law comes knowledge of sin. Through knowledge of sin, comes humility, and through humility, grace is acquired.”
Amen brother Martin. Grace upon Grace.
I’m assuming that since there’s 1 service, that I get double the time to preach, is that right?
I’m almost done.
If the vote doesn’t go the way you voted, there are a few of you who are considering leaving this church.
If that is your context, and you want to find more like-minded people, be careful not to insulate yourself with others who don’t challenge you.
Promise me, promise yourself that you won’t leave because of a bad policy, and trade it for bad theology.
Promise me, promise yourself, that you’ll find a church that preaches law and gospel.
Promise yourself that you’ll find a church that preaches inclusion in the body of Christ, and that offers communion to all, as Jesus says, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sin. Not just those who think like you.
Promise yourself not to be lead into the drowning waters of fear, instead of the baptismal waters of faith.  
Promise yourself that you’ll find a church that preaches sin and grace. And shows extra attention to say no matter your measure of sin, your measure of grace is greater.
Promise yourself that you’ll find a church that follows the creeds that tie us to the ancient church- 
Promise yourself that you’ll find a church that reads a diverse array of scriptures, and not just what sounds good or is comfortable.
Promise yourself that you’ll find a church that honors baptism and communion as the two sacraments that follow a life of Christ.
Promise yourself that you’ll find a church that challenges you to action, pushes you to serve others, and embodies the gospel in a broken world.
And most of all, promise yourself that you’ll find a church that boldly proclaims that we are united with Christ crucified, united in death, and united in resurrection with Christ who holds to Romans 8- “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.”[9]
And if you can’t find that, just come back home. If Luther were here, that’s exactly what he’d do.  
Know you are always welcome back here with your pastors. The bond that brought us together in Christ is stronger than any policy.  
To borrow a line from the wedding liturgy, “What God has put together, let no one separate.”[10]

[1] Luther, Martin. "Commentary of 1 Corinthians 7." Luther's Works. Ed. Hilton C. Oswalkd. Vol. 28. Saint Louis: Concordia House, 1973. 24. Print.
[2] The Gospel for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B is Mark 9:30-37.
[3] NIV
[4] Romans 12:1-4NIV
[5] Faley, Roland J. Footprints on the Mountain: Preaching and Teaching the Sunday Readings. New York: Paulist, 1994. 423. Print.
[6] ‘Fruits of the Spirit’: see Galatians 5:22-23.
[7] 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, NRSV.
[8] Luther, Martin, and Timothy F. Lull. "Heidelberg Disputation." Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. Second ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989. 54. Print.
[9] NRSV
[10] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Pew ed. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006. 288. Print.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Sermon about Privledge, Loss, Uncertainty, and Healing Touch

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

The has been a lot of news in the past two weeks. Charleston, the trial, the flag, the funeral, and same-sex marriage decision in the supreme court, and two murders who escaped from prison, and shark bites on the Carolina coast. I told a friend that Neil Armstrong could walk on Mars and I’m not sure it would make the evening news.
We live in a world where things are coming at us quickly, fragments of life, death, truth, inspiration, fear, and change, and there are tensions and complications everywhere.

And when I look at the world Jesus walked into, I see a similar amount of chaos. People living side-by-side who didn’t get along. Jews and Gentiles; people who spoke Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. Romans who occupied, and commoners.
And when Mark writes his gospel, rather than writing it think about him compiling a bunch of stories- miracle stories and sayings about Jesus and the passion narrative, and imagine that he is putting them together in a collage to tell one narrative. And the way he does this shows us the chaos of the day.
For instance, one of the stories he tells is that Jesus had to go from the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile side. And every time he crosses the lake from the Jewish side to the Gentile side, there is  a mighty storm. But on the way home, there is smooth sailing.
This is how this story begins for us today.
Jesus went to the other side and now that he’s back, many people have gathered looking for healing.
When there are a lot of people in need in any civilization in need, the ones with money and privilege move to the front of the line.
One such man was Jairus, who was a leader of the synagogue and he had a daughter who was sick. He falls on his knees before Jesus and begs him to lay hands on her.
He believes that Jesus can heal her before she dies, he can save her life.
Then on the way to Jairus’ house, another story happens.

A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years
He asks who touched me?
She falls on her knees and confesses.
Jesus says Daughter, rise and go, your faith has healed you. As soon as he heals her, news spreads that Jairus’ daughter is dead.

When I was a chaplain at Wake Medical Center in Raleigh we would be on call for 12-24 hours. And when I was rolling off of duty and another person was coming on, we would go around together and hand-off the patients and families in need of pastoral care. This particular night my friend, we will call him Eddie, was becoming the chaplain so we went around and met the families he’d be sitting with and holding their hands. Eddie was a great guy. Smart, kind, and compassionate. Eddie was tall and thin with perfect teeth. He had very dark skin and I noticed that some families were uncomfortable around him because of the color of his skin while others seemed to prefer him because he was dark-skinned. We were walking around the hospital when the pager went off and we were called to the Pediatric ED, so we went. A mountain of a man, who I would guess had an accent from the islands, came walking toward us, looked at both of us and made a B-line straight for Eddie. He took Eddie by the shoulders and slammed him up against the wall and said, “I know you are a healer. Bring my daughter back” Fortunately there were guards close by who got everyone to calm down and after a while, Eddie was sitting with the family in their grief.

I think of that story when I imagine what Jairus must be thinking knowing his little girl was gone. Going through the stages of grief, he’d hit anger pretty quickly.
The time spent with this poor woman, has cost the privileged man to lose his daughter
What is the point of having privilege if you can’t use it?

Even though the girl is dead, Jesus goes anyway-
He goes into the bedroom with just the parents and some choice disciples, he took the little girl by the hand and said little girl, get up!

Pastor Rinn showed me on my first day how to lay hands. Every hospital visit we went on, he would touch the person in the bed, hold his hand and stroke her hair.

There is incredible research out there on the healing power of touch, stories of babies in the NICU who thrived when being massaged, research about people who stroke a cat or dog live longer, research those unconscious having improved vital signs after being touched,
But wait: there’s more! better marriages, lower blood pressure, lower anxiety, higher quality of life.

These two stories of Jesus healing touch are woven together on purpose.
Mark is sending us a hidden message.
Think about it- he could have told one and then the other. Two women- one young and one old, Jesus heals both.
One  who will never have kids because she died at 12 one who can’t have kids because she’s been bleeding for 12 years. Jesus heals them both.
One has a family of privilege, one doesn’t. Jesus heals them both.
One has an advocate that falls on his knees and pleads, the other falls on her own knees. Jesus heals both.
One is dead, one is good as dead. Jesus heals both.
Both are ritually unclean. Both are untouchable. Jesus touches and heals them both.
Maybe the point of the story is that the stories are meant to be read together because our stories are interwoven. We don’t live side-by-side with people different from us- we live with.

Rich or poor, jew or greek, male or female, gay or straight, black or white, we all fall on our knees before Jesus.

We all bleed. And we all die.

We are united in our need for Jesus’ healing touch in our lives, and if we are called to anything in the chaos of the world around us it is this: to be the healing hands of God in a world desperate for healing touch.

When I saw Eddie the next day, I asked him how it went. He said he sat with that family for six hours.

Did you bring the daughter back to life? "No," he said. "But there was much healing."


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sanctuary Renovations

Another pastor came to our church about a month ago for a meeting. He was early, and asked if he could walk the halls and explore our building. When he came back, he said, "I bet I can guess the age of every one of your Adult Sunday School classes."

I was intrigued. "Let's hear it" I offered.

"This class over here" he pointed to a large room with lots of chairs facing one direction and a podium at the front, "this is your oldest Sunday School class."

One-for-one so far. More on this later.

"These rooms" three classes with chairs and tables fashioned together "are your people in their 40s though 65. Working professionals, they usually like to debate and discuss."

"That big room upstairs with all the comfy couches and nice chairs, that's your baby-boomer's class isn't it?


Then he talked about two rooms where there were only chairs sitting around in a circle. "Those are your youngest classes, right?"

Right. He also noticed how one of those rooms shared a wall with the nursery which was another dead giveaway.

I've been thinking about his comments for three weeks straight, trying to figure why the furniture is so predicable of our church culture and what it all means.

Our church is also considering updating our worship space. Built in the 1920s, Augsburg’s Sanctuary has a great harmony of earth tones and divine elements.  The outside of the building is carefully masoned stone on stone, reminds us both of the fragility of the individual and the strength of the community, with Christ as our cornerstone. The interior is also earthy- with intersecting hardwood beams that conjure God’s promise of shelter to the ancient Israelites. The space also has an ethereal aesthetic with prominent stained-glass windows and the melody of a baroque style pipe organ.

The sanctuary needs some work from leaks and cracks and old carpet. So we thought this would be a great time to invest in the future of the church.

You might not be surprised that there were many reactions to the idea of changing God's building that were deeply personal. One person spoke of being baptized, confirmed, and married there, and every time she sees this church exactly the way it is and has been, she is reminded of that. Another spoke of the cost of changes as unnecessary; sort of a "if it's broke, fix it; if it isn't broke, don't fix it" approach. This seems to be a popular opinion. Whether or not this is what the church ultimately decides to do, as a pastor I am compelled to ask that we consider the future parishioners into our worship space, including those who have been baptized in our midst but do not yet have a voice or vote.

Back to our visiting pastor's guessing-game. When the sanctuary was built, 85 years ago, the pastor was considered an expert. There were three great professions dating back to the origination of this country: Lawyer, Doctor, Priest. All three were educated, all three were pillars in the community, and all three were experts whose voices ought to be listened to as someone who knows better. Everyone faced forward because there was one expert to listen to. As my pastor friend pointed out, our oldest Sunday school class still follows this model, only now they rotate who the expert is from week to week. (They even invited me in to be the expert for a month back in 2012.)

Think for a moment about the power structures at play within this architecture in a sanctuary. We all pray in one direction, where the pastor is closest to the altar, and therefore closest to God. As if the prayer took on special significance to God's ears if spoken by the pastor rather than a parishioner.

Fast forward almost a century and imagine the world we live in. A pastor is almost never the most educated person in any room (not even at home!). We are the ones who have taken vows to live a life of Christ, but the thing I say the most is not, "listen and take notes" but "this is the body of Christ, given for you."

Not just on Sundays, but the world is changing all over. The world is moving away from the one-expert model more and more each day. When I go to the doctor I tell him what my blood pressure has been measuring, the research I've done on medicines, and the way my wife (who is a dietitian) has been suggesting I eat. Like more and more Americans, I do my own taxes, I'm learning a foreign language from my phone so that others don't have to translate for me, and my toothbrush is so advanced my dentist says I'm cleaning as well as he can.
You see where I am going with this. In many great ways, the age of experts is diminishing. No I haven't given up on my doctor, dentist, tax professionals or teachers; and I like being your pastor, but I'm sure I field more questions on the use of biblical Greek and my dentists sees better teeth than our counterparts did 50 years ago.

If we use the progression of Sunday school spaces as a model for the future, we can plainly see that more and more we study God in the round.

The youngest groups that meet for Sunday school don't have much in the way of furniture because circling up gives us community to imagine God collectively in and to continue to evolve  in our faith together.

Also consider this: despite serving as pastor of the congregation for nearly three years, outside of the youngest Sunday School class, I have not been asked my thoughts on sanctuary renovations one time. Not by a single parishioner. You might think this is because mine isn't a valued opinion (which is what I thought at first). I have come to realize that it is much more because we've been trying to answer the question, "What do we want the future sanctuary to look like?" This question, properly framed, doesn't include the opinion of the youngish newish pastor. It doesn't include the opinion of anyone other than ourselves.

This question is not a good one for the future of the church. This question is the one that makes the church to lose its luster, its power and its potency.

Church culture is changing all around us. Augsburg has avoided many of the pitfalls of less fortunate congregations in decline. In order to not follow in their footsteps, it would be prudent of us to find the right question to ask.

When I think of giving my children a gift, I do not first ask, “what do I want?” and work from there.

But better to ask the question, "In the future church, who do we hope will worship God in this sanctuary? How might they want to worship?

The answer may be around the altar, not facing forward.

I’ve attached some pictures from my dear friend, Bishop Gordy of Southeastern Synod of a healthy church that recently underwent this change.