Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Now is the time to ..... Prepare for Jesus."

Sermon 12-10-17
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.

How are your Christmas preparations going? … that bad, huh? Is your tree up? Is it decorated? What about the outside of your house, is that all ready for Christmas? House cleaned for guests or parties? Christmas cards sent? All your presents bought yet for all your kids and grandkids? Are they all wrapped? Are all your cookies baked? Travel plans finalized? Gosh, I’m tired just thinking about all the things I still have to do yet!

These texts for this 2rd week in Advent aren’t exactly helping, either. Here we are, half way through, and there is still no sign of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, star, manger, no Christmas NOTHIN’.

Instead, we have… John the Baptist. He is NOT one we usually associate with Christmas cheer… and we certainly will never find HIM on a Christmas card, or as one of the light-up, blow-up characters we see in people’s yards. I think it’s kind of hilarious that we see just about EVERYTHING ELSE on Christmas cards and as those blowup, light up characters…. Polar bears, snow globes, penguins, Yoda, Snoopy driving a Christmas train… Maybe a Mary and Joseph… everyone BUT John the Baptist!

Which is such a shame, because John the Baptist is perfect for this role – a larger-than-life, weirdly dressed guy with a strange diet, living out on the edge of town, doing his preaching and baptizing thing.

Bur really, John’s job is NOT to look pretty on his own Christmas card. His message is a baptism of repentance and “Preparing the way of the Lord” out in the wilderness… and that sounds kind of weird on a Christmas card, doesn’t it?

John has one job… and that is to point the way to Jesus, and get us ready for his coming. The writer of Mark begins his gospel paraphrasing the Isaiah passage that we heard in our first reading. He doesn’t start with Jesus’ birth, not with shepherds and angels or even Mary or Joseph. No, no, not Mark. For Mark, the advent of Jesus happens when Jesus’s ministry starts. John is telling the people to “Prepare, and get ready!” And the people are responding! They’re coming out from the city in droves to hear a message of repentance, confess their sins, and be baptized by this strange man who wears camel hair.

As much as he seems like a rock star, John is pretty clear about what his role is in the coming kingdom of God – he’s the opening before the main attraction, the guy who gets the crowd pumped up, the billboard that tells you how long until the rest stop. He’s laying the groundwork for what it to come – because something so amazing is about to happen, it is going to just BLOW people’s minds.  It’s going to be a complete reorienting of everything - the desert highways will become straight, the valleys will be lifted up, the mountains will be made low, the uneven ground will be made level and walkable, and the rough places flattened out.

If John DID have a Christmas card, the inside might say, “You think I’M ‘out of this world’? Buckle up, buttercup. You ain’t seen NOTHING yet!”
Meme credit: Mike Russo

He is of course talking about Jesus. The word of God made flesh. The son of God. The Christ, the anointed. The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the prince of peace. Mark spells it out in his first sentence: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. THIS is who we are getting ready for during these four weeks before Christmas, which we call the season of Advent.

But you may have noticed… that this is NOT the message we’re getting from pretty much everywhere else. The church kind of feels like it’s John the Baptist in a Christmas-overdrive world every December – we’ve had nothing but texts about getting ready, staying awake, and preparing for Jesus for weeks now… when all around us, we’ve heard nothing but Christmas songs and seen nothing but Santas, Christmas trees, and ads for stuff, stuff, and MORE STUFF!!! We find ourselves caught between ramped up secular Christmas in all it’s trimmings, and in celebrating the birth of Jesus. We’re constantly bombarded, distracted, stressed, and depressed this time of year, aren’t we? Can I get an Amen?

We can’t get away from it… it’s on the radio… in every store… even as we drive. If you’re coming from the north down 413, you’ll notice that every few weeks Peddlers Village advertises some new event happening. Last week, I noticed a new one is up – have you seen it? It says simply, “Now is the time to shop.” Yikes.

So, what are our choice here? Are we to go don some fur and head out into the fields of Bucks County, to eat bugs and completely separate ourselves from the world in order to find the “true meaning of Christmas”? Tempting…. But perhaps not. Or are we to completely succumb to the barrage of Christmas cheer?

What if… Jesus can still be found… even during the frenzied preparations for Christmas? What a novel thought. What if the very “material rituals of getting ready for Christmas – the very distractions that are accused of removing Christ from the celebration – can constitute gateways to deeper faith”? (quote from "A Season of Little Sacraments")

This is the very premise of a book I picked up a few months ago called “A Season of Little Sacraments.” In a glut of Advent devotionals, all claiming to bring a much-desired sense of sacred back into the season (when they are just adding one more thing to do on our list) … this book reminded me that Jesus can be found in both the sacred AND the mundane… in things as ordinary as hanging Christmas lights, creating an Advent playlist on Spotify, or getting ready for a holiday get-together. What if Jesus shows up in these things, even in the crazy Christmas prep, even when we don’t feel quite ready?

A friend who is also a pastor shared how her own family’s preparations for Advent and Christmas has embedded themselves in the mind of her three-year-old. She told him that Advent is coming, and that is why they put blue lights on the tree. She told us “He's convinced "Advent" is a person (a girl, specifically) who is blue (literally, not figuratively), and that we need to get ready for her and make her feel welcome by putting up blue decorations.” According to her son, my friend concluded that we know that Advent is female, and that her toddler understands how to make people feel welcome by making them feel they belong with the colors that reflect them. Out of the wisdom from the mouth of babes, my friend exhorted us to “go and do likewise,” as her own “toddler John the Baptist” has preached.

We may NOT ALL be called to BE John the Baptist… but we are called to be LIKE him. As followers of Jesus, baptized with the Holy Spirit, we are all billboards for Jesus – NOT by saying “now is the time to SHOP” of course… but perhaps instead to take a page out of John the Baptist and the Prophet Isaiah

Our message instead might be - “Now is the time to REPENT of our habits that leave our lives too cluttered for God…. Now is the time to GET READY for Jesus coming… Now is the time to WELCOME the stranger among us…. To lift up those that have been brought low…. Give COMFORT to those who need it…. To REMEMBER the forgotten and ignored…. LIFT our VOICE on behalf of the voiceless…. To POINT the WAY to where God is at work in the world and say, ‘Here is your God!’”

Here is our God, who strengthens weak hands and feeble knees when they are weighed down by change and sadness. 
Here is our God, born to us as a tiny helpless infant. 
Here is our God, who died and rose again for you, even when you are too stressed and distracted to notice.
Here is our God, showing up in AA meetings, at the grocery store, and at Starbucks.
Here is our God, who makes sandwiches and give coats to the homeless.
Here is our God, who will see to the finish what has been begun in all of us.
Our God is here, in the frenzied activity of the season… in our un-readiness and unpreparedness… a new kind of Kingdom is still being born, and we are still invited to be a part of it.

God is preparing God’s way among us, right here and right now. We’re in a kind of our own advent time. How would WE, as Family of God, fill-in-the-blank – “Now is the time to ______”? What are we known for in the community? If Family of God suddenly disappeared, what kind of impact would that have? What kind of hole would that leave? Would people notice? What kind of mission is Jesus preparing us for here in Buckingham? Are we awake to the signs?

We’ve had rough places and some valleys in the past. We can’t go back to the way things used to be, and yet, we’re unsure of the way through the wilderness we find ourselves in. We’re not quite sure exactly what God is getting us ready for. We’re probably not “ready” in the sense that we’re not what others’ might consider “successful” or “thriving” or “sustainable” yet.

But Jesus didn’t wait until the world was “ready” in order to come. Jesus worked with what he had. And Jesus won’t wait to use us until we’re “ready,” he’s going to use as we are. Likewise, we CAN’T wait until WE think we’re “ready” to point others to Jesus and help birth this kingdom into being.

Ready or not, it’s time to prepare the way of the Lord.

Ready or not, it’s time to point the way to the manger and the cross.

Ready or not, it’s time to welcome the stranger, help the needy, comfort the suffering.

Ready or not, its time to work for justice and peace in this world.

Ready or not, it’s time to love one another, whether we are black, white, or blue.

Ready or not, here is our God! Amen.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The End is the Begining


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.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The craziness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday is behind us and yet stores all over are advertising deal after deal while playing music with jingle bells and “ho-ho-ho”s. Chubby men with white beards in red suits pop up wherever you look, and the smell of evergreens and cinnamon wafts over everything like a blanket of snow we don’t – yet - have. It gets darker earlier during the evenings now, but that’s ok – nearly every house is beautifully lit with twinkling lights. Look at all the signs – it must be nearly Christmas!

There were signs for the very first Christmas too, when Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. I’m sure you all know them already. There were shepherds. There was a very pregnant woman about to give birth and her very worried fiancĂ©. There was hay and perhaps some animals. And, of course, there was a manger to place the baby Jesus in when he was born. And much, much later, a bright star, there were wise men from the East who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In our Gospel reading for today, however, Jesus is all grown up. What happened? Where is Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the rest of our familiar nativity scene that we’re expecting? This is NOT the kind of beginning that we were expecting. In fact, it seems much more like the end. Like someone didn’t rewind Mark from the last time we used him three years ago… you know - like a cassette tape that someone forgot to rewind. We seem to have traded one scary Gospel for another, and are stuck in a sort of Apocalypse loop, or something.

At the beginning of Advent this year, we don’t find ourselves Jesus in the manger, but instead, with Jesus at the Temple, describing a catastrophe that feels like the end of time. 

At this point in Mark, grown-up Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover – Peter and John and the rest of them are doing the typical touristy thing and admiring the Temple mount and the trappings of the establishment. Probably like the first time I was in New York City, rubber-necking like a tourist.  And I bet the disciples could easily have been thinking that soon THEY and not the ROMANS would be in charge…. That is, once Jesus took power, kicked out the oppressors, and set up shop as full-fledged king and messiah. Soon, THEY rule from all these impressive buildings.

But Jesus is not impressed. Not one bit. Instead of joining in the rubber-necking, Jesus describes their destruction. Before our Gospel lesson begins, Jesus has gone on and on about wars and destruction and suffering, of trials and false messiahs. Then, as described in verse 24, the very fabric of the cosmos itself will begin to unravel. All this what Jesus’ final coming will look like. Not exactly the rosy picture the disciples imagined or expected.

This is probably because Jesus has other things on his mind: This is, after all, Jesus’ last Passover. In fact, Jesus only has a few days yet to live in Mark’s Gospel, and here too he is filled, not with the kind of cheer surrounding Christmas (his birth), but instead with more of a “Good Friday” tone.

And the writer of Mark had others thing on his mind as well. This author is writing to an audience of early Christians neck-deep in life-altering and unsettling upheaval. Forty years or so after the events of Good Friday, the very buildings the disciples had been admiring lay in a smoking ruin, destroyed by foreign armies. The center of how they had worshiped God for centuries was gone. It’s no wonder that, to them, the future looked dark with no way forward.

Which left the early followers of Jesus wondering, can God still show up, even after all the temple is gone?  Is God’s kingdom still near, even when everything looks so bleak? Will God be able to break into the hopelessness that seems so thick and heavy? Why did this happen… and why does God delay in coming? Why do we have to wait? “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” God, so that you can get to the business of saving us!

Advent, the season of the church year that we have now started, is a time of waiting for the promised hope of Christmas to arrive. I think that most of us have experienced living a kind of “Advent time” waiting and wondering when – and if – God is going to show up. We, as we read Mark’s words from two thousand Advents ago – and Isaiah’s words from thousands of years before that – can easily wonder the same things. What does hope look like when so much seems hopeless and beak?

Perhaps for you the catastrophe to be lamented is less of a cosmic one and is much more personal. Perhaps this Advent brings the loss of a job or … or the stress of crazy work hours. Perhaps it brings deteriorating health…. News of a terminal illness…. Maybe it’s the first year of holidays after a loved one has died, and facing the grief of an empty chair at the family table. … or an addiction that immobilizes an entire family…. marriages that fall apart…. Or waiting for good news after yet another IVF treatment…. Our lives can fall apart in ways big and small that can certainly feel like the end of the world.

We wonder right along with the people of faith for centuries before us… in THIS Advent… Where is Jesus? What’s the delay? Why does he always compare himself so much to someone who ups and leaves all the time?

If Jesus is the one arriving at an unknown time, and we are these slaves, given tasks to do in the dark… while struggling to stay awake while keeping discouragement at bay while waiting for Jesus to show up… at least we are in good company.

Mary and Joseph spent a long night waiting for Jesus to be born – not in an inn, but in a shelter or cave where animals were kept, with only a manger to put the baby Jesus in.

Shepherds watching their flock in field by night were waiting too… not exactly to be serenaded by the heavenly host… but they WERE waiting for daybreak and the light of the coming dawn. They were just not expecting it to appear in the form of a baby, born as the savior of the world.

And much later on, the wise men from far away followed the leading of a bright star… which, I’m assuming, they would only be able to see at night. They traveled miles and miles… in the dark… to a land they have never been… All to honor a king they had never met.

Much, much later, when this king grew up, fed and healed some people, preached about God’s love, he made the wrong people angry… and the faithful women disciples stood watch, wept, and waited while darkness fell over the whole land.

And then as some of those same women crept to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body with spices in the dim light of the early morning hours… they found that the stone had been rolled away, and only darkness had taken up residence.

Barbara Brown Taylor – writer, theologian, and former Episcopalian priest wrote a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” In this book she does something that none of us I think are eager to do – explore how God is actively at work in “the dark.”

Because, as she concludes, God is just as active the dark places we find ourselves in… where the way forward is obscured & unknown… when life has left us in a dim fog, not able to see what comes next, waiting for something, or some ONE, to break through and show us the way. Or at least show us that we are not alone.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Even when light fades and darkness falls--as it does every single day, in every single life…  darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.” … For with God, “...new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” 

A prayer that I have prayed many times, that has gotten ME through stumbling along shadowy paths plenty of times, is called the “Servants Prayer.” Perhaps the slaves in the story Jesus told may have even prayed some version of it during the night they waited for their master. The prayers goes: O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.
From St. John's Abbey artists

During the season of Advent, God is in both the light and in the darkness. In Advent, Jesus comes to us as a baby and as a grown man. He is on a cross and he is raised. He came, he is here, and he will come again, but we don’t know just when and how until he shows up. His kingdom will come, and at the same time his kingdom IS ALREADY HERE among us. Jesus shows up all the time. Even when it’s too dim to see beyond our own world ending… Jesus shows up. That’s what Advent is all about.

In the tinseled and bright “Christmas” fakery all around us, Jesus gives us some real joy and peace to hang on to. And that is the promise that he has come…. Is coming to us… and will come to us again. Especially now. Especially in the dark. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, November 27, 2017

How to help Jose

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon a member of my friend's church  who is in trouble, and people asked how they can help.

To see the original video of his story click here

My friend, Pastor Rachel Ringlaben, of Mesa Abierta Lutheran Church in New Orleans, shared with me this week that Jose is applying for a U-visa which is for victims of trafficking. She says it's about a 2 year process which is being interrupted by ICE's decision to carry out deportation proceedings.  At this point, ICE isn't sharing any information with Jose unless he shows up to their offices.  Instead, he has taken sanctuary until they give him an answer on his case. He is staying at First Grace UMC. His family needs help with phone bills and transportation for his family. We can help by donating at the donation link at https://mealtrain.com/0nv3k4. Or, mail or deliver a pre-paid visa card to 

Attn: Sanctuary Committee, 
First Grace UMC, 
3401 Canal St, 
New Orleans, 
LA 70119.

There is also a request for Uber and Lyft giftcards for Jose's family. Please drop off all giftcard donations to First Grace or mail them to:
Attn: Sanctuary Committee
First Grace UMC
3401 Canal St.
New Orleans, LA 70119

Pastor Rachel also shared that we can help by making a phone call or writing an email to ICE:


She shared with us the following script:

Hi, my name is __________. I am reaching out today to request that your office renew Jose Torres’s prosecutorial discretion so that he can stay with his young U.S. citizen daughters who depend on him to survive. Mr. Torres’s A number is 200-061-563.

As you know, Mr. Torres’s daughters Kimberly and Julissa both have chronic conditions. His youngest, Kimberly, is especially vulnerable as she was born premature and has suffered from seizures since birth. These girls need their dad. Rather than plunging them into poverty and potential danger, you have the ability to allow them to grow up healthy and strong supported by their dad who loves them.

Mr. Torres is an essential member of our community and a father. Far from being in the public interest, his deportation would only destabilize a family and our broader community. Do not hesitate to contact me.
Thank you,

Hiding in plain sight

Sermon 11-26-17 Christ the King
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the end of our Church year…it sure can be easy to miss. It’s anywhere near Dec. 31st – instead, it falls sometime around the business of thanksgiving and Black Friday, and is soon forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of the beginning of the “Christmas Season,” or what we in the church world call “Advent.” We don’t make any “New Church Year Resolutions,” though maybe we should. We don’t have a count down. There is not bedazzled ball to drop from the roof… and I’m NOT recommending we start that!

Like Christ the King Sunday, sometimes Jesus is also really easy to miss. And, if we have learned anything from the last few weeks, it’s how important it is to pay attention and keep alert. Otherwise, you might end up missing the wedding… get caught with your talent in the ground… or accidentally almost fly Denver while trying to get to Trenton. Like, “Home Alone 2” style. Yes, this actually ALMOST happened to me.

I was flying from Chicago to Trenton via Frontier after spending some time in WI for my little sister’s college graduation. And, of course, things always take longer than you think they will, and so I was running late, rushing frantically through security line, dodging people to get to the gate… and let me tell you how relieved I was to see that lots of people still in line to board. Whew, I made it!

While I was still congratulating myself, I handed my ticket to the lady at the door. “You’re going to Trenton, Ma’am?” she asked me. Relieved, I responded with a cheery, “Yes I am!”
“Well, ma’am, this plane is going to Denver.” …. Whoops.

It turns out it was Right Gate, Wrong Plane – MY plane had been delayed, which I would have known if I had thought to check my email… my phone… OR ANY OF THE BAZILLION SIGNS that are ALL OVER the airport. Instead, I hurried, rushed, and stressed, until I were literally forced to stop, to look up, and pay attention. I were in such a hurry that I had missed all the signs.

For the last few weeks, we have been listening to Jesus’ stories about people who seem to have missed the signs too, and have been brought up short in often some very unpleasant ways. The five unprepared bridesmaids. The slave who buried what his master entrusted to him. And now, at the end of the church year, Jesus sets the scene for the end of history, where Jesus decides to give some spoilers and give away the end of the movie. And it turns out that the final judgement of the nations looks strikingly like a game of “Where’s Waldo.”

If Jesus is playing a big game of hide and seek with us from now until the end of time, I think from this story we can see that he’s trying to be BAD at it. He does what we all do when playing hide and seek with little kids – we hide in plain sight. We want to be found.

But we are so good at missing the signs that are right in front of us. We’re really very good at cluttering up the picture, like the chaos in those “Where’s Waldo” books. Jesus is wearing Clarke Kent glasses, shaking his head, and saying, “Come one, church. This one is SUPPOSED to be easy! Finding me shouldn’t be this hard!”

You’ve probably all seen that bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming – quick, look busy!” When that bumper sticker comes true, the sheep don’t HAVE to LOOK busy… they would simply gaze up at Jesus in surprise, caught in the very act of giving a coat to a homeless person, or scooping rice into a meal pack for Feed My Starving Children, or putting a toy for a child under the Angel Tree. When that happens, though, the sheep would still say, “When did we see you, Jesus, cold, hungry, or in need of some Christmas cheer?”

Both the sheep AND the goats are just as clueless about where Jesus is showing up. The difference is that the sheep are caring for their fellow human beings like they belong to their own family. But, the sheep were just as surprised to find out that the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger in need of welcome - all were actually their Lord and king in disguise.

Perhaps it should not be so surprising that EVERYBODY missed Jesus. And that we all miss seeing Jesus every minute of every day. After all, THIS kingdom here on earth has values like power by force, speaks the language of violence, rules by greed and fear, favors false stability over compassion. Every day, we see the evidence of these powers at work, and every day, it seems like these powers are the ultimate reality, because they always seem to win. And if we aren’t paying attention, we WILL find ourselves being bullied or lulled into following along with the agenda of that kingdom…. like nearly boarding a plane that is not going to the city we thought it was.

This is probably because OUR King, Jesus, is not like any king history has ever known. Jesus, was born, not in a royal palace surrounded by servants, but in a dirty cave with farm animals. His inner circle was made up of day laborers and social outsiders. “His royal court” consisted of scandalous women, sick people, and children.  His kingly acts included feeding over five thousand freeloaders and healing people without health insurance. His coronation was with a crown of thorns and his throne is a cross. His true power is revealed, not in wealth or might or force. Instead, our king makes his home with whoever is suffering and in need. With those who have no power, no control, and no voice.

Like Jose. Jose belongs to a church where a friend of mine is the pastor. Jose is originally from El Salvador. Jose is a life-long Lutheran, and an active leader in my friend’s church. He is married with two kids, two daughters who both have special needs. His youngest often has seizures which were the result of being born prematurely. Just recently he has been court-ordered to self-deport, to leave his wife and two daughters to probably face a life of poverty and perhaps homelessness, simply because he came to this country as a victim of human trafficking, and so he has no official documents.

He is now staying in a local church, claiming sanctuary, so that he can stay with his family and church community… even though technically even this will not actually save him from deportation. What it does give him is time for his community to rally around him, and for his pastor to reach out to her friends, like me, to write letters and make phone calls on Jose’s behalf. It gives us time to wake up and see Jesus in him.

“For I was hungry,” says Jesus, “and you said, Drug test those who would ask for food.”

“I was thirsty, and you said, Build the pipeline and poison the water supply as long as it makes a buck.”

“I was a stranger and you said, he’s not actually a citizen. Deport him.”

“I was sick, and you said, Take away her health insurance.”

“I was in prison and you said, they got caught, so they should feel lucky to get whatever we given them.”

As Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The Joses of the world, the refugees…. the unjustly incarcerated… those who are lonely and have no one to visit them… those denied basic human needs like clean water… those who live on the couches of friends and family… those who have to choose between feeding their kids or paying the rent… That’s where Jesus is.

In the kingdom of God, every child is loved and valued. In the kingdom of God, all deserve to have their needs met and to live a life free of violence. In the kingdom of God, we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In an interview, Jose’s pastor told a reporter, “If my faith commands that I take care of my neighbor, that is the greater command to worry about.”

If we truly live this way, it flies in the face of the powers-that-be, in both the oppressive regime Jesus lived under and in the more subtle, but no less present and powerful one we currently find ourselves in. But the powers of this world can’t stop Jesus from showing up, no matter how hard they try to keep us distracted.

This is the end of the church year cycle, and next week, the new church year begins, with the season of Advent. It is also the most distracting, challenging, and busy time of the calendar year for most of us. The rest of the world will try to lull us onto the wrong plane by putting us to sleep with too-cheerful Christmas songs, or sidetrack us with the never-ending sale-cycle and nostalgia-obsessed treadmill.

But Jesus IS coming…. Actually he’s already here. Stay awake. Keep alert. Pay attention… or you may miss him. But He’s WILL show up, just not in the ways we might think. And he may even show up…. IN YOU. AMEN.

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.