Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Here is Our God.

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

Every Advent I feel like I want to start strong, with the motivation to read daily devotions, taking time to really reflect on the specialness of the Advent season and the coming of Jesus into our lives. Most years though, like this one, I get to about this point and realize I have done exactly zero of the things that I had intended to do, whether because of busy-ness or the unexpected happening in my life.

Don't worry, I'll be back after
Christmas to clean up!
I think we’ve all had Advents and Christmases that go something like this. A few years ago, my extended family waited to celebrate together because Grandpa was in the hospital over Christmas. And more recently, for these last two years, I haven’t put up a Christmas tree – last year because I had just moved, and this year because I anticipate moving. But this year I was able to get my Christmas tree fix while I was in Wisconsin over Thanksgiving. As I took ornaments out of the boxes, my mom reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was home for Christmas break while in college. I don’t remember doing this, but apparently I had insisted on decorated the tree that year, but when I left to go back for the January term… guess who was left to take all the ornaments down again? Not me! Oops! Most years, my mom likes to remind me of this time where I didn’t finished what I had started.

How is your Advent going? Are you going to finish strong, or did everything go off the rails starting December 2nd? These texts for this 3rd week in Advent aren’t exactly helping, either. There is still no sign of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, star, manger, no Christmas NOTHIN’. Instead, all we have is John the Baptist, for the second week in a row. And he is NOT one we usually associate with Christmas cheer.

This week he is no longer “the preacher on fire” in the desert, preparing the hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord. Instead, John has been thrown in prison for his bold words. A prison that was more like a dungeon, dark and damp and full of chains and despair. But how did he get from “Israel’s Most Famous” to “Israel’s Most Wanted”? Well, we’ve skipped over all the in-between chapters in Matthew where Jesus heals the blind, mute, lepers, and young girls, and Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount about peace and the Kingdom of God, where Jesus hangs out with fisherman and tax collectors and Roman soldiers. And generally NOT acting like the expected Messiah.

The Lord’s anointed was SUPPOSED to come with power and might, with lots of righteous judging and fiery smiting, and be a savior that basically kicks butt and takes names, with the kingdom of peace to come LATER. That was the script that Jesus was supposed to follow. And so far, he doesn’t seem to be exactly living up to those expectations. He doesn’t seem to be finishing what John started.

It’s no wonder that John the Baptist sends people to ask Jesus, “are YOU the one who is to come? … or is it someone else?”  And we might very well wonder right there with John, as he watches Jesus’ ministry unfold, and wonders if his prep work for the messiah has been premature. So, with less than 2 weeks until Christmas, we find ourselves, not in a hallmark Christmas card, but in a prison cell with a disappointed John the Baptist.

But disappointment does not just come to us at Christmas time. Though perhaps right around this time of year is when we feel it the most. Expectations are high to pull into December 25th having just arranged the best Christmas ever, only it almost actually never happens that way. Instead, too often, real life happens.

This time of year can also bring up old hurts from people you might only see once a year. Families are complicated, and nothing hurts more than being disappointed by the ones closest to you, the very ones who should be supportive through thick and thin.

And last but not least, we can’t let God off the hook for being a disappointment. Think about all the “if-onlys” and “what-ifs,” even of just the past year – where you had wished that God would have acted more like a Messiah, both in your own lives and in the world in general.

God really seemed pretty distant in 2016. From the Zika and Ebola outbreaks, the continuing Flint water crisis, the unjustly short 3month prison sentence served by the rapist Brock Turner, the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, massive flooding in North Carolina from Hurricane Matthew, the Oakland fire, not to mention political vitriol, bullying on the rise, and the increase in fear and violence everywhere, it seems. All these things happening might make us wonder if God will make good on the promise to show up, and finish what God started, or if God will just let this world and our lives go off the rails.

And so we wonder along with John, since the fulfillment of the promise is Jesus, the exact wrong kind of savior – that is, if you are looking for someone to bring fire and brimstone and punch bad guys in the face, Jesus is not your man.  This is not the savior we were given. The savior we were given came as a helpless baby, screaming into the world with blood and placenta, born to a teenage mother in a dirty cave. This savior grew up and hung out with all the wrong kinds of people. He healed the sick and fed the poor and talked to those on the fringe. He was a homeless traveler who preached the wrong things, like peace and love, and got on the wrong side of the people in power. Jesus disappointed John the Baptist, he disappointed his family, he disappointed his own followers, and he died, disappointing the hopes of a nation waiting for God to act.

And in dying, Jesus was again a disappointment. It seems that Jesus disappointed death itself.

Because dead people are supposed to stay dead, after all. The dead aren’t supposed to rise.
Dry and barren wildernesses, as Isaiah writes, aren’t supposed to be joyful and to blossom, either. We expect them to be, well, dry and barren, not full of life and joy and singing. There aren’t supposed to be streams in the desert, or pools of water where there once was only burning sand.

But then again, the blind aren’t supposed to see either, nor should the deaf be able to hear. The lame are not supposed to run like the dear, and the mute sing for joy. The poor are not supposed to be given food for free. There are not supposed to be fools on God’s highway! And if they somehow find themselves there, they need to GET LOST as soon as possible!

Except that, on God’s highway, even we fools will not get lost along the way. Sinners are welcomed. The poor are fed. The broken are healed and made whole again, and streams run where there was once a barren desert. Even a year like 2016 contains glimpses of hope. Peaceful protesters are heard as the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline was denied.  Catholic and Lutheran leaders worshiped together in celebration of Christian unity. Over 800 girls kidnapped by Boko Harem were rescued. Fifty million trees were planted in India in oneday. These events remind us that the powers of evil in the world don’t always win. There are cracks of hope in the stone that seals our tombs, a light shining through them in the darkness, and the dead don’t stay dead.

Here is our God, who disappoints death’s expectations, leaving behind him an empty tomb. 
Here is our God, born to us as a tiny helpless infant. 
Here is our God, who sticks by us, no matter what, every year, through all the good and bad Christmases alike. 
Here is our God, who died and rose again for you, even when you disappoint yourself and others. 
Here is our God, who strengthens weak hand and feeble knees when they are weighed down by change and sadness. 
Here is our God, who meets us in all the hopes and fears of all the years. 
Here is our God, who will see to the finish what has been begun in all of us.

Speaking of beginnings, Dec. 11th 2011, was the Sunday 5 years ago that I preached my first sermon and was voted to be St. Paul’s very first associate pastor. How time flies, doesn’t it? In that very first sermon with you, I said something that I know ring just as true, five years later:

“I believe that God has been faithful to me, over and over again, in the journey that has brought me to this time and this place. It has not always been smooth going, but God has proven to me, over and over again, that great things happen to those who trust. … God has always gone beyond my hopes and expectations.”

We can’t know exactly where the NEXT five years, or even the next YEAR will take us. But we can know where God is in all the happenings in our lives. God is right here, in the beginnings and the endings, in the disappointments, and the busy-ness and the joys, in the starting strong and in the fizzling out, in the dying and in the rising. Our God is right here. Amen.

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.