Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, October 16, 2017

Wearing Jesus

Sermon 10-15-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 9, 2017

Out of the Hustle and into the Holy

Sermon 10-8-17
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.

Last summer, I got an email from Augsburg Fortress to submit a brief review of a book that was NOT in our Reformation Popup book store, Dr. David Lose’s newest book, Making Sense of Martin Luther. (can be purchased by clicking HERE) As if we didn’t have enough books about Martin Luther floating around out there this year! But, here is another one, this one from one of my former professors. Dr. Lose has written other books in this series, the Making Sense series, writing blogs, known for his creative and memorable preaching, and most recently as the former president of the Lutheran seminary at Philadelphia, now part of United Lutheran Seminary. I of course jumped at the chance to write a review – after all, Dr. Lose was one of my preaching professors while I was a student at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis Minnesota. And how often does the student get the chance of “evaluating” one of their former professors”?

A few weeks ago, I got my complimentary copy of the book I reviewed, and I was surprised to discover that my review is listed among some pretty well-known people in the Lutheran word. Claire Burkat, the bishop of the South Eastern Pennsylvania synod - our own synod -  also gave a review, as did Dr. Timothy Wengert, who is a highly regarded Luther scholar and translator of Luther’s the Small Catechism, among other of Luther’s works.

So here I am, listed at the bottom of the group, Lydia Posselt, pastor, Family of God Lutheran Church, Buckingham, PA, right above Dr. Loses’ own very impressive resume.  
But I have a confession to make. I didn’t read the whole book before I wrote the review. They sent it to me in its entirety in a word document and gave me less than a week, which was while I was on vacation with my family. I have read other books by Dr. Lose, and after about a chapter and a half, I was confident that I could write three sentences to recommend this book. After all, I was not being asked to write a ten-page paper!

But compared to some of the people on this list, I feel like a bit of a slacker. I haven’t published any books. I feel accomplished when I even FINISH READING a book. I’m not a Bishop. I don’t know very much German. Yes, I won the Lutheran Word Federation preaching contest and went to Namibia, which was AWESOME, but some days that feels to me more like dumb luck than something actually earned. Yes, I get to put that “on my resume” and people will be impressed by that. And yes, I both love and hate the attention that it brings. When I was interviewed for in my college alma mater magazine, one of the questions was “Now that you’ve won this contest, what’s next?”

That question stopped me dead. What do you mean “what’s next”? Isn’t it enough for the time being that I accomplished this one thing? Will I be viewed as a slacker or as undeserving if I DON’T have big plans? Will people think that my career has peaked early and that is all downhill from here? Gosh I hope not!

None of us are immune to the hamster wheel of impressing, the hustle for worthiness we feel compelled to preform or else. We wonder if we have done enough, or are enough, to be loved and valued for ourselves. We trot out the best parts of our lives make ourselves feel worthy of love, while the “less acceptable” parts stay hidden. Shame researcher Brene Brown talks a lot about this, and she says, “we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, …and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.”

The apostle Paul knew this hustle very well. He writes to church in Philippi describing his impressive credentials. HE has a resume that would be the envy of Linked In. He was Hebrew of Hebrews, his parents did all the right things, and he had risen to a prestigious position among the Pharisees, and had made a name for himself persecuted early Christians so much so that his former name – Saul – was notorious among Jesus’ followers.

But then, something unexpected happened. Jesus called Saul – now called Paul – to do a complete 180 and follow Jesus instead. So Paul renounced everything, even his name, if it got in the way from following the call of Jesus. Paul tore down his diplomas and flushed them down the toilet, then threw all his plagues and trophies in the garbage. The only thing that matters on his resume – and ours – is our righteousness comes from GOD, and not from anything that we do or accomplish.

After all, this is one of the legacies of the Reformation, since Martin Luther himself was also very familiar with the “hustle for holiness.” He was a “monk among monks,” if you will, constantly striving to better himself, and spending hours and hours in the confessional, much to the annoyance of the person he was confessing to! Luther felt the harder he tried to be holy and acceptable to God, the more he felt lacking. Anxious and feeling trapped, Luther could not find a way out. But, as it turns out, Dr. Lose writes in his book, “a way out finds him.” (pg. 25)

We can TRY to hustle for God’s favor. We can TRY to push God out and tell God, “no thanks, I’ve got this whole righteousness thing.” We can TRY to “out-religion” God on our own resumes by only presenting the “acceptable” parts of ourselves and denying the messy bits.

But God is “determined to come DOWN to us, to meet us where we are.” “…The biblical witness places its faith not in our ability to earn God’s favor but in God’s promise to GIVE us God’s good favor,” (pg. 45) writes Dr. Lose. We don’t do anything – we are given worth and love as a gift from God. No more hustling, no more perfecting or performing. God gives us everything, including being called God’s beloved child… including being called by Jesus to be his hands and feet in the world. And so, Paul encourages the Philippians – AND US – to make this call our own, just as Jesus has made us his.

So, if everything has been given to me by God – righteousness, faith, the power of the resurrection from the dead, the prize of our call from Jesus – that it is entirely a gift and not of my own doing… The next question is how will I take care of this amazing gift? How will I be a good steward of God’s generosity? How will I be a good tenant of the things given to me by God?

Jesus told today’s parable about bad tenants as a negative example, and his intention was to trap the religions leaders in their hypocrisy – and they fell right in. The chief priests and the elders were so concerned about building their own resumes to impress God, so much so that they completely missed the son of God in flesh and blood who sat right in front of them. But even THEY got a chance to learn and to listen from Jesus himself! …. Even though, in the end, they decided to turn Jesus’s parable from story into a prediction.

Their goal was to keep their vision intact, a vision of an accounting God who desires us to hustle and preform for our worth. Thus, they were compared to the tenants of a vineyard, wanting control of the vineyard for themselves.

What’s our goal as the church, followers of Jesus, Family of God? Now that we know that the only thing that matters on our resume is the righteousness that comes from God, what then will OUR goal be? God has given us a vineyard to tend. How will we care for it?
Will our goal become to keep hustling and preforming and expecting others to do the same? Will we try to save ourselves by our own means with impress “church resumes”? Will we try to try to jazz ourselves up into something we are not? Will we work to try to get back to a time before, where all things looked successful and rosy – at least on the surface?

Or will our goal be to strain forward, as Paul did, forgetting what lies behind? Will we too press on in following Jesus’s call to serve a world that is in desperate need of some good news right now?

My hope is that we as a church will be a forward-looking church, remembering the parts of the past that are helpful but not fixating on the parts that hold us back.

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is important not just because it shows us where we have been. It also inspires us to where we can GO in the NEXT 500 years.  Who knows what the legacy of the reformation will look like in the next 5, 50, or 500 years? One thing for sure though, is that God has new and exciting things in store for us before we hit the thousandth anniversary.

Until then, God has called us to be here in THIS place at THIS time for a reason. What are we supposed to be doing here in this part of the vineyard called Buckingham? What parts of our resume are not helpful, and what parts help us build on the works that Jesus has begun in us?

We have a lot of things going for us - generous hunger ministries coming out of our ears. We have a building that is available to groups in the community like home schools, girl scouts, and AA. We share so much out of our big generous hearts the abundance that God has already given us.

So give yourselves a little pat on the back… and now give yourselves a BIG PUSH! There is much left to do, but together, with Jesus as our cornerstone and anchor, we don’t need anything on our resumes other than what God has already done for us. Amen.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

When Jesus says yes

Sermon 10-1-17
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Wouldn’t it be awesome… if life came with an instruction manual? It would simply be amazing, wouldn’t it - if every morning, we could get out of bed and immediately reach for our handy instruction manual, perhaps the one entitled:

“Instructions on how to fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy!” Which might go something like this:

Step 1, breathe.

Step 2, greet the day, smile and say: "Good Morning, Buckingham!"

Skipping ahead, Step 9, eat a complete breakfast with all the special people in your life.
Obey all traffic signs and regulations. Enjoy popular music. Drop off dry cleaning before noon, read the headlines, don't forget to smile. Always root for the local sports team. Go, sports team! And my personal favorite, drink overpriced coffee!

I of course am quoting from the LEGO movie from a few years ago. In this LEGO world, there are instruction manuals for everything. Everyone obeys the rules of the President Business; no one is out of line or acts out of the ordinary; and so, this happy society is rewarded for obeying all the instructions by being part of a safe, homogeneous, and predictable, existence.

Kids see this world as fun because of all the LEGOs, but adults might look on this world with just a little bit of envy. This seems like a really good deal, doesn’t it? Until we realize that “President Business” in the movie is not a nice guy looking out for the common good.

We all live under some sort of authority, whether we are aware of it or not. Some kinds are obvious – traffic laws, taxes, phone contracts, TSA travel regulations.... Some of the authorities we live under are less noticeable – sports and school schedules, the desire to be liked or to be successful, the dream of “having it all,” the drive for bigger and better. But, much like the LEGO people, we have been very well trained. We all know how to navigate the rules of this world, both consciously and unconsciously. We know what scripts to recite and what patterns to follow, from TV commercials and online ads, from newspaper fliers, from the billboards we see every day on the turnpike or the train, from what we see from our neighbors and classmates, from the conversations and interactions we have with our family and friends.

And for some of us, following the rules WORKS. Because we were born the right color or the right gender or in the right country to the right family, we have everything going for us. Following the rules of the world comes much easier for us than for many others. But one wrong move, one misstep in following the instructions, and we will find ourselves with those people, on the outside looking in. In the “Instructions on how to fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy” there is no room for failure.

But, rules are rules, I guess. And when they DO work for us, it can be hard to change them. According to the instruction manual the world has ingrained in us, those people are those people for a reason.  We who have done everything right, like those have worked in the vineyard from dawn until dusk, we DESERVE to be first in the kingdom of this world, and perhaps also in the Kingdom of God.

And so when someone comes along and upsets those rules, who hangs out with the wrong people and heals the blind, who rides into town on a donkey in an impromptu parade and kicks the money changers out of the temple, when this guy named Jesus comes to town and does all that, those of us who are good rule-followers might get a little uncomfortable.

Such a person is, at best, a bit loony, or at worst, very, very dangerous. Because this person reminds us that the rules of the world are harsh taskmasters. He reminds us that we follow all the rules in the instruction manual to a tee and still be feel alone and unhappy.  

He reminds us that we are as broken and hopeless as THOSE people seem to be, the tax collectors and prostitutes, as single welfare moms and corrupt politicians.

And these are exactly the kinds of people Jesus chooses to hang out with.

There is another kingdom that we are citizens of, a kingdom with another kind of authority. This kind of authority is the complete opposite of what authority means in this world. This kind of authority does not fill itself up with power, but instead empties itself. This kind of authority does not build itself up or use its power for exploitation, but is instead humble. This kind of authority does not command obedience on pain of death, but instead is the essence of true obedience, even to the point of self-sacrificial death, even death on an instrument of torture.

This is the authority of God, shown to us in Jesus.

This week I saw a quote floating around on Facebook: “Jesus is God’s Selfie.”

Way back in the day, before selfies and cell phones and before photography even, this preacher named Paul wanted to capture in a nutshell who and what Jesus was. So, he quoted a hymn early Christians were singing at the time, which for him would have been as familiar as Amazing Grace or A Mighty Fortress. He quoted this hymn because it gets to the heart in two verses who Jesus is and what he has done for us - because this is the kind of stuff that is really hard for us to wrap our minds around. It just doesn’t make sense to us: Power in humility? Authority in self-emptying? Divinity in the form of a slave? Whaaaaaat?

And if Jesus is the kind of ruler in this kind of kingdom, what it looks like to live under this kind of authority REALLY makes no sense to the world. And yet, it is a beauty, wondrous, holy, and yes, awesome thing. This is not a kingdom where rules completely go out the window. This, however, IS a kingdom where the rule of the realm is love, condensed and concentrated into the living, dying, and rising of Jesus.

When the going gets tough for Jesus, Instead of pleading for his life or arguing or trying to prove his claims of divinity to the religious authorities, Jesus set his face toward the cross and fulfilled the will of his father.

And later, Instead of scolding his disciples for abandoning him at the cross, Jesus give them a great charge: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

And in this text for today, instead of arguing with the smarty pants religious authorities of his day, Jesus told them a story instead – about a man with two sons and two different responses to his charge for them to “Go.”

Our vineyard, where Jesus commands us to go and work, could be far away among those “all nations.” More likely, though, our vineyards are the school we attend, the team we play on, our place of work, the people we watch football with, the highways we drive. Sometimes our vineyard is right in our own homes with our own families.

And the work that we do there is not always easy to figure out. God has not left us with a book of easy-to-follow instructions on “how to successfully make disciples of all nations 100% of the time.” In fact, we may not want to go into the vineyard at all! It’s so hard, and I’m not very good at it, and what can I even do, anyway?

WE were created to be JESUS’S SELFIES - you, and you and you, and me. We are made in the image of God, chosen an anointed in our baptisms, sons and daughter of God, and then called out into the vineyard. We don’t get an instruction manual, but we do get the Body of Christ, the family of God. God is always at work turning us into God’s people, turning bad news into good news, turning “nos” into “yesses.” And whether today is a yes day or a no day, at the end of the day we are still God’s sons and daughters.

As a wise woman named BeyoncĂ© once said, “When Jesus say yes…. Nobody can say no.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

God's "Fuzzy Math"

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

Jesus is clearly terrible at math. But more on that in a minute.

Martin Luther is also terrible at math. One of the revolutionary thoughts that came out of his reformation writing is the idea that we are at the same time both sinner and saint. The fancy Latin way to say this is simil iustus et peccator.  It means at the same time saint AND sinner. Not transforming from one into the other like Jeckle and Hyde or the Incredible Hulk. We are both at the same time- one hundred percent sinner in desperate need of God’s grace. And one hundred percent saint saved by that grace in our baptisms. One hundred percent and one hundred percent.  

Once I was trying to explain this idea to a Catholic acquaintance of mine, who also happened to have a background in engineering. He looked at me like I had three heads and said dismissively, that’s FUZZY MATH!
It IS fuzzy math, my friends, but it is also God’s math. Its math that doesn’t make sense to us and the world that we live in. Here are some more examples of God’s fuzzy math, adapted from a post a friend of mine shared on Facebook:

1 + 1 + 1 = 1 (that’s the trinity, by the way – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three at the same time)

God's love (minus) love that you give away = MORE of God’s love than what we had to start with. (Which we saw a moment ago with the invisible purple blob).

Your grief (plus) my grief, shared = less grief!

Jesus equals One whole human nature + one whole divine nature

This one is from two weeks ago:  where 2 or more are gathered (or “n”) always equals another guy is there or “n” + 1.

One sheep (greater than sign, or more important than) ninety-nine sheep. Also, one coin is greater than 9 coins.

And then from this week we get a couple of whopping examples of “Fuzzy Math.” Twelve hours of work equals one day's wages… but then one hour of work ALSO equals one day's wages! One twelfth equals to twelve-twelfths!  The last will be first, and the first will be last! This is certainly some “fuzzy math”!

Perhaps then it is not so surprising that Jesus used stories and not math as a teaching tool over the course of his ministry. These stories he told are called “parables,” which comes from a word that means “to cast alongside,” something thing to more easily learn about another. These parables of Jesus are often hard to swallow, because they resist easy comparisons. They are not really analogies or allegories, where one thing clearly stands in – or equals, if you will – another thing. It’s not a one-to-one relationship. They are vignettes and snippets of sorts combining elements of real life, more like the little cartoons and picture graphics that you might find shared all over Facebook. For better or worse, we are in for quite a few parables in the next few weeks.

Every so often this story will make the Facebook rounds that goes something like this, a social media parable if you will: “An anthropologist proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put together a basket filled with fruit, placed the basket under a tree, and said, “Whoever gets there first will win the fruit.” When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hands and ran together to the tree. Then they sat in a circle enjoying their treats. He asked why they would all go together when one of them could have won all the fruits for themselves? A young girl looked up at him and said, “UBUNTU, How can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”

Who really knows if this story really happened or not. The idea of UBUNTU, however, is very real. Ubuntu, very roughly translated, is “I am because we are.” I first learned about Ubuntu when it was the theme of the an amazing week I spent at the 2003 ELCA youth gathering in Atlanta, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a keynote speaker.  Desmond Tutu is of course well known for his reconciliation work in post-Apartheid South Africa.

He says this about Ubuntu: "Africans believe in something that is difficult to render in English. We call it ubuntu, botho. It means the essence of being human…. It speaks about humaneness, gentleness, hospitality, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable…. It recognizes that my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." (From the book The Words of Desmond Tutu)

“Ubuntu” is fuzzy math. “I” equals you, and me plus you equals more than we started with.  I can only, truly live a life full of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” only if MY NEIGHBOR can also do the same.
Unfortunately, though, we live in a culture that convinces us that scarcity is the name of the game. If you have more, that means that I have less. We are constantly looking at what our neighbor has and we lack. If another group gets something that we thought only belonged to us, we feel like something is being taken away. If we see our neighbor being blessed in some way, we are tempted to feel resentful and left out. Much like the workers who labored all day, as they complained against the others who worked fewer hours than they did, but got the same about of pay. Instead of being satisfied that the vineyard owner gave them a fair daily wage, they peeked over the shoulder of the other workers, and felt cheated.

There is even an acronym for this that is floating around social media: FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out – the anxiety that comes with missed opportunities that often happens when we are too occupied with what other people are doing. My favorite “example sentence” from Urban Dictionary that illustrates this is “the brothers had last-slice-FOMO as they stared at what was left of the pizza.”

The workers hired at dawn are like the brothers staring at the pizza - full and sated with their fair share, yet resenting missing out on the figurative “last slice” and envious when the “less-deserving” late comers get it.
God’s love cannot be divided up like pizza. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “Mattering” to one another is not pizza either. This should not be a zero-sum game. Saying one person matters does not mean that other people matter less. It just means that some people are being treated as mattering less and we are bringing it to everyone’s attention, so that we can take corrective action together and right the injustices in our world.
Right now many people are treating some lives as less important, so until we live in a world where all lives are treated the same, we who have privilege and voice must speak up. Until we all ACT like ALL lives really DO matter, we HAVE to say, on behalf of our African American brothers and sisters, that Black Lives Matter.

We could say the same thing about the lives of trans youth who live in a safe house in Ewing New Jersey because they are not welcome in their own homes. Their lives matter. * at the writing of this I did not know about the Rainbow Room program right here in Doylestown.  

Or the lives of people who live in poverty and are homeless right here in Bucks County. Their lives matter.
Or the lives of those who are addicted and in recovery, working to get sober. Their lives matter.

Or the lives of those who have to choose between paying the bills and feeding their children. Or the lives of any vulnerable population that has been given less power in our society and world. Their lives matter.

These people are invisible in our society, but they matter to God, and they should matter to us too. At the end of the day, we all need to eat, whether we worked one hour or twelve. And we all get the same amount of God’s love – all of it – not that we have done anything to deserve it. We each get an infinite amount of God’s love, and there is still an infinite amount left over. T.W. Manson says, “There is no such thing as 1/12 of God’s love.” That’s God’s fuzzy math in a nutshell. And a different spin on UBUNTU too – I matter because WE ALL MATTER.

The world doesn’t want us to live by God’s math. And the sinner-ness in all of us doesn’t want to live by this math either. And yet, God has the saint part of us has this congregation neck-deep in hunger ministries – in a massive effort for Feed My Starving Children in October, in addition to the weekly and monthly things we do around here – Aid for Friends, Soup and Sandwich, the shopping cart in the narthex, the monthly Dine & Donate, which we do WHILE EATING and having fellowship with one another. Not to mention the ways we support Code Blue homelessness ministries and the ways we support Silver Springs, Hurricane relieve, and so much more. With our actions, we are saying “these people matter too.”

And our synod, the South East Synod of the ELCA, just send a thousand dollar check to eleven synods - around the ELCA that are facing natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires - for a total amount of eleven thousand dollars - with the promise of more to come in the future, with the help of generous congregations like Family of God.

Take a look around. The world’s math would have us believe that we are small in number, and so not worth much and can have no way to change our world for the better. But GOD’S math says otherwise. Amen. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How to Forgive (And sometimes not forgive)

Sermon 9-17-17 

I didn't read the gospel - I used this youtube video instead using our new HUGE TV!

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.

Thank you for bearing with an extra-long gospel reading this morning, but I think you might agree that it was worth it! We just heard one interpretation of some adorable, but also very theologically astute children.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches A LOT, and this week we hear yet another snippet of one of his longer lesson that take up most of chapter 18. Last week, Jesus taught how sin is handled in the community.  But much before that, at the beginning of chapter 18, the disciples ask Jesus “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus, probably rolling his eyes, bring in a child and says “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As we can see, kids can also be pretty smart.

But Peter seems to be hung up on verse 15 from last week – “If another member of the church sins against you…” Peter seems to be less interested in the reconciliation that forgiveness would bring, and more interested in how many times he might be sinned AGAINST. So, Jesus told then a story.

 And if you were following along, these kids get most of the details right – minus, Narnia, “Let it Go,” and the inaccurate details about middle-eastern jails from about two thousand years ago. But other than that, they’re pretty dead on.

For example, the bit about the amounts these two slaves owed their king. The first slave, the unmerciful one, if you recall, he owed “A jillion and twenty” dollars, which is a completely ridiculous amount. Well, so is ten thousand talents -  an amount that no person could POSSILBY work off in their entire lifetimes.

The other slave, if you remember, owed the first one “a thousand and twenty dollars”, very manageable and small by comparison.

But the first slave does not forgive this comparatively small amount, even after his enormous debt is forgiven. And the children conclude that the moral of Jesus’ story is: “If you don’t forgive, God won’t be happy. Since God forgives you, you should forgive other people.”

This should sound familiar since, as the children pointed out, from one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This gets really tricky. This can easily be interpreted as the opposite being just as true – “If I do not forgive those who sin against me, God will not forgive me.” Does this also mean that if someone sins against me, for any reason, I should do like the song from “Frozen” and “Let it Go?” Even seventy-seven times?

For many of us, we don’t even have to get to the seventy-seventh time to find this hard or even impossible. Sometimes, one sin against us is all it takes for us to get stuck – and here we’re are usually talking a BIG SIN. Betrayal of trust, sexual assault, spreading a lie, bullying or meanness, destruction of property, infidelity, threats and violence…. What about sins of this magnitude and scale? Jesus tells us to forgive from the heart. What happens when our hearts have been so destroyed that we just don’t have enough piece left to be ABLE to forgive?
One of my seminary professors, Dr. Craig Koester, shares this helpful insight: " Forgiveness is not acceptance of the past. . . Forgiveness is the declaration that the past will not define the future. . .”

Case in point – the story of Joseph from Genesis we heard as our first reading
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one of my favorite musicals. When I was in Wisconsin this summer, my neighbor’s daughter Molly played in the pit orchestra for her high school production, and it was awesome. On the surface, this is a fun retelling of Joseph’s story. But there is so much more going on than just peppy songs and a cool costume. It is also a story about forgiveness.

We heard the end of the story a few minutes ago, where Joseph is able to say, “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good.” But we have an entire musical, an entire story that got Joseph to this point. Today we didn’t hear about the years and the struggles and the dark moments that Joseph lives though be able to say this. We didn’t see Joseph grappling with how the actions of his brothers removed him from his family and homeland, took away his freedom, exposed him to violence, and got him thrown in jail. At the same time, we don’t see Joseph reconcile these same actions that allowed him to eventually rise to be the pharaoh’s favor, and allowed him to eventually save his family from starvation. But we did see the forgiveness.

His forgiveness didn’t happen when Joseph was at the bottom of the well his brothers had thrown him in. Forgiveness didn’t happen in his dark jail cell. Forgiveness didn’t even happen when he saves Egypt from a famine and is promoted to the second highest office in the land. Forgiveness didn’t even happen the moment that Joseph sees his brothers again.
Forgiveness happens when Joseph secretly tests his brothers by framing the youngest for theft and threatens to take away HIS freedom. Forgiveness happens when his brothers object and offer to take their brother’s place. Forgiveness happens when they show repentance from their sin against Joseph. In that moment, Joseph’s heart is healed, and he CAN forgive his brothers from his heart.

Only God is in charge of when that moment of healing happens… if it is a single moment at all. Most of the time, it is a series of little moments. Sort of like forgiveness. One day, you are mad, hurt, and betrayed, and the next day you are still mad, hurt, and betrayed…. But twenty days, a hundred days, a thousand and twenty days, or a bajillion days later, you may find that the anger and hurt are no longer there. They no longer have you in their grip. You are free, your heart becomes whole, and you CAN forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Maybe you too will be able to sing “Let it Go” with Elsa, and be able to say, “the past is in the past.”

But maybe today is not that day. Maybe today the past is far too present. Maybe today you are in the bottom of the well. Maybe today you are in the darkness of a lonely prison cell you can’t get out of right now. Maybe you are on your seventy-eighth go-round with a loved one. Maybe today your heart is in too many pieces.

But every week we say together in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in (among other things) the forgiveness of sins.” And, as we heard Jesus tell us last week, “…if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus is among us, when we gather to believe in the forgiveness of sins even when we can’t do it yet. Jesus is among us, neck deep in our story with us, and does things for us that we can’t do on our own.

There is no person or event that God cannot (eventually) use for good. There is no heart that is too broken to be healed. There is no time limit on forgiveness. You can’t keep track, and you can’t rush it. Forgiveness can’t be counted, only journeyed through. As Martin Luther once said, we may not know the way, but we know well our Guide. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How to be a Good Neighbor


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.

This past Lent, I remember driving back to my apartment after a church meeting one evening, and being startled by a strange sight as I pulled into my parking lot – a 6 foot, light-up, lavender Easter Bunny, prominently displayed in front of one of my neighbors’ doors. Now, technically we are not allowed to put up flags or any kind of political signs, though some people do have small “welcome” signs or little flags that say “spring.” But…really? A giant purple rabbit?? Every night last Lent, there he was, ready to greet me. And sure enough, by the time Easter Sunday arrived, that rabbit was nowhere to be seen. I guess they forgot that Easter is a season that is seven weeks long, and not just one day!

So, I assumed, in comparison to THAT, this little variety of welcome sign would be small potatoes. It reads, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. But sadly, I was very wrong. It was up for 10 days before I received a voicemail from my apartment complex office. “During the last grounds inspection, we noticed your sign, which is violation of your lease, so we would like to you take it down.” So I did.

 But I had another sign that I had planned to put up that says, “Hate has no home here” in Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Hebrew! But I am not even going to try. Apparently obnoxious giant rabbits are ok, but not super specific welcome signs that will tell my neighbors that refuse to show hate to anybody.

So this is one instance that my Midwestern passive-aggressive heritage will come in handy. No, I will follow the letter of the law in my apartment complex – by NOT displaying these signs outside of my apartment. BUT. They cannot prevent me from hanging them on the INSIDE in my living room. They cannot prevent me from LIVING the ideals of radical welcome, and “Hate has no home here,” for the benefit of ALL my neighbors, who are black and white, Asian and Latino, right around the corner in Doylestown. They cannot prevent me from loving my neighbor, as Jesus has taught us to do.  

Jesus was once asked which one of the ten commandments in the most important. Jesus answered by giving two – Love the Lord your God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. (MT 22:36-40)

Years later, Paul wrote a letter to all the Christian communities active in Rome, representing a wide swath of the population – Jewish converts, Romans who are gentiles (or non-Jews) who formerly worshiped the gods and goddesses of Roman mythology, members of society of all stripes: slaves, masters, women, wealthy, poor. All rubbing elbows at the Lord’s table with varying degrees of success. Perhaps not surprisingly, this diverse group of people were having trouble being the body of Christ. Specifically, between the Jewish Christian and the non-Jewish Christians. Things were tense. Tempers flared.

So, in this part of the letter, Paul reminds them – and us – that the point of the commandments is not to impress God or pass a test. The ten commandments, specially commandments four through ten, are for the benefit of our neighbors. Specifically, in showing them welcome and love, as Jesus himself did all through his life.

I confess that I don’t always remember all the commandments in the correct order, or have Luther’s explanations of them as part of the Small Catechism memorized. But for people like me, there is asmartphone app available for free that has the entire Small Catechism at your fingertips. I know, you have been in desperate need of a smart phone Small Catechism app.

But thanks to this app, when I am out and about, and wonder what Luther says about the 5th commandment – “You shall not murder,” Lookie here, there it is! By the way, Luther’s explanation of the 5th commandment goes like this – “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” In other words, it’s not enough to follow the commandment by “just” REFRAINING from murdering them.  According to Luther, as good neighbors we should also “help and support them” by loving them as we love ourselves.

It’s harder than it looks. This was really difficult for the communities of Jesus-followers in Rome… and it seems like it isn’t any easier now. Old conflicts die hard. We do horrible things to one another out of fear, and injuries fester and poison our relationships. As time goes on, divisions between individuals, families, races, cultures, nation, and faiths can seem insurmountable.

Sixteen years ago tomorrow marks a day that I don’t think anyone will soon forget. Growing up in the Midwest, my experience of September 11th is very different. That night I went to my church for an impromptu prayer vigil, as did many people here on the East Coast. But, it wasn’t until I moved to NJ six years ago that I met people who were first responders stationed on Ellis Island later that day, or former parishioners who worked blocks from the towers and got out of the city that day on the last running train.

Amid all the horror and loss of life, in an article I read one man racing down the thousands of stairs to try to get out of one of the towers: “Everybody helping one another. We coached one another down those stairs. We were teammates and we knew we were going to get out.”

A group of Muslims in New Jersey were also asked what theirexperiences of the day had been. Rafiq Chaudhry shared this: “Later, I and other people went to the mosque. The imam prayed for everybody, prayed for all the people in the United States of America…. Two days after September 11, there was a fund-raiser in Jersey City for the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center. I said, ‘I definitely have to go, I’m part of the community.’”
Neighbor helping neighbor get out of a deadly situation. Neighbor helping neighbor through prayer and lifting up those in need in the community. Neighbor helping neighbor no matter what difference may exist in skin color, language, religious practice, gender, or legal status. Neighbor helping neighbor, coming together, and Jesus is there among them, members of the body of Christ, making up God’s holy neighborhood.

One translation of the beginning of John’s Gospel goes like this: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14, The Message Translation). That’s Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, the word made flesh, took on our being, becoming fully human – who by the way, as a child was taken by his parents to a foreign country as an illegal refugee to escape the violence that Kind Herod had in store for him. When Jesus grew up, he healed and he taught and he fed and he cared and he loved – and he did not let anyone or anything stop him. Not evil. Not darkness. Not sin. Not even death. Just so that Jesus would be our neighbor forever, and that we would be good neighbors with one another, in Jesus’ name, with all the power of love that name brings. So that, when two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, Jesus is there with us.

How would we conduct ourselves if we remembered that Jesus is here with us? 
How would we do the business of the church, and go about the business of our lives? Would we act any different? 
What kinds of things might we try if we knew that Jesus will be with us?

As on of my preaching professors Dr. Karoline Lewis recently shared: “When you are in your staff meeting, a session meeting, a hospital room, fellowship time, bible study, Jesus is there among you. When you are making decisions about where your benevolence will go or whom your church will welcome, Jesus is there among you. When your church questions if it will speak up or stay silent, Jesus is there among you. When you are discussing your vision, your mission statement, your future, Jesus is there among you.”

And when Jesus is present – things start to happen. Lives are transformed. People are healed. Sins are forgiven. Warriors put down their weapons. Enemies reconcile and live together in peace. Neighbors come together and build God’s holy neighborhood. Strangers are welcomed and become neighbors, and together we work in the name of Jesus, and nothing in heaven or on earth will be able to stop us. Amen.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Jesus Is Not Nice

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.

A former colleague of mine can’t stand the word “nice.” At least, when it was used as a bland description of something or a generic comment about a person. “He is a very nice young man.” “It was a nice day.” “Nice job on the test.” Something that is mildly pleasant, but perhaps unremarkable.

We tell our children to “play nice” at recess, meaning to take turns, share, and say please and thank you. We remind one another with sayings like “It costs nothing to be nice,” “its nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice, “It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.” “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”As I typed up this sermon, my grammar check was going crazy, trying to get me to use more descriptive adjectives in place of all the times I used “nice”!

Being “Nice” can mean hedging your bets, avoiding “taking sides,” not rocking the boat, a good thing to do to not cause a fuss or to be viewed as controversial.

So, it comes as kind of a surprise when Peter, the “leaps out of boats before he thinks” kind of guy, wants Jesus to stop saying these ridiculous and audacious things….when much of the time it’s the other way around. And its just last week, too, Peter got a Gold Star for correctly identifying Jesus’ secret Super Hero Identity as the Messiah.

Flashback to last week: Jesus is with his disciples Caesarea Philippi, a Roman town full of statues and temples to every god and goddess under the sun. It is here that Jesus asks the hundred-thousand-dollar question – Who do YOU say that I am? The disciples take a stab at it, but only Peter gets it right – “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” – God who is not a dead stone statue but a living creative force who created the world and is loose in it. A God who gave Peter his new name for his correct answer – Petros, or Rocky.

Though we heard those words a week ago in our time, only days, hours, or even minutes elapsed before Peter puts his foot in his mouth. Just as Jesus begin to explain to his disciples what it MEANS for him to the son of the Living God, Peter, thinking he’s on a role, opens his mouth to protest. “God forbid it, Lord!” “Stop talking like that! That’s not how it’s going to be when YOU are in charge! Suffering and death? You must have gotten the pages of the script mixed up. What you are describing is NOT what power looks like!”

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Simon the Zealot leads a cheering crowd in praising Jesus. Simon, like Peter, tries to get Jesus to toe the “Messiah line,”  - saying, Jesus, “You'll get the power and the glory, for ever and ever and ever!” Like in Peter’s confession last week – only in a big epic musical moment

But instead of accepting their accolades, Jesus is a big party pooper. Jesus responds, “Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, Nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the Priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself…. understand what power is…. understand what glory is… understand at all.”

News flash Peter and Simon – and the rest of us - Jesus is NOT here to set up his own kingdom made in the image of the world, with power, glory, and might. Jesus came to set up God’s kingdom here IN this world, but not OF it. And we often have trouble understanding God’s kingdom when we encounter it, because it IS so different from the kingdoms of the world we are so used to.

We are surrounded by messages of this Kingdom of Might – where power comes from strength, influence, and affluence. If we do not have access to power in one of these ways, we seek to emulate those who do – we follow in the footsteps of the powerfully, hoping that some will rub off. Power by association.

Most of the time this is unconscious, or so totally ingrained in how we live that we don’t notice. It is even built into the very fabric of this country – pervasive in our founding narrative. We are a nation built on the idea that a scrappy band of colonists forcibly wrested the right to their own freedom out of the clutches of the most powerful empire in the world. We are now in control of our own destiny, and we will use all force necessary to keep it that way.

But there is a dark side to this power, bought at a steep price, leaving wounds in our society that have never fully healed. This is power that excludes, divides, and ignores the humanity of some to elevate the few.

The source of Jesus’ power could not be more opposite… It is the power of God, power found is vulnerability. It is strength found in weakness. It is might found in non-violence. It is the certainty found in mystery. It is gaining the whole world by throwing our entire lives away. It is the way of the cross, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was called to die for our sake, so that we may die to ourselves for the sake of others.

We as followers of Jesus are not called to merely be nice. We are called to die. We are called to die to our own wishes of self-preservation, pride, and comfort. We are called to die to the wishes of the world, the ways of power and privilege. We are called to die to participation in institutions and cultural norms that benefit some, but not others And we are called to die to the desire to hate and vilify those who hate everything we stand for.

Picking up our cross does not look like “being nice” for the sake of not rocking the boat – for example, staying in an abusive relationship, enabling the poor decisions of a family member, or NOT asking for help when we are overwhelmed. I know last week I told you all that you were heroes for God. But this week I say to you – don’t be a hero. Don’t overextend yourself in a way that is damaging. Don’t carry a cross that was forced on you by someone else.

But heroes DO willingly make pledges to something… to defend the city, to save the planet, to protect the innocent. One hero that I have been talking about ad nauseum lately is Martin Luther King Jr. In a book of his quotes, curated by his wife Coretta Scott King, I came across a pledge written by Dr. King for those who were participating in the 1963 sit-in demonstrations in Birmingham. At lunch counters all over the South, African-American young people were sitting at segregated lunch counters, putting their bodies on the line, to non-violently protest segregation and Jim Crow Laws. They were shouted at, spit on, and sometimes dragged out and beaten, but they did not lift a finger to defend themselves in the face of such evil.

The pledge that these brave men and women followed included some of these “commandments”

-         Meditate daily on the life and teaches of Jesus.

-         Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

-         Sacrifice personal wishes so that all men might be free.

-         Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, and heart.

Just to name a few. These heroes, these brave women and men were not being “nice” or “polite.” They were sitting where they didn’t “belong.” They put their bodies into harm’s way and often they paid for it. And Martin Luther King Jr certainly paid for his stand for justice – he paid with his life. Dr. King lost his life, but the movement lived on, and his speeches and writings still inspire us today.

It’s not too late to join the non-violent, non-nice, non-polite movement of Jesus. We may not have the ability to join demonstrations or protests. We may not have the opportunities to physically put our bodies in harm’s way. But I am comforted by what comes at the end of Dr. King’s non-violent pledge: “besides demonstrations, I could help the moment by… run errands, drive my car, clerical work, mimeograph, distribute leaflets…. circle [all that apply].” In other words, carrying the cross in all the boring ways that don’t get a whole lot of press. But perhaps might be just as hard, because of the pushback we may receive from friends, family, and even totally strangers.

Jesus calls us to let go of what is “nice” and instead, as Paul wrote – hold fast to what is good. Hold fast to the cross. Hold fast to Jesus. Amen.