Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, November 21, 2016

Today, We Are Not Afraid

Sermon 11-20-16 – Christ the King, Commitment Sunday

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

First of all, the snow… I was expecting to see it when I went to WI for Thanksgiving, not to see it this morning on a couple of cars on m y way in this morning.

And second of all… this worship arrangement. It feels strange to be worshiping in here, doesn’t it? For some of you, it might feel a little like a blast from the past, though we are positioned at a little different angle than when worship was here regularly. It’s certainly not the arrangement you were expecting to be sitting in this Sunday as you walked in, and like any sudden change, it throws you off-balance and effects your personal feng shui, and has probably been more than a little distracting.

All these things before us are familiar: we have seen this room, we know all the furniture - but everything seem to be in the wrong place! So we wonder - Where am I going to sit? Where’s “my pew?” How will it be to go up for communion? How many Sundays are we going to have to be in here? All these thoughts have been swirling around in our brains as we try to concentrate on singing the hymns, saying the prayers, offering our pledges, and hearing the word as we have done week to week, and year to year.  

Even change that we know is for the better can feel jarring and disorienting, at least for a while, even we know it’s for a positive result, like having the roof fixed. But when we experience changes in our lives that don’t seem like they are for the better, feeling this unsettled adds to our already existing fear and anxiety.

In our small-scale experiment and experience of change in our worship today, we hear again the words of Psalm 46, a pretty familiar psalm in the Lutheran tradition. It’s the basis of Martin Luther’s most famous hymn “A mighty fortress is our God” – an alternate translation of the Psalms first verse, “God is our refuge and strength.” We heard both Psalm 46 and “A Mighty Fortress” just a few weeks ago on Reformation Sunday.

Psalm 46 describes scenes of upheavals, change, and confusion – of cosmic chaos in mountains shaking and oceans raging, of political chaos in nations raging and kingdoms shaking - a great unraveling of everything around us that we thought was solid. Which for many of us sounds pretty close to home right about now. We may be experiencing our own personal examples of chaos: under- employment or struggling to make ends meet, going through a divorce, facing a terminal illness, mourning the death of a loved one, imprisoned by addiction. OR we are reading the newspaper or scanning our Facebook feeds seeing the disarray that’s happening in our country and around the world.  There is plenty out there to be afraid of.

And a lot of people ARE scared- if not for themselves, for the people that they love and care about. Change is happening, and we feel unmoored like a ship adrift on the raging sea described in Psalm 46. The rug has been pulled out from under us. So, where do we turn? When we are at the mercy of so many things beyond our control, where can we go to find a place of safety in the storm?

The first verse of Psalm 46 reminds us – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When the world around us rages and shakes to the foundations and changes at a pace we can’t keep up at, God is the unchanging stronghold in the storm when the world feels like it’s falling apart.

When nothing else around is still, we are anchored in God who gives us peace. God does not change when the furniture changes, and God is not going to be moving to Canada. Our God remains with us, and we will not be shaken.

At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, a poor young girl on the losing side of Roman occupation finds herself in very precarious place. Pregnant, unmarried, a woman with no power, Mary could have thrown in the towel or asked God to pick someone else. But instead, she said, “Here I am, a servant of the Lord.” Instead, she sang a song of praise as she greets her relative Elizabeth, as these two pregnant women marvel at how God is their refuge and their strength, a very present help in trouble.

One hymn translates a line from Mary’s song in this way: “Though nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast.” To hold something fast is not about speed, holding fast is about strength. When God holds US fast, it means that God’s grip on us is so tight, that no power on earth to snatch us out of God’s hand.

You see, God wields a different kind of power than the world is used to. God’s kingdom is not brought into being by violence and conflict. God’s power brings desolations in the form of breaking the weapons of war. God’s power raises the lowly and takes the powerful down from their thrones.

God’s power is not found in the places we are expect – in the halls of government or in impressive skyscrapers. Instead, God’s power rearranges the cosmic furniture. Instead, we find God’s power in a manger- and animal feeding trough - and on a cross – an instrument of capital punishment.  

Speaking of things that feel out of place, this Gospel text seems like it doesn’t really belong here today. We are more used to hearing about Jesus’s death on the cross during Holy Week, like on Good Friday, or at least during the season of Lent. Not right before Thanksgiving, and not right before Advent, and certainly not on Commitment Sunday!
Instead, we find ourselves at the END of the church year, at the end of hearing from the Gospel of Luke, and at the end of Jesus’s life.

The different kinds of power at work here are thrown into stark opposition. The expectation of the religious leaders, the soldiers, and even one of the criminals crucified with Jesus is clear. THEIR expectation of true power revealed means at the very least saving your own skin when the going gets tough. “If you’re the king, save yourself!” “Save yourself!” “Save yourself!” Three times, much like the three temptations Jesus faced during his 40 days in the wilderness, three times he is commanded to prove himself and save himself. After all, in our human experience, no king actually gives himself into the power of others, much less into the power of his enemies. It’s not what we expect a king to DO.

Except that this Jesus DID. He gave his POWER away just as he gave him-SELF away and gave his LIFE away. This king came as a helpless infant and died as a criminal and a big loser in the eyes of the world. This king forgave his enemies. This king was abandoned by his followers in the end and only accompanied in death by some overlooked women. At the end, the sole defender of this king was a criminal condemned to die alongside of him.
This king has a kingdom that comes through a cross.

This kingdom and this king are not the kind the world tells us to be expecting, but this is the kingdom to which we belong when nothing seems familiar anymore. This is the king who holds us fast in a world that seems to be falling apart, even when we seem have every reason in the world to be afraid.

The criminal who defended Jesus knew that his world was falling apart in the worst way possible. For him, there wasn’t much hope for him that day, but he asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. But Jesus did him one better. Jesus told him that TODAY, on his very worst day, on the day of his death, he would be with Jesus. Today, right now, Jesus would be with him. Holding him fast.

All through Luke, Jesus gave salvation to his people TODAY, THIS day. The angels proclaimed to the shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”(Luke 2:1-20)

When Jesus preached his very first sermon, he read from Isaiah - how the blind could see and the captives were released and good news told to the poor – and he ended with “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4:16-21)

When Jesus invited himself over to the home of Zacchaeus, who pledged to give back half of his possessions and four times his dishonestly earned income, Jesus said “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:1-10)

The criminal on the cross was given hope TODAY. Because today is when this kingdom comes. This is a promise we can trust in TODAY, even when TODAY is our very worst day.
So, if God is with us, how then are we going to live in God’s kingdom, today?

How will we spend our money, today?

How will we care for the earth, today?

How will we treat our family, today?

How will we interact with strangers, today?

How will we think about people who are different from us, today?

How will we live with Jesus in his kingdom, today?

Today, we are about to dive headfirst into yet another Advent season, having already been drowning in retail consumeristic Christmas for weeks, if not months. Today, we are about to dive headfirst into a week of too much turkey and complex and often dividing family dynamics. Today, and every day, nations rage and mountains shake. But today, no matter what, we are be held fast by God, following our king on the way of the cross

And today - WE ARE NOT AFRAID. Amen. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Jesus Loves Me. Open Wide

Sermon 10-30-16
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

499 years ago on October 31st a little known theology professor named Martin Luther posted a list of his 95 thoughts on the state of the church. I heard it said somewhere that if Martin Luther had lived today, he would have posted “the 95 Tweets” instead. That church door in Wittenburg, Germany was the Facebook of his day, and the printing press was the internet, and thanks to both, Martin Luther’s posts were the first in history to go truly viral. And thus the Reformation was born.

500 years ago the actions of Martin Luther were inspired by these questions: Who is God? What is God like? And how is God at work in our lives? Questions we still wrestle with today - which is why, 499 years later, the Reformation still matters. When Luther nailed those 95 Theses on the church door on 1517, little did he know that he would blow the world wide open and re-form the course of his life into something completely different than he had ever expected.

Pine Lake at Sunset
Though we may very rarely encounter a day like October 31st, 1517, there are days in OUR lives when we are re-formed and set on a path we don’t expect. For example, little did I know that working at a Lutheran Bible Camp in central Wisconsin would change MY life forever, and set my path toward a call to ordained ministry. The very path that led me here today.

In the three summers I worked at that camp, I got to know some of the repeats. Amanda was one of these campers who came year after year. Amanda was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. She struggled with a traumatic childhood, developmental delays, and behavior challenges. She required the constant help and support of one the counselors. But she loved being at camp and singing camp songs. Her favorite camp song, which she sang constantly, was a rocked out version of that old favorite you all know “Jesus loves me.”
Me as a counselor at Pine Lake Camp

This one goes a little differently than the one you remember, though. To demonstrate, I’m going to need all of your help. This version is call and response, so I’ll to sing a line, and you’ll sing it back, ok? We’re going to skip the first verse – because we all know that one - and go right to the second verse. Ready?

Jesus loves me! …
He who died! …
Heaven’s gate to! …
Open wide!

Awesome job, you would all be fantastic campers! So imagine Amanda and her counselor belting out this song as they walked around camp. Only Amanda’s version was a little different. She sang it this way –

Jesus loves me! … 
Open Wide!

Jesus loves me? Open wide? Yes. Amanda is right. From the mouth of someone who the world considers broken and incomplete, comes a beautiful statement of truth that has stayed with me all these years later. Jesus loves me. Open wide.

For this Reformation Day, we’re skipping over Luke to take brief trip over to the Gospel of John. In this gospel, Jesus is continually opening wide the horizons of people’s notions about God. It is in John, Jesus says, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I and my father are one…

In John Jesus confuses Nicodeums talk of being born anew and gives us John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…
In John, Jesus gives hope and living water to the woman at the well, and she opens her mouth to testify to this encounter.

In John Jesus opens the tomb of Lazarus and calls him out of the darkness of death.

In John, Jesus challenges people to open their eyes, minds, and hearts to the fact that the Word of God became flesh and was walking among them.

And here in this section of John, Jesus talks to a crowd, and some of them listening believe in him.  But, in true Jesus-fashion, he throws them this curve ball, and says “Continue - or abide - in my word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

And the people wondered at what Jesus said, as they often did… they wondered in true “Lutheran fashion” - What does this mean? Or, as Martin Luther wrote often in the Small Catechism– Was ist Das? What is this?

Yes, Jesus’ people listening may have been under the occupation of Rome, and many empires before that.  But they had held out, they had survived with their traditions and ethnicity intact. They had kept themselves separate, they had kept the Law. They refused to completely submit. Therefore, because they still worshiped God as their ancestors did, weren’t they already free?

We as Americans can relate to their objections. Our country is based on the idea that we are free – free from unfair taxation without representation, free from having our religion dictated to us, free to speak out against oppression. “I am not in bondage to anyone. I can worship how I want, buy what I want, keep to myself, and am a pretty decent person. I don’t do any of the “biggies” like steal, cheat, lie, murder.”

Then, again, in true Jesus fashion, Jesus throws us a curveball. What about sin?

It’s not just about NOT doing bad things. It’s also about NOT doing GOOD things too. If you have downloaded Luther’s Small Catechism on your smart phone, you can look up the 8th commandment, for example, and see under Luther’s explanation, “Was ist Das?” What is this? - The 8th commandment isn’t just “bearing false witness” against our neighbor in say, a court of law. It’s also about “speaking well about them and interpreting everything they do in the best possible light.” As a wise man I know likes to ask, “How are we doing?”

I like to pretend that Paul is wrong. “All have sinned?” Not me, right? But, Paul writes in Romans 7 that “…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We admit it every week in the confession that we are captured and trapped by sin and cannot free ourselves. We sin in what we think, say, and do. We sin in things we do AND things we neglect to do. We fail at the greatest commandment – loving God and our neighbors.
As Paul also wrote to the Christians in Rome, he reminds them and us that no one has “made it,” no one perfectly keeps these commandments, no one is free from sin, that all that have fallen short of the glory of God. Who, Paul askes, will save us from this body of death? Is this the state that God leaves us in? Is this the last word on who God is?

Paul, Martin Luther, and Amanda the camper refuse to think so.

Paul wrote– “Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord” in Romans 7 and in Romans 3 “They are now justified by his grace as a gift.”

Luther wrote – “Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but trust in Christ more boldly still, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

And Amanda the camper sang – “Jesus loves me, open wide!”

Jesus loves me, so much so that he opens his arms wide in his death on the cross, so that those who are lost and those who are bound by sin and death are forgiven and made free. These open arms welcome us into the household of God, to a place at the table where we belong, forever and ever, because Jesus the son of God has made it so.

Jesus loves me, so much so that he burst open the tomb of death that tried so hard to bind him and hold him down. Three days later he cracked death wide open, so that through Jesus’ resurrection we may be re-vived. 

Jesus loves me, so that we are no longer a slave to sin, but are free as God’s children. But this freedom is not given to us for its own sake. Luther wrote, that in Christ’s freedom we become “a dutiful servant of all.” Jesus gives us this freedom so that we will be open wide to the needs of our neighbors. We do not get to keep the grace that God has given us to ourselves. It is meant to be shared.

What does sharing this freedom and grace look like? It can look like holding the door open for a mom whose toddler is having a meltdown. It can look like having the courage to point out that a racist or sexist joke isn’t funny. It can look like risking feeling awkward in welcoming a new person. It looks like receiving the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for you.

Like a parent who feeds their children good things by saying, “open wide!” we desperately need this reminder, at least weekly, even daily. Because we so often forget. We too often forget that – to adapt another passage from Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus – not illness, not unemployment, not addition, not divorce, not past mistakes or anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that has shown to us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus loves you. Open wide. Open wide, re-member, and be re-formed. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Attitude Adjustment"

Sermon 10-9-16

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

When my siblings and I were kids and sassed off to my mom – which naturally I never participated in – she would tell us that we needed an “attitude adjustment.”

Kids have active imaginations, and so I would always picture that getting an “attitude adjustment” was similar to going to the chiropractor to get a back “adjustment” when your back is out of whack. Only, in this case, it would be my sassy attitude that needed a little adjusting.

In English, we use the word attitude a lot of different way – including but not limited to sassing off to one’s parents. An attitude can be an outlook, feeling, or position in regard to anything - person, thing, opinion, you name it. An attitude is a way that we see and interact with the world.  Sometimes our attitudes can help us perceive what’s in front of us more clearly, like wearing glasses. Sometimes, though, our attitudes are more like wearing the wrong prescription.

I bet my mom would have loved it if shaping up my attitude were as easy as going to the chiropractor or eye doctor. I can imagine she would have wished to adjust my attitude into something more parentally thankful, something more like, say, an “attitude of gratitude.”

I first heard about having an “attitude of gratitude” during my internship year in seminary serving a gigantic church in Minnesota. This church had money, resources, and connections to do amazing things like staging a drama series during Lent, creating their own bulletin art, and, in this case, commissioning a locally famous folk singer to write a brand new song based on that year’s stewardship theme of “Attitude of Gratitude.”

On the Stewardship kick-off Sunday, the folk singer unveiled the new theme song, which we sang it in all the services…. And then, it was never heard from again. It disappeared, at least for the rest of THAT year, as if it didn’t exist. All that production and effort…kind of…seemed wasted. Was an ‘attitude of gratitude’ truly instilled in that congregation? I honestly don’t know. As our own stewardship season quickly approaches, though, we can ask ourselves these same questions – though without the commissioned theme song. Would we describe ourselves as having an “attitude of gratitude’?  Do our attitudes perhaps need a little “adjusting”?   

One example of a pretty dramatic attitude adjustment is the story of Naaman, a famous war general, who also suffered from a painful and embarrassing skin disease. In the missing verses in today’s Old Testament reading, Naaman shows up on the doorstep of the King of Israel with a letter from his own king asking for healing, and accompanied by a giant parade: truckloads of gold, silver and fine clothes. After the initial mix up, Naaman parks his impressive motorcade, along with his warhorses and battle chariots, in the correct place -  in front of the Prophet Elisha’s humble little hut, who would be the one to do the actually healing.

How Naaman EXPECTED to be healed by Elisha included a dramatic appearance, loud shouting, and an impressive hand waving. Well, Naaman was very disappointed that what he got was a messenger and the command to bathe in a creek. He almost left without being cured, thanks to his pride, because he forgot that being healed was more important than HOW the healing happens. He needed a bit of an attitude adjustment, and a little prodding from his servant, to take hold of the healing that was offered him in this much less dramatic form.

None of this would have happened without the attitude of gratitude of the little slave girl from Israel, who sets this whole story in motion. Even though she was young, a girl, and a slave forced to serve her captors, her attitude of gratitude changed the lives of those around her.

Paul, while he was in chains, imprisoned in jail, wrote letters out of his own attitude of gratitude, and so we too are able to hear his encouraging words to people like Timothy. Paul had a dramatic “attitude adjustment” of his own– going from having once been one of the most ardent persecutors of Jesus’s followers to turning into one himself. Paul would not stop following Jesus, even though his attitude of gratitude eventually cost him his reputation, his freedom, and later his life.

An attitude of gratitude is also what set apart the 10th of the 10 lepers that Jesus healed on his way to Jerusalem. It’s also likely why this text is often used at Thanksgiving services, and the reason I chose to use it when it was my turn to preach at our community thanksgiving service a few years ago. The service that year was at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Hightstown, and I was certainly grateful to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an ordained woman pastor to be able to preach there. And I even mentioned Pope Frances!

That evening I also shared an experience I had after doing a memorial service for a woman who I had never met who had no church home. Weeks later I was sent a large gift basket of fancy Harry and David goodies with my address misspelled and from a sender I didn’t recognize. It turned out it was this woman’s family, this group of “church outsiders,” who were showing their thanks in the only way they could think of, by sending a gift basket to someone they had only met once, but in thanks for an experience that obviously had meant a great deal to them.

These ten lepers, cultural outsiders living in the border country, had never met Jesus before, but had probably heard of him. Since they were forced to be separated from their community because of their skin condition, their healing would mean they would all be restored to their friends and families and greater community of faith. All, except for one. The Samaritan. He would be an outsider no matter what condition his skin was in.  
And yet, Luke’s point is to show us that, though all ten were healed with no strings attached, there was something different about the Samaritan.  There was something about his attitude that set him apart. He had an attitude of Gratitude.

From his example, we learn that an attitude isn’t JUST a mental orientation we have toward something. An attitude can also be a physical position or posture of our body to express an action or emotion. The Samaritan used his body, which was just made whole, to praise God. He stopped in his tracks, turned back, and bowed down in an attitude of thanks before the one who healed him. He had seen what the others did not – that in Jesus, God had come near to him, had made him whole, and had welcomed him into a community where he would never be considered an outsider ever again.

That community is the kingdom of God, where we all find welcome, where we all are made whole. This community defies time and space, spans political parties and differences, resists racial and economic divides, and crosses the chasms that separate us from one another, chasms caused by fear and hate.

Jesus heals these lepers while he was on his way turn death on its head, to turn outsiders into insiders, to turn his arms being spread in posture of shame and death into a gesture of welcome and embrace, by opening his arms to all of us.  And so, having been rejected by his own, Jesus gave of himself, even his own life, so that the rejected could always find a home with him.

As Paul wrote, Jesus’s attitude on the cross reveals to us the truly generously nature of God - to be faithful to us, even when we are in need of an attitude adjustment. 
Later on his journey to the cross, on his last night with his disciples who would later prove less than faithful, Jesus broke bread with them in his own version of a thanksgiving feast. Only this feast does not include turkey and cranberry sauce. Instead Jesus gave himself– his body, his blood, and the promise of his presence.  This kind of thanksgiving is one we celebrate not just once a year, but every week.

Every week, like the Samaritan leper, we live out our “attitude of gratitude” in what we do with our bodies, giving thanks to God by standing shoulder to shoulder with friends, neighbors, family, acquaintances, strangers, outsiders, all the people of God… Together with arms reaching, hands raised ready to receive what we have been promised, the greatest gift of all – the gift that never disappoints - the sustaining presence of Jesus.

And so what if this was the “attitude of gratitude” that we took out into the world with us, arms raised NOT to receive but instead to give? And to give what? And what have we to offer the world? We go out bearing to the world the very presence of Jesus, the one who makes us whole and goes with us on our way. Thanks be to God! Amen. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jesus Cheats... at Money's Game.

Sermon 9-18-16

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Have you ever played “The Game of Life”? You start out with a car, a pink or blue peg, and ten thousand dollars in the bank - just like real life, right? As your little car travels along the game board, you experience life events. Some you get to choose, like whether to start college or a career. Others you don’t get to choose, like whether or not you get married, or how many children you have, or what kind of house you buy. The goal is to drive your little car with your little family and live your little life until you retire, the winner being the one who retires with the most money.

Once you understand all the rules, playing “The Game of Life” is pretty easy and straightforward. Roll the dice, move your car, take the rewards or misfortunes as they come. Living the game of “Real Life,” however, is not quite so easy or straightforward. Real life is much more complicated. The choices we make in real life are not exactly based on dice rolls or the luck of the draw. Real life is messy and confusing and complicated… and very much like the parable that Jesus tells to his disciples that we heard just a few moments ago!

Now, when it comes to what Bible readings we hear in church every Sunday, there is a pre-set order of game play. They are not chosen willy-nilly, based on what Pastor Egan or I feel like saying on a Sunday. Certain texts come up during certain parts of the church year, following a three year cycle –always a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament, a Psalm, and one of the Gospels. Many years ago some very learned scholars – Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and more – helped organize and plan these readings in an attempt to draw from many different parts of the Bible.

But similarly to landing on a space telling us to “go back three spaces” or a “skip a turn,” every so often we roll a doosey. And today is one of the doosiest – this particular parable has the reputation among pastors for being one of the toughest texts to preach on. And so it makes me feel a little better than even two thousand years later, most Biblical scholars and most seminary preaching professors still don’t exactly agree on how we should be understanding what Jesus is trying to get at here. Awesome.

This story Jesus tells his disciples sounds much more like the plot of an episode of that Netflix political dystopia House of Cards, or perhaps an episode of the reality TV show Undercover Bosses. Much like in Undercover Bosses, the boss finds out that his trusted steward is cooking the books, and as a result is give him a pink slip. Hasta La Vista, cheater!

Though, there is something sort of refreshing about the honesty and creativity of this steward that I can’t help but kind of like like, and despite myself, I sort of want to root for him and see him succeed. Much like the conniving and manipulating politician Frank Underwood on House of Cards, who also breaks the fourth wall and lets us know what he's thinking, the steward lets us in on how he intends to scheme himself out of this jam, his brilliant plan being to us his access to swindle his boss out of EVEN MORE MONEY.

And, amazingly, it WORKS! Though perhaps not in the way the steward intends. The rich guy was actually impressed, perhaps because this is the same way that made the rich man likely his wealth- sneakily and dishonestly.

And perhaps even more amazing of all – JESUS applauds the steward too!

Really, Jesus? Should we really have as our model a man who scams his boss, then tampers with the evidence to save his own skin? We all know that THIS KIND of cheater is a dime a dozen. We see on the news daily about people who come out on top for finding loopholes or exploiting people who have no other options.

And this steward fits right in - he certainly knew how to play by the rules to his own advantage – the rules of money, that is. As it was then, it still is now –in this world, money talks, it is money who is king, demands our devotion, and makes the rules that govern our daily lives. 

Rules like: Whoever holds the money holds the power. That your worth is based on what and how much you can buy, how big your house is or what school you can afford to send your children too. To spend before even thinking of saving or giving. That money is something we can never truly have enough of, and must be hoarded at all costs. Money dictates our time, consumes our thoughts, and demands our loyalty. One book about faith and money puts it this way: “we’ve followed a script written by someone else … We’ve slipped unconsciously into lives of bondage to bosses, debts, lifestyles, and expectations.”  Another line goes, “Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.”

And so, when we slip into this kind of bondage, and follow this script money lays out for us, what is our reward? How do we know if we’ve “won” at the game? Like in the game of life, the one with the most money at the end wins. But the thing is, as Jesus also points out, when life is over and it’s time to enter into our eternal, rather than retirement, homes, and where is the money? Well, it’s gone, because “you can’t take it with you”!

So, are we doomed to follow these rules that will, in the end, cheat us out of life and in fact give us nothing? Is there another king to follow, another set of rules for us to live by? The answer of course is yes, there is another ruler to follow, and his name is Jesus. This Jesus came to say, yes, yes there is. God’s Kingdom rules are the alternative. And we as children of light are called to follow by these rules instead.

Be faithful even in the little things. Be good stewards of and take care of what has been given to you by God. Which by the way, is our very life. Be a slave to God and serve one another, rather than serving the demand of money.

Both God and money demand your life. But which master would you rather serve? The small “G” god who’s bottom line is power, manipulation, and fear? Or the Big “G” God of love, grace, and mercy? The truth is, we can’t play the game by both sets of rules. We cannot serve both.

We are citizens of the Kingdom of God who are living in the Kingdom of Money at the moment. Which makes life confusing and complicated. All the playing pieces look the same. But we are called to play by different rules and to have a different strategy, because our goal is not the same. Our goal is not to win. Our goal is to follow Jesus. Which will probably lead us into all kinds of trouble.

My personal theory is that Jesus liked the rascally steward because he was the type of guy that Jesus tended to hang out with. Jesus was often accused of eating with sinners, scandalous women, and shady characters with glaring flaws – and this steward fits right in. He knew how to cleverly and creatively play by the rules of his world. According to The Message translation, verse 8 and 9 of Luke 16 reads “streetwise people… are on constant alert, looking for angles… using adversity to stimulate… creative survival.”

And so, that’s why I think that Jesus wants us to take a page out of the steward’s playbook of creative survival: when things get tough, DON’T give up. See what’s happening around you, and make a plan. Find those angles and exploit them for the good of the kingdom. Be alert to new opportunities.

And WHEN – not IF – we fail, we can get right back up, dust ourselves off, remind ourselves that we are baptized and beloved children of God, and every day is a new day. This is how we live, because we know that life is not really a game we manipulate, that there are actually no winners and losers, and we cannot simply strategize our way into the kingdom of God.

Jesus won a place for us in the kingdom already, by not playing by the world’s rules. In fact, you could say he cheated. He “won” the game by losing – losing any opportunity to gain worldly possessions, power, or status… even losing his very life, and ultimately, cheating death. All to prove that we cannot win our way to God.  The game has already been won, because there is no game. And so we have been freed – we no longer have to play by money’s rules.

Though we no longer have to play by money’s rules, we what we do with our money still very much matters. And so too, along the way, we ask ourselves, how can we as people of God flip the scrip, “cheat” at the game, and make our money SERVE US as WE continue to be called to SERVE GOD?

How we answer this question matters, because here we are, still on the game board, far from the finish line. The game of life has already been won for us, true, but in the meantime we still make choices and roll the dice. So along the way, Jesus challenges us to turn to the Dishonest Steward’s playbook, finding angles, keeping alert, keeping our wits about us, creatively surviving, until we reach the finish, in order challenge the game. Well, look out world, challenge accepted. Game on. Amen. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Jesus, Last One Picked

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you remember when you first walked into this this sanctuary after we moved all the chairs around? I bet the very first thing you thought was, “where is ‘MY seat? Where am I going to sit NOW?” Maybe your next thought was, “gosh it looks like there are a lot MORE front row seats now! Yippee!” But, I’m guessing that’s probably NOT what your next thought was.

But think about the last time you were a visitor in a new space. You walk in and stand awkwardly in the doorway, wondering where it’s “safe” to sit, who it is acceptable to sit with, and whether or not anyone wants you to sit with them. So you chose a spot and pray that someone will actually talk to you, or at least not notice you if you decide to sit in a corner all by yourself.

It’s the dreaded high school cafeteria, all over again. All these years later, we can be taken right back there – is everyone staring at me? Is what I’m wearing ok? What if no one talks to me?

When I was in high school, there was a Christian band I really liked called Superchick. The first song on their album called “Last one picked” – which is how we all felt sometimes - goes like this: “High school is like the state of the nation. Some people never change after graduation, believing any light you shine makes theirs lesser. They have to prove to everyone that theirs is better.”

And after graduation, you slowly realize that it still matters what you wear and where you live, who you’re friends with and what you watch. There will always be someone with better grades than you, with a bigger house or better spouse or nicer vacations or smarter kids or newer gadgets. We may think that we leave prom court and popularity contests behind us the minute that diploma hits our hands, but the mindset that is ”high school” is never something we actually get to leave behind us. Even after we graduate, there are still jocks, nerds, popular kids, winners, and losers, and the “last ones picked.”

…If I were to ask you to pick someone, anyone from now back through history, to invite over for dinner, how many of you would pick “Jesus”? Anybody? My next question would be… “Are you really SURE about that?” Jesus would LOVE to be invited over to your house, I’m sure…. But then he would probably say some really challenging things… AND THEN he would probably want to bring over some of his friends… sort of like in the vein of that well-known children’s book – “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” Jesus’s story might go something like– If you give Jesus an invitation, he’s going to want to bring his friends along….

Illustrator Daniel Erlander drew a picture of this exact thing: A person is praying and says to Jesus, “Why is it that whenever I ask Jesus to come into my life, he always bring his friends?” And standing next to Jesus are people who are poor, hungry, in wheelchairs, and whose skin is darker than ours.

Are we REALLY SURE we would want to pick Jesus to come over for dinner?

I think that the leader of the Pharisees must have been asking himself this exact same question. You may be wondering why Jesus was over at the house of a Pharisee in the first place. Weren’t they enemies? Well, not exactly. True, they often went toe-to-toe. But the Pharisees were the ones who were keeping the Jewish traditions alive in a very uncertain and violent world. They were not the “bad guys.” But they sometimes got too carried away with keeping all the rules.

Somehow Jesus was invited into the life of this leader of the Pharisees. And of course, one of these “friends” of Jesus shows up at the party. In the verses we didn’t hear from today, Jesus heals a man suffering from unsightly swelling caused by excessive water retention. This healing happens on the Sabbath, AGAIN, so Jesus again is in hot water. So they watch Jesus closely, to see what other trouble he decides to stir up.

And in perfect Jesus style, Jesus flips the script and is also watching THEM. He sees these men – because after all only men were invited- and observes them jockey for position at the table, desperate to NOT be the “last one picked.”

Here Jesus is addressing how we are to act when we are both GUESTS and when we are HOSTS. But he is not simply being “Miss Manners.” He is actually proposing a way that is a complete reversal of the way we are used to things: Don’t sit in the places of honor. Instead, take the lowest place for yourself. When you give a party, invite those people who would never get an invitation, like the “last ones picked” by the world. Because that’s who God invites to the table.

We are GUESTS at God’s banquet, not the hosts. We are NOT in charge of the seating arrangement or the guest list. But we still try our darndest to keep some people out of the banquet, when they have clearly been invited and picked by Jesus.

 I remember participating in a cross cultural class based in Chicago where we learned about some of the diverse contexts and great ministries happening in the city. I stayed with a host family – friends of a good friend of mine, and I was happy to hear about a homeless ministry that their church was a part of. Their church would host homeless people in their building overnight in their gym one night a week, and provide them a meal. Their night was Saturday. So Saturday night, I got to help serve the meal and talk to a few of the people staying there that night.

The next morning, when I went to my friend’s church for worship, I walked through their gym to get to the sanctuary, where only the smell of bleach revealed that just a few hours before a dozen people had spent the night there. Not a single person who stayed the night stuck around for worship. I later learned at as a term of being part of this ministry, the council has stipulated that ALL SIGNS of the previous night MUST BE long gone by morning worship. Of COURSE these people were “welcome” to stay for worship…. But not surprisingly NO ONE ever came.

On the flip side, someone like the Pope has plenty of reasons to be very strict about who he gets to spend his time with. But just last April, Pope Francis invited some very special guests over for lunch. Not anyone famous like Desmond Tutu or President Obama. He invited refugee families from Syria to eat with him. Then he let their children sit with him as they showed him pictures they had drawn, both of their harrowing escape from Syria, but also of their hopes for a better life.

These homeless people are Jesus’ friends. The Syrian refugee children are Jesus’s friends too. People like them not only get to tag along when we invite Jesus into our lives, but they are also given seats of honor at God’s table.

And you know what? WE are Jesus’s friends too. We have a seat at the table, too. Because at some point in our lives we have been made to feel like the “last one picked” by the rest of the world too.

As shame researcher Brene Brown has written, we all “hustle for our worthiness” by putting on a stellar PR campaign about ourselves, including only the good or “acceptable” parts, the parts that would get us good seats in the High School cafeteria. But I think many of us long for a place where we can be loved and accepted: flaws, rough edges, and all.   

When Pastor and author Nadia Boltz Weber began a church in Colorado, she writes about how she baffled at how many “socially broken” people showed up to her church – sexual abuse survivors, paraplegics, and many others, not exactly “people like her.” Then she realized she WAS attracting HER “kind of people” – broken, self-conscious, and needy, because we are ALL broken in some way. We are all broken, beautiful, and loved by God. Nadia realized Jesus SEES all the parts of ourselves we try to hide from others, the parts we don’t put on Facebook, and those parts are welcome.

As a high schooler, I always felt welcome at my church. My church youth group only attracted youth like me, those who never had any plans on a Friday night. But the adults never wondered where the “cool kids” were. They were just happy I was there, and nurtured and cared about me.

I recently went to a women’s clergy conference in Boston. There were a hundred and ten of us. I knew five before I got there. But every time I sat at a table, I was sitting – not with strangers I just met and wondering if they liked me or not – I was sitting with people who were already friends, friends that I just haven’t met yet. Because we all knew that we were there together to support each other as fellow women following God’s call.

Imagine that the Lord’s Table is the exact opposite of a table in your high school cafeteria. The Lord’s Table is where, instead of being “the last one picked,” you have been specifically invited by Jesus. A table where, instead of wondering where it’s safe to sit, you find you have a place next to Jesus… though you may be surprised who ELSE gets to sit next to Jesus.

We don’t have to earn our place there, or try to hustle and social climb our way in. The invitation is already ours - along with all of Jesus’s ‘friends’ who get come along - the homeless along with suburbanites, minorities along with the privileged, those who are gay and transgender next to those who are straight, single moms and dad next to nuclear families, the “losers” and “last picks” of the world next to “first picks” and “winners.” All gathered together at the big beautiful party that God is hosting. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Holy Troublemakers

Sermon 8-21- 16
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Two weeks ago I got almost nothing done. It wasn’t just that the Olympics had started – there was another event that same time that kept me glued to my computer screen the entire week. Every three years, almost a thousand delegates from across the country attend the biggest Lutheran church meeting, the Church Wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran church in America, or just Churchwide assembly for short.  

Well, it’s not exactly as well known, or as exciting as the Olympics. They don’t give out medals for the most coffee consumed or the most amendments to amendments. But things happened during both events that contributed to world unity. And thanks to the miracle of technology, church nerds like me got watch live as it all unfolded.

Just for starters, that week during Churchwide, we elected an African American man, William B. Horn, to be the vice president of the ELCA. We voted to commit to protecting unaccompanied children fleeing Latin American countries. We supported the continuing dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans in focusing on what unites us, in honor of the next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We pledged our support in areas of justice, such as peace in the Holy Land, the importance of African descent Lutherans and relationships with historic Black churches. We committed to a responsible energy future, welcoming refugees, and caring for our military veterans and their families. And this is not even half of what the ELCA accomplished that week.

We as ELCA Lutherans have inherited a legacy of always reforming ourselves and our church, of always being made new by God’s grace, while at the same time being firmly rooted in the message of God’s love through Jesus.

And so, just as Martin Luther used both new and old technologies of his day – the printing press, a church door, some nails and a hammer – we do this too. I mentioned a few weeks ago about the new Small Catechism smartphone app from Augsburg Fortress, the ELCA publishing house. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, in her report to the churchwide assembly last week, mentioned this app and gave us a challenge: to review the small catechism to reconnect with our Lutheran roots. 

If you haven’t downloaded it yet, please do – but not right now of course, wait until after worship! And if you get a moment, look up the third commandment. How many of you remember what the third commandment is? “Remember the …. Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” What does THAT mean? Martin Luther explains, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly learn from it.

Just as God rested on the 7th day of creation, we as God’s people need a day of rest and a day to intentionally stop and hear what God has to say to us. Men, women, children, slaves, labor animals… all in God’s creation were commanded to embrace our limitation and be reminded that God created us for life, not for exhaustion. The Sabbath day is a gift, freely and lovingly given for our benefit.

But, what do we humans too often do with things that are free gifts from God? We try to control them, regulate them, create a lot of rules around how to properly exercise this gift. The Sabbath day was no expectation. Enter Jesus, teacher, preacher, and general trouble maker.

You may remember Jesus’s controversial first sermon, where he proclaimed that today, through him, God would release the captives, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. That one was not exactly well received, but here Jesus is again, teaching in the synagogue. We will never know what Jesus was preaching on this day, because he stops, mid sermon, for someone in immediate need of that freedom and release.

That woman was literally invisible. Bent over double for as many years as it takes a kindergartner to graduate from high school. She was unable to stand up straight, unable to see and participate in the world around her, in a world where she was already mostly invisible for being a woman.

Perhaps you too have walked into worship feeling much like this woman – feeling physically or emotionally bound and bent over by things in your lives that are heavy and hard to bear. Perhaps you too, have felt unseen and invisible to those around you
When Jesus sees this woman, he stops everything. Her healing cannot even wait until the end of day, or even till the end of his sermon! She should not have to wait for her freedom for ONE MORE MINUTE. He has to heal her RIGHT NOW.

And in doing so, Jesus broke the rules.

The leader of the synagogue was understandably upset that the worship service was being disrupted. The Jewish people were living under the thumb of an oppressive government, who ALLOWED them to continue to practice their faith… but could change their mind on a whim. These religious leaders were doing their very best to keep it together, to preserve these expressions of their faith in a world that worked against them at every turn, to be faithful to the ways that their ancestors worshiped God in the past.

So when the bent over woman became UN-bent, this synagogue leader became BENT out of SHAPE. He forgot the whole point of the Sabbath: that people trump rules, that love trumps fear, that justice trumps tradition.

He could not see that when one of us is bent over, we ALL are.

Sometimes it takes a little interrupting, a little disruption on the part of Jesus to remind us, both then and now, that God’s kingdom is CONSTANTLY interrupting our rules, our schedules, and our lives.

If you recall, Jesus interrupts and disrupts from birth…. Actually from BEFORE birth, when an angel interrupted Mary to tell her she would bear a son. And again, AT his birth, when the heavenly host interrupted some shepherds on the night shift. And all during his life, Jesus interrupts and disrupts, again and again, shaking up our rules and assumptions about God. Until the rule-makers decided they had had enough with this rule breaker troublemaker, that he needed to be silenced, his body broken, to be taught a lesson – don’t rock the boat, don’t break the rules, don’t mess with the ones who hold all the cards. Or else you too will be nailed to a cross for it.

But Jesus wasn’t through breaking the rules and making trouble. He was not done interrupting and disrupting. Jesus interrupted death. He disrupted the funeral preparations of the women at the tomb. He appeared incognito and joined the two travelers walking to Emmaus, and interrupted their dinner as he revealed himself in the breaking of the bread.

And his followers have continued to interrupt and disrupt on Jesus’ behalf, because we are called follow Jesus’ example, to raise up the bent over, see the unseen. To break the rules that need to be broken, and then to rejoice, like the bent over woman, when together we have been set free.

The moment this woman was healed, she started praising God, and presumably she never stopped. Her worlds could be Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.…” She keeps praising, and so we can add her to the list of the cloud of witnesses from last week. She took her cue from Jesus, and continued the interruption to worship that day, despite the flack she received from the leader of the synagogue.

Another woman who refused to be bowed down is Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who was a keynote speaker at the ECLA churchwide gathering two weeks ago. I’ve mention her story before, which is amazing.  Her home country Liberia had suffered from war and violence for years. So she gathered Christian and Muslim women to protest for peace. When peace talks had stalled as the men enjoyed their stay in a fancy hotel, Gbowee and the women held them hostage until peace talks resumed. Within weeks, the war was over.

During her talk last week, Gbowee said, “I don’t feel bad being called a trouble maker..“ because “Injustice one place is injustice everywhere,” She reminds us that interrupting the status quo causes us to be labeled trouble makers. But after all, Gbowee’s causing trouble earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. And she was only following in the footsteps of her lord Jesus.

When you see the rules winning over the needs of people, cause some trouble. When you see injustice, fear, or hate getting the upper hand, rock the boat. As Gbowee says, we are supposed to “speak truth to power…” in Jesus’ name.

If you are called a “trouble maker,” do what Leymah Gbowee suggests… say “thank you!” Wear name of “trouble maker” gladly - because it means that we are becoming more like Jesus - and give thanks for it. Thanks be to God… for trouble makers. Amen.