Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thank God for Batkid, Pope Francis, and Chocolate-Covered Popcorn

Every year the Windsor Hightstown Area Ministerium (WHAM) has a community Thanksgiving service. They usually pick on, I mean pick the newest person in the group to preach at Thanksgiving, meaning this year it was yours truly. But it was kind of fun to preach at an interfaith service at a Catholic church!

Thanksgiving Service 11-24-13

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

So , thanksgiving sort of already happened for my husband and I. It was a couple of months ago, when a hug package showed up at the church in Hamilton where he served as pastor until recently. He called me up, and told me I’d better come over since this hug box was directed to me. The package was to me, with his churches address, with a return address that neither of us recognized – at least, it was not from anyone who were members of either of our churches. AND, to boot, the name of his church was spelled as though a kindergartener had spelled in phonetically. So, it was a mystery as to why it was there, and a miracle as to HOW it got there.

Eventually I remembered why the sender’s name was vaguely familiar. Weeks before, the local funeral home had called my husband up at the request of a local family, unconnected to a congregation, who desired to have their beloved “Meredith” given a Christian memorial service and burial. And they wanted a minister. And they wanted to do it at that church. Ok, well, since he couldn’t do it, I did. I guess you can do that if you’re married to a pastor from your own denomination, right?

So I presided at her memorial service, which for me, not having known this woman, was not all that memorable. I don’t remember saying anything particularly profound in the homily I gave, and no one was extremely overcome with emotion during the prayers. They might have invited me to a local restaurant for the family lunch after the burial, but I thanked them and politely declined, and went on with the rest of my day.

Fast forward now to that phone call and package in my husband’s office. We opened it up, and discovered a huge Harry and David’s gourmet gift basket. And I really do mean gourmet. Never before had I known that things like chocolate covered popcorn could taste like manna from heaven. Well, never before had we ever heard of Harry and David’s. We googled the company, found their website, and our eyes popped out when we saw the price of the gift basket we had been sent. For doing a service for a woman that I had never met. From people that I had only met once, probably for the sum total of an hour and a half. From a family that for all I knew had rarely darkened the door of a church, at least not until the day of their mother’s/sister’s/aunt’s/friend’s funeral. From people that I have not seen since. That day, in our own way, thanks to this family, my husband and I had celebrated the feast of Thanksgiving.

We Americans forget that we did not invent the concept of giving thanks. We may indeed be blamed for pairing it to turkey, stuffing, parades, November, and football. But thanksgiving was not born three hundred years ago in a celebratory meal between pilgrims and Native Americans. Nor was it created back in the Old World to celebrate the time of the harvest. As long as humankind has wondered at the mystery that is a seed growing and bearing fruit, we have been giving thanks.

And even though fewer and fewer of us these days actually work the land from which our food comes from, like clockwork, every fall as the leaves change and the air grows cold, we still have the urge to take stock of the blessings we have been given.

This year, though, has been a hard year to give thanks for. So much destruction and turmoil has happened in such a short time: the bombing of the Boston Marathon, nuclear testing in North Korea, the government shutdown, a bombing in a mall in Kenya, the collapse of a massive building in Bangladesh, lethal shootings at the Los Angeles Airport and the Washington DC Navy Yard, the cuts to food programs like food stamps in the continuing recession, and last but not least devastating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. How can we really serve the Lord with gladness? How can we give thanks and bless God’s name in the midst of such a year?

There is plenty of good that has happened this year, too. Pope Francis. Three women were rescued after being kidnapped and held against their will for ten years. The election of the first female presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A teenager saved a nine-year old boy from going over a massive waterfall in Yosemite national park. And just last week, a five-year old Make-a-wish kid got to dress up as Batkid and save the city of San Francisco alongside his favorite superhero, Batman.

 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” These are words written long ago from a man in a jail cell to a fledgling Christian community long ago. But his words still ring true to us today, in a world fraught with fear.  He continues, “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It is so easy to miss the good things when the world tells us to focus on fear, anxiety, violence, and destruction. Because the scary things can be far more memorable than the good things. Case in point: I had to ask my friends to help me with the list I just shared of good things that happened this year, for two reasons. Because Wikipedia listed almost all negative events for 2013, and frankly I was having trouble coming up with them on my own. I had something like “good news amnesia.”

Bad news gets our attention. Good news is not as sensational or exciting, and therefore we must work harder in order to notice it. But if anything is worth of thanks, we must think on such things. In the responses I got from my friends, in addition to the big events that effected all of us, were plenty of reasons to give thanks that were more personal and mundane: – getting married and having children, landing a job they wanted, or have access to affordable health care, and even celebrating  the victory of a favorite sports team. Together we remembered what one person was not able to remember alone.

This is probably the reason that Thanksgiving is a holiday that is not about eating Turkey and stuffing by ourselves. It is a day we feel compelled to celebrate with others, with family and friends, with our communities. Because what is the use of all the blessings we have, if we cannot share them with one another? God is not the shepherd of a flock of one.

ThanksGIVING may be one day a year. But THANKSgiving can happen every day, every hour, every moment, when we remember who we belong to - that God is our shepherd and we are God’s flock. THANKSgiving used to happen with grain and produce from the field; now it happens with turkey and pie, and sometimes even with Harry and David’s chocolate covered popcorn.

Perhaps it is a good thing that every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, we make ourselves remember not just what we should be giving thanks FOR, but who we should be giving thanks TO. At least once a year we wake up enough from our “good news amnesia,” to pool our memories in order to see our double blessing. Not just the fact that we are blessed, but that we recognize that we are blessed and give thanks for the blessings that we already have.

The Samaritan leper healed by Jesus did not need a reminder – he can already see what the rest of us often miss. And so we take our cue from a healed invalid with no name. For he himself was his own tithe, his own thanks offering, as he shouted his praise to God, for all to hear, both near and far:

Thanks be to God! 
Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God. Amen!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Advent Photo-a-Day

I found this on Facebook, and thought it would be a great way to mark the passage of Advent. I'm planning on participating via social media, posting pictures on here, Instagram, and Facebook. The season of Advent is usually just too crazy to try to do a full-on devotional, and I really like the interactive nature of this idea, of being able to participate and craft my own meaning out of it. And it will be less fattening than chocolate. :)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Fairytale for Grownups, Only True

Sermon I preached on All Saints Sunday,11-3-13, at St. Mark's

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen
This is going to sound completely random, but bear with me, please. Do you have a favorite show that you MUST WATCH and you just CANNOT MISS an EPISODE? For me, I am totally addicted to a show called Once Upon a Time. Every Sunday at 8 PM, the TV had better be turned to that station OR ELSE. Don’t talk to me, don’t ask me anything, don’t make any loud noises, don’t even look at me for that whole hour. I just can’t miss a single minute of that show. I’m only a little obsessed, I think.

I think it’s a great show because it’s like a Disney fairytale for grownups. And who didn’t like Disney fairytales growing up? The princesses were beautiful and compassionate, the princes were brave and dashing, and all the woodland creatures were available to help you with basic household chores. We just had Halloween, and I’m sure you had your fair share of Disney princesses knocking at your door. This show, Once Upon a Time, keeps to the spirit of that classic fairytale structure – a baby, a princess by birth, the product of true love, is sent out into the world as the only hope to save her people, who are under wicked queen’s curse. But the twist is that the princess grows up in “the real world,” with cars and computers rather than magic and fairy dust, and she has a hard time coming to terms with her enchanted past.

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

Or are we?

If we truly outgrow fantasy, why is it then, that we are so drawn to “rags to riches” stories? Not just in fairytales but also played out in real life? Why were we so caught up in stories of people who started out with nothing and now are wildly famous and successful? Could it be that, no matter what age we are, we can’t help thinking “maybe, just maybe, this could be me”? That there is more to who I am than meets the eye? That I really might have what it takes to be a “hero” in my own story?

As it turns out, we have our own kind of “heroes” in our Christian tradition, don’t we? We typically call them “saints.” Think for just a moment: what does the word “saint” mean for you?.... Does it mean for you some sort of holy person? Someone who is kind and compassionate? Larger than life? Wholly devoted to God? A bit stuffy, who doesn’t like to have fun? Someone who makes you feel kind of like an inferior Christian compared to them?

In the Catholic Church, there are a lot of criteria that come with being a saint. You have to “qualify” in order to have that special title. I’m not sure what all the qualifications are, but I know that it involves miracles and many, many good deeds over the course of a lifetime. The point is, for them it’s very hard to get to be a saint.

For us, there is just one thing necessary to being a saint in the Lutheran Church. Do you want to know what it is? Do you? I hope you do, because I’m going to tell you anyway. But are you ready for it? Are you REALLY ready? You sure? Ok, here it is…

The one thing necessary to being a saint is…


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

So let’s forget about those Disney movies for a minute.  Let’s forget about all the things you think that you think make up a truly “saintly” person. You have been called to be a saint. I want you all, right now, to turn to your neighbor and say to each other, “You are a saint…”

Because the most amazing story ever told is actually true: each and every one of you was chosen at birth to be something extraordinary: a beloved child of God. You have been promised an inheritance that is better than any land or wealth or title of prince or princess. And you got the advance of this inheritance in the form of a measure of the Holy Spirit and the mark of the cross on your forehead, as we heard Paul talk about in his letter to the Church in Ephesus. This was the pledge you received at your baptism.

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

And at the later service, we will witness some of our young people publicly affirming their baptism. They have decided that the reality of “beloved child of God”- that they had been brought to as babies - is something that they want to buy into for themselves. And so they will be claiming that inheritance given to them at baptism, and we will be promising to help them as they continue the next phase of their journey of faith.

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

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

But this is why Jesus didn’t just die for us. He knows that we need help, because we can’t do it alone. That’s why he walked around for three years with a crew of young, clueless blue collar working guys, saying stuff like “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Stuff that really is pretty obvious but is actually really hard to do. This is why Jesus taught us how to LIVE.

The Gospel of Luke really is a lot like a fairytale for grownups. Instead of the boy getting the girl, the lame get to walk and the blind get to see. Instead of the evil queen getting her just desserts, outlaws and outcasts are told that they matter to God. And that true love of God really does conquer all.

God loves you. And God chose you. You are a beloved child of God. And a saint. I want you to turn to your neighbor one more time and say to each other, “You are a saint”…

Because you really are ALL SAINTS. Amen.