Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, November 20, 2017

What's in Your Toolbox?

Sermon 11-19-17
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

You may have noticed by now that Jesus really, REALLY likes to tell stories. But not really fun ones.  And we’ve certainly heard a lot of doozies in the past few weeks, where someone is often getting the short end of the stick…. Cast into the outer darkness, shut out of the party… or just in general not getting a “happily ever after.”

This story we just heard comes directly on the heels of last week’s tale of the kingdom of heaven being like 10 bridesmaids waiting for the groom to arrive at a wedding celebration. And this week, we get the “Parable of the Talents.” Another story that both makes us uncomfortable, but perhaps also confuses us by referencing things we don’t encounter in our everyday lives –  things like slaves and slave owners, and coins called Talents that were worth about 15 years of minimum wage.

What would this parable sound like if Jesus were telling it to us today? Perhaps something like this story, which I found a children’s sermon website, and decided to alter it a little bit.

“Once upon a time there was a woman who had a very successful construction business.  She had to go on a long trip, so she called her top three employees together and said, ‘I’m leaving you three in charge. I’ve put together a tool box for each of you to use to keep the business going while I am gone.’

The tool boxes contained all the tools the employees needed to do what their boss expected of them, but since the three employees didn't all have the same abilities and passions, each toolbox was different. To the first employee, she gave a very large tool box filled with every tool that you can imagine. To the second employee, she gave a smaller toolbox, but one that still had a very good assortment of tools. To the third employee, she gave a very small tool box with just a few tools, but enough tools for the employee to do what was expected of him.

The boss then left to go on his trip. When she returned, she called her employees together to see what they had done while she was gone.

The first employee said, ‘I knew that you had a great love for the homeless people of the world, so I used the toolbox that you gave me to build homes for the homeless.’

‘Great!’ said the boss. ‘You have done so well that I am going to put you in charge of all new construction for the entire company.’

The second employee said, ‘I knew that you had a great love for the elderly, so I used the toolbox you gave me to fix up the homes of elderly people who can no longer do the work themselves.’

‘Awesome!’ said the boss. ‘You have done such a good job, that I am putting you in charge of all the repair and maintenance work for the entire company.’

Then she turned to the third employee and asked, ‘What did you do with the tools that I left for you?’

The third one said, ‘I knew that you are a very demanding boss and that you expect a lot from your employees. I was afraid that if I used the tools you gave me that one of them might get broken or that I might lose one of them and make you angry. I put the tools in a very safe place. Look, here they are, just like new.’

To that, the boss said, ‘What a worthless employee you are! I didn't give you the tools for safekeeping, I gave them to you to use in my business.’ He was given a merger severance package and shown the door, and then the boss took his toolbox and divided the tools between the other two employees.”

Does hearing the story in that way change what you are hearing Jesus say?

Perhaps something that Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry might help us out here. Way back in Matthew, Jesus gives his inaugural address, which we also call “The sermon on the mount,” where we heard the “blessed are yous” a few weeks ago. A little later in that sermon, Jesus also says, ““Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” Thinking about this story in this light, which one of the employees let their light shine?

The first two employees went OUT into the WORLD to use their tools. THEY let their lights shine, while the third employee buried his light. He did exactly what one of the verses from “this little light of mine” song says NOT to do… “hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m gonna let it shine.”

In the ELCA, the denomination we are a part of, we have a tag line, perhaps you’ve heard of it: “God’s work, our hands.” That means, God uses US to do God’s work, to shine God’s light on the world. When we shine, people see, and that points the way back to where the light came from.

As followers of Jesus, we will be given opportunities to be a public witness for Jesus. Jesus wants US to shine… rather than having our unused tools stay shiny from still being in mint condition. Strange, how in the Kingdom of God, the worth of the gifts GOES UP the MORE it’s USED… and the more you give away, the more you HAVE.

Fast forward to the end of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’s tone has changed a bit.  He might be sounding a little bit on edge here because Jesus knows where he’s headed – in just a few more chapters, Jesus will be betrayed, denied, abandoned, humiliated, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Jesus is running out of time, and his disciples are acting more like dim bulbs than beacons of light.  

But the stakes are still high, two thousand years later. In many ways the world hasn’t changed all that much – we are still really good at hurting and oppressing one another. Injustice is still a reality for most. But perhaps that makes Jesus’ story all the more urgent. After all, what is the point of being given a light, or a tool box if it’s not going to be used for good?

A few weeks ago, I attended a Lutheran conference where I got to explore some of the parts of my tool box that I don’t usually think about… As a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied English speaking white person, I don’t have ALL the privilege, but I DO have A LOT of privilege. So, what am I going to DO with what has been given to me? Am I going to bury it by and pretend it doesn’t exist? Or will I use the tools I have been given to build up those who do not have as many tools in their tool box as I might have? How will I let God’s light shine in me?

We’re going to have to keep extra awake for the coming days. Work stress, family stress, pre-Christmas shopping stress – where we’re going to hear, Bigger is better! More stuff will make you and your family happy! Throw away the old, and get great deals on the new!
What, then, in the midst of this onslaught, are we to use what God has given us for the use of God’s Kingdom, for the benefit of the people around us?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, and you may join me as you feel called, according to what YOU have in YOUR toolbox. I’m going to shop fair trade and second hand when possible, and patronize stores that treat their employees well and help the environment. I don’t know if I’m doing ENOUGH… but at least, unlike the 3rd slave… I’m going to let my light shine, give my tools some use.

“To be of Use,” says one of my favorite poems, by Marge Piercy, is something like this:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust…
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums,
but you know they were made to be used....
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

So, the next time you are wandering down the aisles this weekend bombarded with tinsel and bogged down with a list… consider this… when you see that shovel for sale, think about how you can help dig a friend – or even a stranger -out of a bad day. When you are hanging lights with your stepladder, consider how you could support someone who is participating in a 12-step program. As you take up your crochet hooks and knitting needles for Christmas gifts, imagine how God knits us all together, and how you might speak up for someone whom the rest of the world considers no more important than a dropped stitch.

We are the tools of Gods kingdom. We were made to be used. For work that is real. For the work of God’s kingdom, for the work of justice and mercy.

So, exhaust all the oil God gives you by shining God’s light into our dark world… Get some callouses on your feet from walking with your neighbor, get your hands dirty, and get some “purl pain” in your knuckles… strip all your drill bits into unusable nubs…  break all your needles stitching the world back together… because after all none of these tools are YOURS ANYWAY. They all belong to God… just as you belong to God. Thanks BE to GOD. Amen.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Faith for the Long Haul

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Think about all the weddings you have been to all through the years. Each wedding is very different, but each wedding was also the same –they seem to be a continuous game of “Hurry Up and Wait.”

Hurry up and Wait for the service to start. …to greet the bride and groom after. Waiting to take pictures. … for cocktail hour to be over and dinner to begin. … for dancing, and then the cutting of the cake. All that waiting makes for a long night!

Another thing that’s true about weddings – the unexpected always happens. When I preformed my brother’s wedding two years ago, a bee got stuck my very hairsprayed hair right before the service! Fortunately, no bees or hair were harmed, and the rest of the service happened without incident! Another time, at my former congregation, one of the bridesmaids was in desperate need of a safety pin, which fortunately we had in the sacristy.
I’ve been a bridesmaid a couple of times too. Like weddings, there is something that all bridesmaid’s dresses seem have in common, no matter what the style. Almost none of them have pockets.

If you are a woman, you know the struggle. If you are a man, prepare to be enlightened. Do you ever wonder why women carry around gigantic purses and occasionally ask you to hold them for us? It’s because clothing manufactures have decided that pockets big enough to hold something useful like a cell phone, don’t look good on women’s clothing. So many of us make do with purses to carry everything we need, just in case.

Have you ever played that game at baby showers or bridal showers called Purse Bingo? It’s the one where you’re asked to dig through your purse to find strange or random items that you might be carrying around in there…. Like floss, socks, a screwdriver, extra batteries, or extra lamp oil.

Just kidding about the last one. But I wonder, if all of the bridesmaids in Jesus’s parable today had a purse, or at least bridesmaids’ dresses with pockets, would the story have gone any differently?

This is a really tough story to hear, most especially because Jesus starts out with “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this….” But Jesus, I have so many questions! Why do the “wise” bridesmaids seem so mean? What happens to the foolish bridesmaids? Is Jesus the bridegroom, and the wedding banquet, is that heaven?

And to top it all off, I find this parable hard to jive with what I know and believe to be true about Jesus and his message of love and grace. What happened to - share with our neighbors in need? Or welcoming people who are outsiders?

And who are we supposed to be in the parable? Are we wise bridesmaids or are we foolish bridesmaids? And maybe our answer will change tomorrow, and change again the day after. Today you could might feel like ready and prepared to face whatever life throws at you… and other days you might feel foolish and unprepared, like your lamp is flickering dangerously low and about to go out, and you too are panicking and desperate to keep the darkness at bay…. wondering, why won’t Jesus just come and rescue us already????

Both wise and foolish bridesmaids were waiting in the dark, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom and the coming wedding celebration. Both wise and foolish bridesmaids fell asleep, since the bridegroom was taking SO LONG.

I wonder if the wise bridesmaids had been in this position before. Perhaps this was familiar to them, and they knew what to expect. They might have known that the night might be long and dark, they might have known what it’s like to run out of oil. Perhaps they had been foolish bridesmaids in the past, and came this time ready for the long dark night ahead.

But shouldn’t this elicit some compassion toward the foolish on the part of the wise? Perhaps not, given the demand that the foolish bridesmaids make – “GIVE US some of your oil!”

Whoa, hold on here. No “please and thank you,” no acknowledgement that they “done messed up,” and didn’t show up prepared. The foolish bridesmaids are foolish not just because they didn’t come ready for a long night, but also because they DEMANDED that their more prepared sisters cough up some of their hard-earned and hard -won wisdom, I mean, oil. The foolish wanted a quick fix, and easy solution, with no accountability on their part.

No one WANTS to sit in the DARK as the night falls. Just look at how much light we put in our lives, especially now that it gets dark out so early in the evening, it seems. No one wants to sit in the “dark night of our souls” sometimes, where things are unclear and uncertain, and the way forward is clouded, relief is nowhere in sight, and joy seems to have run far, far away. But sitting in the dark, your lamp about to go out, waiting for SOMETHING, ANYTHING…. is a place we ALL have been. Probably multiple times by now. The people we love hurt us. The bodies we have been given fall apart and fail us. The things in our lives we though were constant and secure, crumble around us. If there is an easy way to get some light in our lives, let’s do it, drop everything and go after it, spend any amount of money to buy it…. anything but sit in the dark waiting for Jesus.

The foolish bridesmaids were not foolish because they weren’t ready. The foolish bridesmaids were foolish because they didn’t stay in the dark. They didn’t trust the light of the other bridesmaids to carry them through the night. They didn’t acknowledge their lack and ask for help, but instead gave up, seeking a quick fix rather than trust in the other’s light and the love of the approaching bridegroom. They didn’t trust that nothing, not even the deepest point of the night, can stop the bridegroom from arriving.

So here WE are, waiting in the dark, maybe almost asleep, tired out from waiting, maybe with our wicks burning dangerously low. We’re in the “in-between time,” waiting in a twilight world between two dawns – the first being the birth of a baby two thousand years ago to a teenage mom in occupied territory in the Middle East. And the second? Presumably that’s the one that all of us bridesmaids are still waiting for, which is the final victory feast over death and the grave. It’s like the worst invitation to a wedding EVER. We don’t know WHEN or WHERE or HOW it’s happening… only that it WILL.

That doesn’t mean it’s nap time. To make it through this waiting time in one piece, together, as the body of Christ, we’re going to need all-hands-on-deck, and pool together every single gift that God has given us. For some of is that may mean giving a portion of what we earn or increasing our offering to the church, to do the holy and humble work of keeping the lights on so that our building may continue to be a ministry to the community - being of use to groups like AA, NA, Al. Anon, Girl Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, and the homeschool group. For others, it may come as a calling to serve on one of the committees that help KEEPS our ministries going. For others, it may mean giving time for service projects. For still others, we may be called to offer our talents and passions for justice, for the good of this community.

How do we want to be a part of God’s kingdom here on earth for the next 500 years? Are we going to be a church that falls asleep on the job? Are we going to up and leave, and let our lights go out in a world that needs us? Or are we going to work together, even though the way might be dark, working to keep our lights shining for Jesus and his work for justice, reconciliation, and an end to every kind of violence for all God’s children?

On this day that we make our commitments to something as seeming small and inconsequential as a church budget, we ask ourselves …. how are we going to be actively waiting… together… to build up this community and our world in the name of Jesus, the one we place our trust in?

Speaking of being prepared, I would like us to take a moment to reflect on what you have written or want to write on your leaf that you received this morning. This is not a binding contract, of course. And we are not limited to one thing. But I would like us to sit for just a minute and think about what we want to write on our leaves, which will soon join other leaves on our little offering tree here.

(Here is where we filled out our leaves)

In a few minutes we’ll be handing in our pledge cards, and also hanging our leaves on this little tree here. This is an act of daring, holy hope. This is an act that says, we are not just willing to wait for Jesus to arrive for us, but we are willing to help make that happen in this church, in the community, and in our world.

We are not giving up. We won’t be distracted. We are not searching for a quick fix. We are in this for the long haul, folks, and we are in this TOGETHER. The going might be tough. The way might be hard to see. Our lamps might threaten to go out on us. And Jesus might take his sweet time showing up.

But we have each other to sit in the shadows, waiting for the dawn together. We have the call of our baptisms to wake us from the sleep of despair and complacency. We have the body and blood of Christ to sustain us as we work. And we do have Jesus, who always comes out to meet us. Amen.

Monday, November 6, 2017

All Sinners and Saints Day

All Saints 11-5-17
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen

Do you have a favorite show that you MUST WATCH and you just CANNOT MISS an EPISODE? Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones…? Anyone? Well, I used to be totally addicted to a show called Once Upon a Time. Every Sunday at 8 PM, the TV had better be turned to that station OR ELSE. Don’t talk to me, don’t ask me anything, don’t make any loud noises, don’t even look at me for that whole hour.

Once Upon a Time is pretty much what it sounds like …. a Disney fairytale for adults. And who didn’t like Disney movies growing up? Princesses that were beautiful and compassionate, princes that were brave and dashing, and all the woodland creatures who were available to help you with basic household chores. What’s not to love? We just had Halloween, and I’m sure you had your fair share of Cindrellas, Elsas, Moanas, knocking at your door.

This show, Once Upon a Time, keeps to the spirit of that classic fairytale structure – a baby, a princess by birth, the product of true love, is sent out into the world as the only hope to save her people, who are under wicked queen’s curse. But the twist is that THIS princess grows up in “the real world” - with cars and computers rather than magic and fairy dust. And as a result, she has a hard time coming to terms with her enchanted past.

But we all know that life is way more complicated than what happens in a fairytale. At some point, we put away the gowns and crowns and magic wands. We grow up, and realize that we were not secretly born a princess or a prince, and that we are not called to embark on a thrilling quest to save the kingdom.

Or are we?

If we truly outgrow fantasy, why is it then, that we are so drawn to “rags to riches” stories? Not just in fairytales, but also in our movies, shows, and books? Why were we so caught up in stories of people who started out with nothing and now are wildly famous and successful? Could it be that we can’t help thinking “maybe, just maybe, this could be me”? That I really might have what it takes to be a “hero” in my own story? That, as Belle from Beauty and the Beast laments, there must be more than this provincial life?”

As it turns out, we have our own kind of “heroes” in our Christian tradition, don’t we? We typically call them “saints.” That is kind of a loaded word, thought. What does the word “saint” really mean?  Who are the people we tend to call “Saints”? Someone who is kind and compassionate? Wholly devoted to God? A bit stuffy, who doesn’t like to have fun? Someone who makes you feel kind of like an inferior Christian in comparison?

In some traditions, “Saint” is like a special title with a lot of criteria to “qualify” in order to have that special title. I’m not sure what they all are, but I know that it involves miracles and many, many good deeds over the course of a lifetime. The point is, it’s very hard to get to be THIS KIND of saint.

For us, in the Lutheran church there is just one thing necessary to being a saint. Do you want to know what it is? Do you? I hope you do, because I’m going to tell you anyway. Ok, here it is… The one thing necessary to being a saint is… Jesus.

Yup. You heard me right. Jesus is the one thing that you need in order to be a saint. And because of Jesus, we have ALL been made saints. Not the “holier than thou” kind of saint that is unattainable for most people. But instead, the kind of saint to is a forgiven and redeemed child of God.

So let’s forget about those Disney movies for a minute.  Let’s forget about all the things you think that you think make up a truly “saintly” person. You have been called to be a saint. I want you all, right now, to turn to your neighbor and say to each other, “You are a saint…”
Because the most amazing story ever told is actually true: each and every one of you was chosen at birth to be something extraordinary: a beloved child of God. As we heard from the first letter of John, “see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God… beloved, we are God’s children now.”

NOW. Right now. Not when you have all your ducks in a row, when your life is order and no longer sin… but now, every day you’ve already lived and every day that you are GOING to live. How? Not by doing miracles or X number of good deeds over the course of your life…. Not by being a super human. But by being baptized.

How many of you remember when you were baptized? … anyone? If you were a baby, and DON’T remember, let me remind you what happened that day. In the service of baptism, we are publicly acknowledging the fact God loves you and has chosen you to be his beloved child. If you were a baby, your parents promised to raise you so that you could live into this reality, both with their help and with God’s help.

In the show, Once Upon a Time, the baby princess grows up, and finally comes to terms with her birthright, and she is finally able to break the curse that holds her people captive. But that is not the end of the show – it’s only the end of season one. In season two she struggles with the implications of who she is, and tries with mixed results to live into her calling, not just as “savior” to her people, but also as a daughter - and a mother. And she doesn’t always get it right.

The truth is, we’re still going to mess up. Being a saint, a beloved child of God, does not mean that we are going to be perfect and nice all the time. We’re still going to get frustrated at our kids or grandkids We’re still going to yell at people in traffic (which I admit I do far too often). We’re still going to screw up our relationships and spend our money on things we don’t need and make judgments about people who are different from us.

But this is why Jesus didn’t just skip ahead to the cross to get to the “dying and rising for us part,” though that part is SUPER important, of course. Jesus knows that we need help, he knew we can’t do it alone. That’s why he walked around for three years with a crew of young, clueless blue-collar, working-class guys, saying stuff like “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Stuff that really is pretty obvious but is actually really hard to do.

Martin Luther was on to something when he described our both-at-the-same-time realities like this – we are both 100% sinner and 100% saint at the same time. Last night, at a conference in Philly I was at, one of the presenters greeted us this way… “Good morning saints…” (meager response) “Good morning sinners.” (robust response). Yes, and it went EXACTLY like that!!

So, should we dress up half like an angel and half like a devil to remind ourselves of this? 

Sure, if you really wanted too… but you probably shouldn’t. Instead, let’s look again at Matthew 5, the Beatitudes. You may remember that we have heard this text recently, about 9 months ago to be exact… actually it was my first official sermon here at Family of God. I remember reflecting on the fact that this was my inaugural sermon here, just as this text was also Jesus’s inaugural sermon in Matthew, a section of the longer we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” And the first part of this sermon is dedicated to exactly WHO are blessed… and spoilers, it’s not who we think they are.

THESE are the blessed ones –those who don’t have it all together, those who are bullied, dispirited, or fleeing their homes as refugees, those who are grieving, those who hunger and thirst for the common good, those who are merciful and compassionate, those who work for peace and reconciliation, those who have a single-minded devotion to God’s kingdom, those who don’t back down from working for justice, even when they are misunderstood and challenged. Jesus calls THESE people blessed. And I am sure that we can all find ourselves somewhere on this list.

God loves you. And God chose you. You are a beloved child of God. A sinner yes. But also, a saint.

At the end of every funeral service, we hear these word: “Into your hands, merciful God, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy…. And into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

We have loved ones who are already there, with the saints in light. But we aren’t there yet. We’re still mourning… we are still poor in spirit…we are still starving for justice and righteousness in our world… we are still working for peace … We still seek to treat the word with mercy and gentleness where the world seems to lack it so much. But Jesus sees us. Jesus walks with us. Jesus calls us his saints – right here, right now -  and Jesus calls us blessed. Amen. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Walking in the Light of God for the Next 500 Years

Reformation 10-29-17

(Video of my sermon here, sorry for the terrible angle)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Did you all know that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is this year? Haha, of course you did. And actually, this is exactly what we are celebrating today – that five hundred years ago on October 31st, 1517, a monk and professor at Wittenberg University nailed a sheet of paper to the church door and the world would never be the same. What was on the piece of paper, you ask, that was so radical that we still are feeling the ripples down through the ages to this day? It was 95 thoughts on the practice of the time of selling something called Indulgences. Hmm… sounds pretty boring and irrelevant to our lives right now, 500 years later… or it is?

Now, bear with me for just a little bit before our eyes roll back into our heads from Church History Bored. The church at the time of Luther created an elaborate system of forgiveness. You sinned, you went to confession, then you could take communion and be forgiven. But Luther noticed a big shift when indulgences came along. Fewer and fewer people were interested in confession and seeking ACTUAL repentance. Instead, they bought indulgences, a piece of paper that forgave you. Imagine, or just a few coins, you had a “permission slip for any sin” - past, present, future… for yourself or any of your loved one.

If the 1500s had commercials, Luther might have seen one like this – Having problems shopping for a perfect Christmas gift for “hard to shop for family members”? Look no further! Introducing “Indulgences!” Forgiveness of any sin, any time! No expiration dates! No strings attached! Transferable AND portable! The perfect medieval stocking stuffer – yours for only a few of your hard-earned coins!

This sounds completely ridiculous, because it is. Ridiculous, and exploitative, since it not only played on people’s fears about hell, but the money was also for an extravagant papal building project in faraway Rome. Indulgences gave people permission to trust in a piece of paper rather than on the grace of God.

Enter Luther, a hammer, 95 theses, and a church door.

Martin Luther had to remind us that there NO WAY we can buy our way into God’s good graces. We are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves. But this grace has already been given to us, free of charge. Grace is not for sale, at any price.

The repercussions of Luther’s ideas have reverberating throughout the centuries, and throughout the world. At the Lutheran World Federation 12th Assembly I attended and preached at in May, every one of the sub themes related to something being “not for sale.” “Creation, not for sale…” “Human beings, not for sale….” And “Salvation, not for sale.”
Dr. Monica Melanchton
On the day of “Salvation, not for sale,” presenter Dr. Monica Melanchton from India shared that the 95 theses affirmed human dignity. She told us that “the selling of indulgences reduces the believer to a mere consumer of religious goods.” Dr. Melanchton reminded us that salvation is not an abstract theological concept, or a commodity to be bought and sold, or even hoarded and then given away by Westerners to 3rd world countries.

Dr. Melanchton shared a poem I won’t soon forget, told from the perspective of a woman in India who survives starvation and experiences the love of God as food in a famine-stricken area. The poem goes, “I can hope to live one day more, for you made God come to me as 200 grams of gruel… Now I know what you are speaking about, for God so loved the world … every noon through you.”

In the poem, no one bought the starving woman an indulgence. No one told her “our thoughts are prayers are with you” and then stood by to watch her starve. God became incarnate to her through 200 grams of gruel, and the hands that provided her that food every day at noon. God becomes incarnate through these works of mercy. God becomes incarnate as we gather together in the breaking of the bread, then going out into the world to share that bread with others in need.

We are saved by grace through faith given to us by a generous God. But we cannot make Grace into a new kind of indulgence, giving us permission NOT to follow God’s call into the world to do acts of mercy. Not so that we may earn our way into heaven – which we can never do – but because “God loves the world…. THROUGH US.”

Martin Luther’s Thesis #42 reads, “Christian are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.” Followed by #43: “Christians are to be taught that the one who gives to a poor person or lends to the needy does a better deed than if a person acquires indulgences.” Still think that the 95 theses are dusty old relics?

The ELCA has a tagline that goes “God’s work, our hands.” God used our hands this weekend when we packed meals for Feed My Starving Children – which, by the way, I think Martin Luther would have loved the fact that we celebrated the Reformation through acts of mercy rather than yet another brat fry or German fest (not that there is anything wrong with them). But perhaps a better use of our celebration would be to let God use our hands, and also to acknowledge that the work of the Reformation that continues around the world.
Turning over our check to FMSC (Second in amount to Merck Insurance!)

FMSC Meal Packing Event

The Lutheran World Federation was clear last May in it’s world-wide commitments in working for justice for the environment and for women, and to reform the church in a way that is “Global, Ecumenical, and Ongoing.  So, for the LWF to have gathered for the 12th assembly in Namibia - a place that has seen its fair share of hardship, colonialism, and apartheid - was a pretty big deal.

During the Global Commemoration service during the assembly, Bishop Zephania Kameeta preached to the ten thousand Lutherans  from all over the world on this very text. Here in today’s reading, the Jewish people aren’t the “bad guys” – they are simply voicing a question that we all would have asked Jesus – “what do you mean, that we are not free?”
As Americans, WE have never been under the heavy yoke of colonialism or apartheid as places like Namibia have experienced….oh wait… Except that we HAVE. But having thrown off OUR English overlords, we have become a colonial power, imposing our way of life wherever we go. And we have created our own version of apartheid in the form of racism - more subtle, but no less evil in nature.

As Bishop Kameeta preached: “All this can be true that we are not slaves of anyone, but we certainly can be slaves of ourselves.”

Even in our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we can easily become enslaved to the rosy picture of our past. We have become enslaved to our privilege as Americans, we have become enslaved to our whiteness, we have become enslaved to our heritage and the temptation to drive into the future while looking into the rearview mirror.

I’ll be honest, one of the things I was most looking forward to about the Global Commemoration service in Namibia was to sing “A Mighty Fortress” AKA the “Lutheran Theme Song” with ten thousand Lutherans from around the world. I was totally anticipating all the goosebumps, and feeling absolutely swept away in wonder…. And I was absolutely disappointed. Somehow my section in the stadium got completely lost and we ended up singing the last verse twice. So much for a transcendent experience.

… Except, I DID have EXACTLY the experience I was EXPECTING… at the END of the Global Commemoration service… when ten thousand Lutherans from all the world sang the South African hymn “We are Marching in the Light of God.” It was like an out of body experience. It was a moment beyond time, beyond sight, beyond language or thought. In that moment, together, we were Africans, Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners, North and South Americans – TOGETHER, the body of Christ, one family of God.  In that moment, I got to see what the kingdom of God looked like, felt light, SOUNDED like. 

It looked like diversity, sounded like harmony, and felt like unity.

As one, with our beautiful harmonies ringing to heaven, we proclaimed to one another that the Reformation will live on in us… that we will march together, sing together, pray together, proclaim freedom together, all while being sustained by the light and love of God.
When we continue to walk in the light of God, as Bishop Kameeta said, “the amazing Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the over the top love of God, and the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit will be with all of us.”

May this be our prayer for the next 500 years. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Empire in the Temple, "Me Too" in the Church

Sermon 10-22-17
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

A few years ago, NPR ran a program from the BBC that was called "The history of the world in 100 objects." One of the episode featured a gold coin from India from 1500 years ago. This coin does what coins have done for thousands of years - tell all who handle them that their ruler enjoys the special favor of heaven, or even that he himself was a god. Every day, with every transaction, you would get that constant reminder of who was REALLY in charge of your life. Which, by the way was NOT YOU.

Isn’t it funny, though, that 2000 years later, we are still put faces of men on our money – they may not be kings, but they are men still loom large, and are revered as almost god-like in our American consciousness - George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, and the newly remembered and made re-famous Alexander Hamilton…. the Scottish immigrant that American forgot until the recent smash hit hip-hop musical bearing his name came along.

And hopefully one of these years we will be able to add the face of a woman on one of these bills, and we too can join the ranks of other countries with women on currency, such as the likes of Syria, Mexico, The Philippians, Cameroon, among many others. I pray someday the plans to put the face of Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill will come to fruition. Not only did she free hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad, but she planned and lead a raid to free slaves against plantation owners along the Combahee River. This was the first military operation executed by an American woman, who was both black and a former slave, who could not read or write, who was only 5 feet tall. Is there any doubt that we need to get this woman on the twenty-dollar bill, STAT?

The face on currency clearly reflect the values of those in power. At the time of Jesus, Israel was a nation under the thumb of the oppressive and expansive Roman Empire… and trust me, it was a REALLY BIG THUMB. So, it was a matter of course that the Romans used their currency to remind the Jewish people who was boss.

In response, Jewish leaders found themselves in one of a few different factions with varying degrees of complicity and resistance to the Roman Empire. Two are named in our text today, one is familiar to us - the Pharisees – the religious leaders with no love for Rome but tended to keep their heads down to keep their positions. We don’t know a lot about the Herodians, except that they obviously supported Herod, the ruler appointed by far-away Rome. Different groups with different perspectives, brought together by their mutual dislike of Jesus. As the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This encounter happens almost immediately after Jesus told that really difficult parable last week, the one about the king hosting a banquet, murdering the invited guest who blew him off, and then throwing out the guy caught without a wedding robe…. The Pharisees were quickly catching on that Jesus was talking about them, and saying things that would upset the delicate balance of survival. So Jesus had to go.

Together, these two groups devised a question with NO RIGHT ANSWER. “Is it lawful to pay taxes?” If Jesus says yes, then he would be validating the Roman oppression, which would probably anger his supporters and go against his message. But if he says NOT to pay, he could be in deep trouble with the Romans.

But Jesus was on to them. He had them bring in a coin, and they give him one with the emperor’s face imprinted on it… which is hilarious because they are currently having this little chat IN THE TEMPLE…. And Roman currency of any kind was banned from being used IN THE TEMPLE. That’s why they are MONEY CHANGERS that Jesus throws out of the temple another time.

“You hypocrites,” Jesus says, seeing straight through their load of baloney. “Give to the empire what belongs to the empire….” Yes, go Jesus, really stick it to those snakes in the grass!

Then Jesus follows that zinger with - “And give to God what is God’s” …… yeah…. That one kinda deflates our balloon a little bit, doesn’t it?

If you remember the Sesame Street song from when you were a kid, or your kids were little, “One of these things is not like the other…” This is not a one-to-one ratio here, kiddos. Jesus’ fuzzy math here bring us up short. Just what does belong to the empire? And what does belong to God?

The second question is both incredibly easy and incredibly hard. What belongs to God? A better question to ask might be, what DOES NOT belong to God? Everything we have and everything we are belongs to God. As a fellow pastor quipped, “If you give God what is God’s, then Caesar is one broke joker.”

But we live in a world where we cannot seem to escape the Empire and all that comes with it. By empire here I am not referring to the Roman empire, but from the forces in the world that govern our lives and our time, the machinations that trap us in systems of oppression and oppressing one another. We too are the ones caught with coins of the empire in the temple of the Lord. Wherever we go, we can’t escape being part of the system, or being on some level complicit in the empire and all that it represents.

Every time I hand over a bill with George Washington or Andrew Jackson on it, I am participating in this system. The coffee I love some much at Starbucks was probably harvested by people not being paid a living wage. The inexpensive dress I want to buy was almost certainly made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh or Honduras.

What I do with my money matters, and it sends a signal to the rest of the world what my values are. It is my hope that at least most of the time I am using this money – God’s money – for things that align with God’s Kingdom rather than the Empire of the world.

There sure are a lot of little things we can do so that God’s money can do some good through our hands. We can buy fair trade coffee and chocolate, especially with the big holiday Reforma-ahem-Halloween coming up. We can purchase clothes second hand from local thrift stores that benefit others. We can hold back on self-centered purchases and instead donate to good causes. We can even learn to balance our budgets and so that we are able to be generous tithers to this congregation and all its missions. We can give the Empire back all the bad stuff it has given us, and instead give back to God what belongs to God.

WE bear the IMAGE of GOD, and bear the title of “beloved child of God,” when we were marked on our foreheads with the cross of Christ when we were baptized. I bear the image of God, and you bear the image of God, and both you and are worthy of love and respect, and deserve being treated as such.

You may have notices something happening during this last week around the internet, a phrase that has caught the attention of the nation – “Me Too.” The hashtag conversation was created by Tarana Burke, program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, empower young women of color. “Me Too” began to share with the world the stories of countless women worldwide. Nearly every female friend and colleagues shared a variation of this on the Facebook status: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

The sad truth is that even the church isnot exempt from needing to have this conversation. A little bit or a lot of Empire is in the Temple. But the Gospel truth is that God chooses to stand with the victims and the survivors and the justice warriors, in the ultimate act of “Me Too,” by sending his son Jesus into the world of Empire. Completely divested of his power, Jesus showed us God wants nothing to do with the kind of power we seek. Instead, God is about finding the lost, giving hope to the hopeless, claiming each and every one of us as loved Children of God, members of the Family of God across time and space.

When we forget that we bear the image of God, we forget our humanity. We forget that all of us belong to God, and we must treat one another – AND OURSELVES – accordingly. We are reminded every time we see a baptism or take communion. We are reminded every time we look in the mirror. And we will be reminded today - as we welcome new mission partners as part of this community, we will all have the opportunity to come forward to be blessed, to be re-marked, and to re-member “God’s endless mercy and love for you.”

And, taking our cue from Harriet Tubman, today we remember that when one of us who bears the image of God is not free, none of us, are. THAT is our work, as the image bearers of God - to free the oppressed, to believe the stories of the harassed, and to work for justice for ALL of God’s family….until every voice CAN be lifted up in song, making heaven and earth ring with the harmonies of liberty, freedom, and peace. Amen.

Our hymn of the day was "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

Monday, October 16, 2017

Wearing Jesus

Sermon 10-15-17

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

This week a card to the church (not from any of you), addressed to the family of Cora Lindquest, a former member who recently died and had her funeral service here. The card was sent to Family of God at OUR address though… We couldn’t open it to see what it was, but we could only send it on to one of her surviving family members.  

But did you know that reading most of the New Testament is like reading someone else’s mail? Most of those titles with the strange names are actually names of the towns and cities where early Christian communities sprang. Apostles like Paul, Peter, and others wrote to these growing communities to share wisdom, correct wayward teaching, express thanks, and sometimes chew them out of something was going really off the rails. For the last few weeks we have been hearing one of Paul’s letters to the church in Philippi in modern day Greece. Paul was not writing to just one individual, as we tend to do now, but he wrote to the whole community, expecting it to be read out loud to the whole church.  And the church at Philippi saved his letter, copied and shared it, and handed it down through the ages, so that WE get to benefit from someone else’s mail.

Today we hear from the end of Paul’s letter, as he sends his personal greetings or instructions to specific people. Paul gives a shout out to two women leaders in the church of Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, who were having some sort of significant disagreement.

Mary: Listen up, guys...
These two women leaders had worked alongside Paul in the past, and he urges them now to put into practice their unity in Christ. That Paul calls them by name as co-workers in the Gospel is worth mentioning. At a time that women were viewed and treated as property, having no voice and few rights, these small gatherings of Jesus-followers were calling women to prominent leadership roles. Some were fellow-missionaries with their husbands, like Aquila and his wife Priscilla. Some women led house churches, while other women financially supported them, like Junia, Lydia, and Phoebe. After all, it was Mary Magdalene who first preached the good news of the resurrection of Jesus to the rest of the disciples.

The presence of Euodia and Syntyche in this letter, though brief, reveals the early church’s dedication to Jesus’ message of radical unity, hospitality, and inclusion. All people have value, including women. All are welcome to be co-workers in the Gospel with Paul along his journey – men, women, slaves, Jews and Gentiles.

Paul then picks up on another theme that he has repeated over and other again many times in this letter -rejoicing in the Lord. Rejoice ALWAYS, he says to the Philippians, and also to us. Rejoice in the Lord. Not just when things are going well. Not just when the sun is shining and you’re having a good day. But ALWAYS.

Really Paul? Always? Are you sure? Surely this guy must have an awesome life to be able to say such things. But then we remember that over the course of his ministry, Paul was often chased out of town, beaten, arrested, and as he writes this letter he is currently facing jail time for preaching the gospel. This man has very little in his life to give thanks for. And yet, he still does. Constantly. Perhaps even somewhat annoyingly.

Hmm, maybe digging into Paul is not giving us the easy way out from thinking about hard things this morning. Paul is making us ask some hard questions -  Just what IS true, what IS honorable, what is just, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise? that he is mentioning in his letter? There is only one I can think of who completely fits that description, and that is Jesus.

All through his letter, Paul suggests these things: Think about how Christ is life, and death is gain (1.:21). Think about living your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (1:27). Think about how to make the call of Christ your own, just as Jesus has made you his own (3:13). Think about the way that Jesus emptied himself and became obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross, to show the glory of God and claim you as his own (2:11).

Now after you have thought about all these things, Paul adds: now “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…” In other words, it’s not enough to hear the words, sing the hymns, and think about Jesus occasionally on days that aren’t Sunday. Like Euodia and Syntyche, it is now time for us to put into practice having the mind of Christ by living into our baptismal call as children of God, brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. And, as Euodia and Syntyche found, this is not always easy and almost never fun.

In my last congregation, as the myself or my pastor colleague hoisted the newly baptized youngster around the sanctuary –which my former colleague would do “Lion King Style” – we would sing “you have put on Christ, in him you have been baptized.” When many of us were baptized, we were wearing a white gown to represent that we are now clothed in the grace, eternal life, and love that Jesus has promised to give us. In fact, in THIS congregation, it is our tradition to give a little white garment to the newly baptized just for this reason. In baptism, we are welcomed to God’s victory feast over death and the grave, which we receive a foretaste of whenever we celebrate Holy Communion.  In our baptisms, we are now invited to that feast, the biggest party in the universe, and there is a special place for us waiting for us at the Lord’s Table. But with that special place also comes that special garb that we wear.

You might be familiar with the TV series “What Not to Wear.” I admit, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine. Or you might watch award shows like the Emmys and the Grammys and hear the female actors be constantly bombarded with the question, “Who are you wearing?” When really, they should also be asked about, you know, their actual acting careers.
Don't be this guy.

You’ve all seen those black t-shirts that LOOK like the cartoon character version of a tuxedo? Imagine showing up for a wedding wearing on of those shirts. Yeah, that’s probably not going to go over very well.

In the parable for today, that feast in described as a wedding feast, or a wedding reception. God is described as a king with a son – presumably Jesus - who is getting married. But nothing is said about who the bride is. Many scholars over the centuries have written that the bride of Christ is the us, the church. Martin Luther took this idea and ran with is. You know that old joke about marriage that says, “what’s yours in mine, and what’s mine is ours”?

So what do WE bring to the relationship? Honestly, not much at all. Sin, brokenness, pettiness, fear, hate, selfishness, and shame – not what we would exactly consider assets.

What does Jesus bring to the relationship? Everything. Life, resurrection, freedom, love, joy…. Jesus gets all that WE have and all that HE has becomes ours in our baptisms, when we “put on Christ” and all that he has given us. Maybe not in a literal white garment, but in the way we carry ourselves in the world. The world is watching.

This morning while scrolling through Facebook during breakfast, I came across this article on NBS news about a girl in Indiana who was denied her first communion… because of what she wanted to wear. Instead of a fancy white dress, she wanted to wear a nice, classy white suit. The administrators at her Catholic school in Indiana told her she had a choice – wear a dress, or to receive her first communion separate from her the rest of her classmates and friends. This girl and her family ended up leaving the school, hurt and confused. But I highly doubt that Jesus would have turned her away just because she wanted to wear white pants to her first communion. Why should we?

Scholar and professor Karoline Lewis writes “What not to wear? Complacency, conformity, and any kind of garb that is content with the way things are. What should we wear, so that the whole of the world can see who we are and what we are about? The kind of compassion, birthed by God’s own righteousness, that cannot, anymore, leave things the way they are.”

What NOT to wear? Hate, fear, prejudice, a spirit of scarcity.

What SHOULD we wear? Love. Kindness. Gentleness. Acceptance. Generosity.

In short, we should be “wearing” everything that Jesus has so generously given to all of us. Amen.