Saturday, December 24, 2011

Peace, Goodwill Among People

Notre-Dame de l'Atlas Monestary, Tibhirine, Algeria
In the days of Emperor Augustus, in the era of peace through strength within the Roman Empire, the Prince of Peace was born in Bethlehem.  He was born in a barn, and his first bed was a feeding trough for animals.  This child would be called Son of God.  An angel proclaimed his birth to powerless men, who watched sheep for a living.  The Heavenly Host praised God saying: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people." 

The promise of the Christ Child is peace.  A new era has begun.  The days are now numbered for the oppressive era of peace through strength and power through weapons.  Jesus would rule through love and hope.  When power, strength, and murder was used to destroy the Lord on the cross: he took our sins upon himself and defeated death forever through resurrection life. 

I don't need to tell you that mortality still hangs in the air.  I don't need to tell you that strength and power are still found in the hands of the wealthy and best armed.  But I do need to tell you this.  Because of the Lord whose birth we celebrate tonight, their days are numbered.  Life eternal is the promise for all who belong to Christ.  On Christmas, as much as any day of the year, this truth needs to be celebrated and embraced. 

I recently have been deeply moved learning more about the details of an event with occurred exactly 18 years ago tonight.  In a place, thousands of miles away, courageous disciples of Christ found themselves at the intersection of Christmas peace and terrorism's violence. 
The Trappest Monks of Tibhirine

In the midst of the Algerian Civil War, between the government of the North African nation of Algeria and Islamic extremists, a group of French Trappist monks of Notre Dame de l'Atlas Monastery in Tibhirine were faced with a painful decision.  Would they stay in their community, even as many European journalist and other foreigners were being assassinated?  It would have been understandable if they chose to leave, but after careful discussion and many prayers they chose to stay.  The Muslim community of their town wanted them to stay and though they were French, to many of these monks, Tibhirine was the only real home they had.

On Christmas Eve 1993, as preparations were being made for vigils and mass to be celebrated on the Nativity of our Lord, a gang of terrorists, who had only two weeks before massacred 12 Croatian Catholics, stormed into monastery.  Father Christian, the head of the monestary, faced the leader of the terrorist gang, and insisted the thugs step outside.  "The monastery is a place of prayer, no arms have ever entered in here.  If you want to talk we must go outside."

Father Christian and the leader of the gang, Emir Sayah Attiya, stepped outside and with amazing courage Christian stood up against the terrorist's demands, not with weapons, but with faith and hope.  "You have no choice." Attiya repeated over and over again.  Each time Christian responded, "Yes, we have a choice."  Finally, using his knowledge of the Koran, Father Christian appealed to the terrorist's faith by quoting a passage that required respect toward men of prayer.  "You have come here armed just as we are preparing to celebrate Christmas, the feast of the Prince of Peace," Christian said."  With that, Attiya responded, "I am sorry, I didn't know." And he and his terrorist gang left.
Father Christian

What an encounter, but an even more moving witness of the power of faith and hope and peace didn't come till after that terrible encounter.  After the terrorists' departure, the monks didn't flee in horror, they didn't seek revenge, and didn't dig in for war.  The monastery bell was rung and they went to church to celebrate Christmas Vigils and Midnight Mass, as if nothing happened. 

In the days that followed the monks had many conversations about leaving Tibhirine.  Some of the monks wanted to go, and they were free to do just that.  But Christian and the majority stayed.  The Algerian government insisted on stationing armed guards around the monastery.  Father Christian flat out refused.  They would not face terror with terror.  They would not fight murder with murder.  They would remain faithful to their calling as Trappist monks of the Cisterican Order.  They would remain faithful to Christ and be agents of peace and hope. 

The gift of Jesus Christ is the gift of peace and hope for the world!  The world continues to be a place of terror and war.  Strength is still measured by the amount of money and weapons you have.  But we know, tonight, such worldly strength will not win.  It's days are numbered.  But you are warned... the world is not through yet.  The Gospels tell it to us straight: if you stand for peace and hope, you will be persecuted.  But if you stand for peace and hope, you will experience today, what most will not experience until the Kingdom of Heaven is fully revealed.  Christ gives us life beyond what we see in front of our face and we are free to live that truth right now.  Yes, we have a choice. 

Two years after the Christmas Eve encounter, terrorists, not related to the original gang, stormed the monastery at Tibhirine at 1:15 AM on March 27, 1996.  Seven of the monks were taken prisoner, including Father Christian.  Two were left behind, unnoticed by the terrorists.  On May 21 of the same year, those seven monks were martyred.  There still are many mysteries regarding their deaths, and its not exactly known what organization killed them.  But we do know this... they died because of their faith: their faith in Christ, their faith in hope, their faith in peace.  And as martyrs they are an inspiration to me and countless others who hold on to the hope of tonight: Christ was born to bring peace, goodwill among people.

The days of Augustus, Empire, Terrorism, and war are numbered.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  Some say: "you have no choice."  You must fight back strength with strength.  But others say: "Yes, you have a choice."  Through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, may we have the faith to stand with those who have chosen peace, love, hope, and Christ.  They are heroes of the faith, and have experienced in this life the true gift of Christmas.      

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I am the Way

Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  This is a powerful claim.  He is the path to knowledge of God… he is the revelation of both our physical and spiritual realities.  Through Christ everything get’s laid out before us and we come to know God.

Unfortunately, these words have been turned upside-down by people who want to instead say that their church is the only way to God.  But Jesus is not making a claim that physical institutions the only true path.  Such a statement is contrary to the Biblical message.  Such a statement is used to divide and not to reveal hope.   Christ is the way.  Christ is the truth.  Christ is the life.    

This past week I was blessed to be able to attend a reception at Zion Lutheran in Tinley Park for the President of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan of the Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.  The Lutheran World Federation is a collection of 140 Lutheran Church bodies from 78 different countries.  66.7 million of the 70 million Lutherans all around the world belong to churches that are connected with the Lutheran World Federation.  That’s 95% of Lutherans.

I was touched by Bishop Younan’s message which emphasized the current situation of both the peace process in the Middle East and the state of Christianity around the world.  Wonderfully, he sees both as being tied together because he sees that in both cases dialog and working together is the key.  He said he will never be concerned for a Christian Church that is witnessing.  And that witnessing needs to always be focused on two things: love of God and love of neighbor. 

He is optimistic for the prospects of peace in the Middle East because he sees, and is active, in projects where Christian leaders, Muslim leaders, and Jewish leaders are coming together and with one voice are saying that the love of God and the love neighbor is at the core of the way any of these religions live out their faith. 

I found it interesting, however, that what disappoints this gracious man and optimistic spiritual leader is that Bishop Younan see over and over again that the sincere efforts of the many are being overshadowed by fanaticism of the tiny few. 

Why is it that you hear nothing about Christians, Muslims, and Jews working together, but just about all of you have heard about a solitary “pastor” and a couple dozen of his followers choosing to burn Korans in Georgia in the name of our Lord, Jesus?  Not only have you heard of him, but they have heard of him, but millions of Muslims in the Middle East of heard of him as well. 

Why is it that you do not hear about the world changing activities of the 66 million members of the Lutheran World Federation, but you are very much aware that there is a place called Westburo Baptist Church in Kansas protesting military funerals while holding up signs that say God hates?

Why is it that you do not know that Bishop Younan has spent the week here in the Chicago area and is preaching this morning at Grace Lutheran Church in LaGrange with a message of hope and peace… But you know full well that there were a handful of “Christians” with a billboard telling us all that yesterday was going to be the end of the world?

My friends the answers to those questions are the same answers as to why today’s Gospel reading of great joy is turned around and made into an instrument of hate and division far too many times.  Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  And the heretical message of those who would divide is that they are the way, and not Christ.  

And yet this really should be expected in a physical world that continues to feed us the lies that there is no hope and that what you see is what you get.  Wickedness will always use fear to obscure that Christ has revealed.  Wickedness will use hate to shield the truth from the children of God who hunger for it. 

What is truth?  One man burning a Koran or a million men of many faiths praying for peace? 

What is truth?  Ten people selling you the lie that God hates and the world ended yesterday, or 66 million Lutherans untied in an institution yes, but more importantly united with the billions who have be baptized in Christ throughout the history of the world?

Let not your hearts be troubled, brothers and sisters.  While the lies get all the attention, the truth is being made known through Christ.  Let not your hearts be troubled… because the lies fade away and are forgotten.  Apparently the guy who told us the world ended yesterday said it before in 1994.  Lies fade away and are forgotten, aren’t they.  But the truth, Christ, remains forever. 

The seeds of peace have been planted.  God is on the loose and the Holy Spirit is revealing his truth continually. 

In today’s lesson both Thomas and Philip are important.  We are just like them in so many ways because it’s hard to separate spiritual truth with the physical. We want the tangible.  We want to be able to see.    But spiritual is nothing like that.

When Jesus says that he is the way, Thomas’s question is your question.  Can you give me a map?  Can you plug it into my GPS?  And Jesus just has to shake his head.  Quit thinking only about what you can see. 

Philip is even better.  “You know I believe in you Jesus, but can you give us a little more… something tangible.  Then I’ll be satisfied.” 

The spiritual and the physical are not the same.  And the spiritual reality around us is so mysterious that the only way can even begin to talk about it or ponder it is by using physical images and analogies.  One of the best examples of that is right here in this lesson.  Jesus says that in my Father’s house there are many rooms.  I will go and prepare a place for you. 

Well you know what image pops into people’s minds when they hear this:  This is heaven Jesus is talking about.  The great big Motel 6 in the sky.  But therein lies the confusion and the reason for Thomas’ and Philip’s confusion.  Show me where this Heavenly Motel 6 is, Lord!  Show me and I’ll be satisfied. 

The way, the truth and the life is so much more than that.  It’s time to move beyond the physical and allow the spiritual truth to become the source of your faith.  The global religious leaders who in one voice say that faith is lived out through love understand that.  There are many rooms and they are all filled with love. 

-         When people claim to have that map that Thomas was seeking, that is a sign they do not reveal the truth. 

-         When people announce the day the world will end, that is a sign that they are not the truth. 

-         When people preach a message of hate in God’s name, that is a sign that they are not the truth. 

-         When people kill in the name of God, that is a sign that they are not the truth.  They speak for evil: and the fact they get news coverage and attention does not give them validity.

So instead, even though we do not get the same attention as they, we press on both believing in him and doing the works that Christ does: which is spreading a message of hope and peace for the world. 

Bishop Younan will persevere.  He will continue to share the gospel message, to witness, and do the works of Christ.  The Lutheran World Federation will continue to be a church that is witnessing.  Millions of Jews and Christians and Muslims will continue to stand for peace in the face of the dozens who want to blow the whole thing up.  After all… Jesus says, in His Father’s house there are many rooms. 

Don be fooled by the lies of hate and fear any more.  Let not your hearts be troubled.  Live your spiritual now… and be an instrument for the way, the truth, and the life.  It will not get the attention that hate gets in the media, but the Father will be glorified through it.  And step by step the world being won for Christ.  The Kingdom of Heaven… the Kingdom of peace is at hand. 

Saturday, May 07, 2011

In the Zone with Burning Hearts

Moments after President Obama announced that Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden, conspiracy theorists were already questioning whether it was true.  Now a week later, many people have picked up on their mantra: I'll believe it when they release the photograph of his dead body.  This is where my skepticism reveals itself.  A photograph will not satisfy the doubters.  Seeing is not believing. 

We witnessed that only a few weeks ago.  From the point Mr. Obama became a serious candidate for president there have been doubters, now called "birthers," who claim the President was born outside of the United States and therefore ineligible to become president.  When President Obama released a full copy of the original birth certificate they were not satisfied.  Seeing is not believing.  Faith is believing.  I guess birthers put their faith in the fact at fact that the President was born outside of the country. 

Faith should be reserved to matters of the divine.  Christians put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.  They believe that Christ died for their sins and was raised to eternal life.  They live their lives as a response to this truth they have faith in.  There is no "seeing is believing" proof out there, even though here are many physical signs and the witness of millions that do factor in this process of believing.  Ultimately, however, a Christian lives by faith.  There are moments of "seeing is believing" for those who live by faith, but they are temporary. 

We know that our eyes can be fooled.  It's that way will all the senses.  During the Civil War people standing just a mile's distance from the Battle of Fredericksburg could see the battle raging but only heared silence.  At the same exact time, five miles away, people could hear the battle clearly.  What is going on?  What they witnessed that day was a phenomenon that scientists later would call an acoustic shadow.   Hearing, or not hearing, is NOT always believing.  We know that now. 

It's that way with touch as well.  How many children walking through a neighborhood haunted house in someone's garage have been fooled into believing a bowl of cooked spaghetti was actually... EEK... brains?  I know I was. 

How about taste?  The most popular flavor of jelly bellies is not lemon or grape or cherry, but buttered popcorn.  I know its always been mine.  I still am amazed a jelly bean can taste like popcorn.  A scratch-n-sniff sticker of pizza does that same thing with our sense of smell.  We are fooled into thinking we are smelling a delicious pizza. 

Ultimately everyone one of our senses can be fooled.  Seeing is not believing.  Nor is hearing, tasting, smelling, or touching.  People understand this because our memories banks are filled with experiences of playing the fool.  We've been down this road before.  Not only have we been fooled into believing in something that's not there... we've also been let down by our senses as well.  These are the times we've missed what was right in front of us. 

That's the point of the lesson from Luke 24.  The risen Lord appears to two of his disciples as they are making the long walk home to Emmaus.  Instead of being fooled by their senses to perceive something that isn't there, their senses prevent them from perceiving. 

They see the risen Jesus, but they don't know it is him.  And this isn't because their minds are somewhere else, thinking about baseball or women, they actually are discussing the events of the past few days.  Isn't that amazing?  They are talking about Jesus and yet they cannot understand that he is right there.  They hear Jesus speak to them about himself in the Scriptures, but still they cannot understand. 

Ultimately it is the actions of Jesus at a meal that reveals his presence to them.  Was it the smell of the food and the taste at the tip of their tongues?  Was it because in Jesus' words and motions at the table memories were tiggered of from when Jesus did the same thing at the feeding of 5,000?  Maybe it was a combination of them all.  It could be that having those seeds planted through Jesus' teaching along the long road to Emmaus they were set up to finally perceive it all at that moment.  What ever it was, suddenly they do believe and their hearts burn with truth.  This is a God moment.  This is Holy Spirit.

God will use our senses to reveal many things to us.  You never know when your going to have a God moment of total recall: when suddenly it all comes together.  These are the sudden moments when you instantly understand your place in this world and understand your relationship with God, Christ, and everyone else.  Sports players call it being in the zone.  Maybe for us its being in the spiritual zone.  In the Jesus Zone. 

At that moment it all comes together.  Your whole self will be touched: spiritually and physically, heart and soul.  When we gather for worship we open ourselves up to be moved into that zone by God.  You can see the worship space and symbolism.  You can hear the gospel.  You can smell the flowers and candles.  You can feel the hand of your Christian brothers and sisters in the passing of the peace and you can taste the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament. 

In worship it comes together.  No single sense becoming more important than the other.  For the disciples in Emmaus the meal was key... It revealed truth to them.  You never know when your heart will suddenly burn with divine truth in faith.  A hymn often triggers it: memories of something long forgotten.  A smell or a touch and open your mind in amazing ways.  It can come from anywhere. 

When it does happen get ready for the amazing.  You won't be able to sit still.  Your heart will burn and you'll get all excited.  Your heart pounds faster.  Tears will roll down your cheek... both of sadness and of joy.  And in the midst of the Spirit you will know what you have always believed: Jesus is Lord and God is good!  You believe.  You have faith.  You will share it.                

Saturday, April 30, 2011

One out of Ten

Recently a new restaurant opened its doors.  People in the neighborhood were excited to try it out.  A few weeks after it opened, ten people who had a meal at the restaurant were surveyed.  How did they like it?  Would they go again?  Would they recommend the place to their friends?

Nine of the ten just loved the place and most of then have already been there at least twice.  The consensus was that they loved the food.  It was fresh, interesting, new and delicious.  The service was friendly. One patron said that she felt like one of the family now.  Most thought the prices were fair to excellent and many bragged about taking home a "doggie bag" each time they went because such huge portions were served.

One person who was surveyed, however, did not agree with the prevailing view.  He thought the service was slow and his waiter crabby.  They didn't get his order right and he had to wait over forty minutes to get his new meal after he sent the other one back.  He posted his poor opinion online, on the dining websites: yelp, metromix, and

Upon hearing about the poor experience of the one person, the owners of the new restaurant did everything they could to earn back the customer's favor.  They refunded his money and offered to give me a free drink with his next meal.  When the customer said that wasn't good enough, they said that they would give him dinner for two on the house if he would erase his poor review.  (It didn't look too good for the new restaurant to have only one review online, his scathing attack.)  When he said he would do if the meal also included two bottles of wine, they gave in and he erased his review.

The next Friday, Mr. Poor-review dined at a table right next to one of the positive reviewers from the survey and by coincidence they both had the same waitress.  At the end of the meal the waitress asked each of them, "how was everything."  As he handed over his Chase debit card to the waitress Mr. Positive said: "fantastic, I just love this place."  Mr. Poor-review had a different story to tell the young lady, as he handed her his free-stuff voucher, "My food was cold again... and again you guys were so slow.  I'm not coming here anymore."  But of course, that was not the case at all... for you see, Mr. Poor-review did eat there again two weeks later... and once again his meal was free.

We live in a world where the cliche "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" reigns as divine truth.  When services businesses depend on happy customers and 100% job satisfaction, a great deal of power is given to the one who likes to make noise and has very little ability to see things that are positive.  From auto sales, to daycare centers, to faith communities when a person is upset a great amount of time, energy and resources are spent to try get that squeaky wheel to stop making so much noise.  Nine out of ten is not good enough... ten out of ten is was is strived for.

Unfortunately, the loser in this whole equation is the one providing the service.  A system that empowers the tiny percentage of complainers is a system that is hijacked by said complainers.  The first few months of a new restaurant's life is precarious.  A poor review or two can kill it, even if the motives and personality behind the poor review is suspect.  They must do all they can to make it "right."  The mantra of this "Squeaky Wheel" world is that "the customer is always right."  Even when Mr. Poor-review is wrong.

The other loser in this is the other nine customers who also are "always right."  They don't get the grease the restaurant would like to give them.  They are telling their friends about the new place, but can easily go without notice.

In John 20 we are given a story that's not all that different from our 2011 restaurant opening.  Jesus' disciples were gathered together in a room.  No word is given to us in John about what they were eating.  The story is not about reviewing a meal.  Instead it is about the appearance of the risen Christ.  Jesus appears to them and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them.  Thomas is not present, and when the disciples tell him what happened his response is well known.  He's a distant relative of Mr. Poor-review: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

It's a good thing there was not a yelp or metromix or  for faith in the first century.  I'm sure Thomas would have been right on there posting his doubts and opinions.

Jesus, the Son of God, responds to Thomas with love and compassion.  No surprise there, after all God is love.  At first it appears that Jesus is going to give Thomas the equivalent of a free meal for two to get him to change his mind.  Go ahead and feel my wounds.  Put your finger through the hole in my hand.  Put your arm into the wound in my side.  Thomas is changed.  He believes.  "My Lord and my God!" is his response to Jesus' love.

But Jesus turns the table on this squeaky wheel system.  The church will not be hijacked by Doubting Thomas and his descendants. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Walking by faith and not by sight is a gift and a blessing from God.  The living faith we express in our families, communities, churches, and workplaces is a living faith that is born out of these events.  We do not believe because we have seen.  We believe because the Holy Spirit has been breathed upon us through our baptism.

No name is given to the other disciples in this text.  They go without a name, and without notice, like so many wheels that don't seek attention through threats, complaints, and overall disdain for much of what they encounter in the world. 

Living faith does not seek such satisfaction and the mission of Christ will not be hijacked by the pessimism of the few.  Jesus' ministry is a living example of pressing on and persevering through the reactivity of others who are suspect of anything different and afraid to see the amazing things God is doing in the world.  Jesus' followers are warned that ministry will not be easy.  Jesus warns them and us bluntly: you will be ridiculed, oppressed, and shown scorn... even by those you love.   

But in it all we all are given reassurances: "blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe."  We are blessed with knowledge of the truth.  We are blessed with a faith that changes the lives of others.  We are blessed by being instruments of God's work in this time and this place.  There is no better way to experience the spiritual power of the Lord than to simply give yourself to him and allow him to shepherd you into service and action.  A living faith that cannot be seen is a living faith that is best experienced when you live it.  That's right live it.

And we live it... even when one out of ten want to suck the energy and life out of the system.  We will live it... even when the voice of skeptics is heard in the back ground.  We will live it because such living faith is the power of God.  We will live it because with it the breath of God comes to us and a gift that we cannot receive anywhere else:  PEACE.